Never boast to your children that you had seventeen occupations before your twenty-fifth birthday. I did so with my fifth child and it was a bad call. It relaxed him into not worrying about the aimlessness – in my view – of his life. I became the kettle calling the pot black.
‘Oh good’, he said cheerfully. ‘That gives me a few years before I start worrying.’ He was twenty-one, had dropped out of college after first year. Why?’ I asked sorrowfully. ‘It was irrelevant’. And he laughed.
He had thoroughly enjoyed the life of a student unencumbered by distractions like studying. His parents were worried. But like Napoleon’s favoured soldiers, he had a marshall’s baton in his rucksack: he was lucky. Somebody spotted his real talent – he was ‘cool’, a nerveless boy racer – and he trained to be an aircraft traffic controller. At first we all worried about using air transport, but it soon became obvious he was a rounded plug in a round hole. I had spotted it first. When I asked him what the hell he was going to do with his life he calmly answered:
‘You must remember, father’ (my children always addressed me like this when they were being ironic), ‘I am lazy.’ I didn’t worry about him any more. Any young man who can be thus frank with an outraged patriarch has confidence in himself. Or perhaps he realised I’m just a softy. I suspect that boy may be among the minority of my extended tribe who will not be upset by something or other in this old man’s gossip.
Years ago I delicately reminded him he was in the demographic of the four hundred males who top themselves in Ireland every year, but he reassured me: ‘Don’t worry, I’m enjoying myself too much.’ He gave me hope.
It is time to confuse this narrative with facts. There follows a list of my pre-twenthy-five-year-old occupations, and what I learned from them.
Age 13: Slop gatherer for my Granda’s pigs – a lesson in humility.
Age 14: Caddie in Milltown golf club – an introduction to the Irish native bourgeosie
Age 16: Milk bottle counter in Hughes Bros., Rathfarnham – I lost count after an hour.
Age 18: Shipping clerk in Palgrave Murphy on Eden Quay – meeting drunken sailors and horse protestants with names like Jameson and Pakenham and Pim.
Age 19: Clerical officer in Dublin County Council – how to surmount job dissatisfaction and survive boredom.
Age 21: Worker in Lyons factory, Hammersmith – how to sort rapidly moving strawberries on a conveyor belt.
Also that year: lifesaver on the Serpentine, London – how to attract bathing beauties.
Also (it was a very busy year:, agricultural ‘praktikant’ on a farm outside Munich – learning the German work ethic.
Age 22: Booking clerk and travel guide with Michael Walsh Travel, Dublin – how to entertain fifty-four girl guides on a trip to Rome.
Age 23: Bottle washer with Coca Cola – I lasted a day.
Also that year: Labourer in Gouldings Fertiliser, Ringsend – I lasted a morning.
Also: Farm labourer in the Gaeltacht of Cúil Aodha, Co. Cork – how not to learn Irish.
Age 24: Commercial traveller with Rowntree Mackintosh – how to eat a four pound box of chocolate samples meant for customers, in one day.
Age 25 – Bus conductor in Leeds – the bells, the bells!
Also that year: Pub piano player in the same city – as near to concert pianist as I’ll ever get.
Also: English teacher in Pforzheim, Germany. I learned that Germans take their studies seriously. Every age: aspiring writer, singer, actor – I realised early that a very amateur talent is as inadequate for a career on the stage as that of Mrs. Worthington’s daughter:
…she’s a bit of an ugly duckling you must honestly confess,
and the width of her seat must surely defeat her chances of success.
Once I reached twenty-five I became a television technician, then a producer/director, then an independent film maker. All of those occupations passed the time while I was working out what I would do when I grew up. That is still a work in progress.
I console myself by thinking that such a C.V. would look interesting on the back of one of my unpublishable novels; probably even superior to the novel’s content?
Just listing the jobs makes me yawn and reach for a nicotine chewing gum. I gave up smoking years ago. The pipe tobacco had become too expensive when Social Welfare took fifteen Euros off my old age pension. I’m easing off, slowing down, reminding me of a gyroscope, a toy that amused us as children. It was a kind of posh spinning top, with a fixed protective frame and a groove in its single foot which rested on a tightrope of string held taut by us children.
The energy of its internal spinning enabled the gyroscope to defy our altering the angle of the tightrope. It seemed to have a survival instinct, like a living thing. We could make it slide up and down as we wished, admiring its balance, its defiance of gravity and our expectations. Inevitably the initial impetus of its spin weakened, it wobbled and collapsed.
We young dei ex machina would catch it and start the whole game again. More sophisticated versions of the gyroscope are nowadays used by rich and paranoid civilisations to keep tankers and telescopes, space ships and satellites, guns and drones on their straight and deadly paths. To me the gyroscope is still a toy but a serviceable metaphor for life: keep spinning until you drop.