Being long overdue, this piece is closer in spirit to a memoir than a diary. At short distances, one’s own history can only be seen through the long paparazzi lens of hypocrisy, and so dear reader, beware, I am my own ventriloquist - and I speak not of what I know.
A clever, talented and unusually attractive graduate living in the depths of rural England has but one choice to make. He can leave; or he can stay and rot.
I opted to stay, but only because I couldn’t figure out how to leave. I had been offered a place to do a Masters at Cambridge, but for me Cambridge is much like the Garden of Eden - assuredly it still exists, but once you have left there is no way back. In Part II of this series, and elsewhere on this blog I have outlined my objections to the teaching and writing of literary criticism by career scholars, but what really dissuaded me was the thinness of the intellectual diet on offer. How strange and demoralising to wake up every morning for a year and have to think about the early Eighteenth Century, as I would have done: a daily broth of powdered periwigs, overflowing street gutters and cold, supercilious wit. Once I had got to the bottom of where the bookseller ended and the author began in selected works by Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe I do not suppose I would have been any closer to fulfilment. Besides there were economic considerations. Masters degrees prop up the business end of our universities - they are pure revenue raisers and attract little by way of public subsidy. For too many of my contemporaries, postgraduate study in the humanities has turned out to be little more than an expensive way of playing for time.
In the end all roads lead to London.
My village adolescence left me with an ingrowing provincialism. It was a place where eldest sons inherited the family farm and youngest daughters got knocked up in potting sheds. There was a pub, a house built on the site of another house where Charles II once spent the night, and a church with no vicar. It was not a place to develop an instinct for society. Every week the pub and the church would compete to attract fewer punters. The pub usually won, it was a simple question of demographics: there weren’t enough people who fell in between the Ribena and Ovaltine drinking stages of life. The nearest cinema was seven miles away, the nearest friend another thirteen. Until I discovered the internet weekends were long, drowsily repetitive affairs; I would go for late night walks down muffled country lanes, past allotments, and pebble-dashed bungalows, struggling to think in the stupefying calm.
(To be clear, this was not childhood deprivation in any material sense. And any social deprivation I experienced was largely self-inflicted. At a young age, for instance, I conceived a virulent prejudice against tackles, wickets, offsides, stickerbooks of foreign millionaires in coloured shirts, bruised shins, and fast-moving spherical projectiles of all kinds. As a means of sabotaging one’s social prospects at primary school, an aversion to competitive team sports was only less effective than acquiring head-lice, or being found in possession of a Gay Card.)
When it comes to the subject of national difference we are the pub bore of all Europe. British exceptionalism is really our crass attempt at flirting. When France slinks up to the bar to order a glass of vin we can’t resist the urge to sidle over and beerily regurgitate our informed opinions on the moral superiority of Yorkshire pudding over escargots de Bourgognes, or the military advantages of not sharing a border with Germany - while she looks ahead and smiles unsmilingly, in that inimitable French way. If only she would condescend to reply, we all might learn something. After all, one thing both countries have always had in common is a totally disproportionate centralisation of social, cultural and economic opportunity - Capital, in other words - in their capital cities.
In 1947 the French geographer Jean-François Gravier struck a gallic nerve when he wrote of Paris et le désert français. Sixty years on the Parisian political establishment’s tooth and nail defence of the Common Agricultural Policy is starting to look a lot like a symptom of guilty neglect. Rural England, by contrast, is London’s occasional picnic spot; its political function is to provide safe seats for the Conservative Party; its social purpose is to assure Londoners of a picturesque retirement. Our villages and market towns have become fashionable antiques, which is why house prices so often outstrip local incomes in the most attractive parts of the country.
So London came to assume an awful significance in my villager’s mind. It was the place where all the friends I’d failed to make thus far were surely waiting for me, hidden in crescents and squares and garrets, with flats full of second-hand classics, tickets to the theatre and large bottles of gin. And deep down I hoped to repeat that archetypal literary journey - Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson’s journey - from rural obscurity to the great City, where somewhere in the tangled streets and tavern-talk the self is found.
Going elsewhere therefore would have been an act of cowardice, a gross dereliction of duty. And yet I was unwilling to do a Dick Whittington and simply turn up, slap my exposed thigh and hope to be given a job. As I wrote in Part I, the plan first was to prospect for an internship in politics, journalism or, you know, ‘the arts’. Unfortunately a quick perusal of my family tree revealed I had no genetic entitlement to such a thing. Having failing to establish a blood connection with an MP, a broadsheet columnist, or even an assistant director at the RSC I was in a seditious mood.
In late eighteenth-century France, where social stagnation was a positive aim of government policy, the infant bourgeoisie faced a similar predicament. Senior posts in the civil service, military and professions had all been monopolised by the nobility. If the Ancien Régime had offered internships to would-be young Jacobins, who knows, perhaps the Bastille might have seen out the summer of 1789 unstormed.
I mention politics because the London internship recently opened up as second front alongside Oxbridge in the perennial debate about how to open up Britain’s untitled aristocracy to the 93% who didn’t attend a fee-paying school. My own answer to the vexed Intern Question is simple. Either extend the student loans system to cover unpaid internships, or allow interns to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance (or the Universal Credit) on the same means-tested principle as everyone else. (They are currently prevented from doing so because to claim JSA you must be ‘actively looking for paid work’. The welfare state has no time for the argument that an unpaid internship is far more likely to result in long-term employment than a fortnightly browse through the job section of the local Echo.) Both options are administratively straightforward, though politically uncomfortable. At the present time it would take a very brave minister to bring a Bill before Parliament allowing young people to take on even more debt. And both the Left and the Right would have their own objections to socially mobile graduates claiming a welfare benefit designed as a short-term stopgap for those at the lower end of the income scale.*
That said, both these options are preferable to the current suggestion emanating from ‘progressive’ circles, that of forcing employers to pay interns the National Minimum Wage. Not only would organisations with fixed or limited staffing budgets simply provide fewer places, but a flat wage would conceal the qualitative difference between individual interns. Some are essentially temping for free while others can barely be trusted to stuff envelopes. In the current climate it seems unfair to oblige employers to pay for a punt on these unknown quantities.
But to return to the matter at hand. Aside from my nepotistic disadvantage, a further barrier to obtaining a London internship was the relative barrenness of my CV. Up until then the only wage I’d ever received was a surprise envelope containing £20. This was for a week’s work experience when I was 15, shifting antiques around at a local auction house.
Admittedly job opportunities had been limited in my village. There was the pub: a profit-vacuum with a tendency to revert to new management every 18 months. Bar-work there had a somewhat dynastic character, with coveted positions passed from sibling to sibling. Then there was the Craft & Design Centre, which purported to sell the handmade produce of local artisans but was really a tat emporium of the worst kind. It sold scented candles, psychic crystals and novelty cufflinks at guileless prices to coach-loads of unwitting pensioners, and had a tacit policy of only hiring girls, as my sister later confirmed.
But by the summer after graduation such excuses were no longer viable. My family had just moved to the county capital, a medium sized market town. While I waited for an internship to manifest I resolved to make myself fit for London by learning the value of Hard Work. The results are chronicled in Part I of this series.
I did, in the end, get a job. But for the six weeks between then and ‘coming down’ from Cambridge for the last time I received Jobseeker’s Allowance (unemployment benefit). Trooping along to the Jobcentre (Plus) every fortnight proved to be an instructive experience and may have been what eventually turned me Tory.
My dealings with the State shall form the subject of Part IV.
*Update - as a result of the Coalition Government's welfare reforms, young people can now claim JSA for up to 8 weeks while undertaking unpaid work experience placements.