“So, young man, what do you plan to do with your life?”
It’s one of the most annoying questions that well-meaning people ask of the young as soon as they leave school or university, and at most points before and in between.
It may be annoying, but even the most innocent, or rebellious, of young people know that finding the answer is the key to everything. When you get to the other end of your working life and look back, these people are asking, what sort of path do you want to see stretching out behind you?
In some ways I was one of the fortunate ones. From the age of sixteen I had an almost clear idea of what I wanted that path to look like, but when I described it out loud it sounded pretty naïve, not to mention vain, so I tended to respond to interrogation by looking down and mumbling something non-committal like everyone else.
What I knew I wanted was to be free to follow anything that caught my interest. I wanted to attack life like an overexcited dog hurtling back and forth along a ripe hedgerow, chasing every tempting scent and every promising rustle of leaves. I wanted to have learned as much as possible about as wide a variety of subjects as possible. I wanted to be in a position to take advantage of any unexpected opportunities that might be offered to me. I wanted to be able to make my own decisions as to how I planned my life and spent my days. I wanted to surrender my fate to serendipity while at the same time being able to make enough of a living to support myself and whatever family might come along, (something else that would be in the hands of the God of Serendipity). I wanted to get to the end of the path with as many good and varied memories and stories as possible – and of course I wanted to meet girls, as many as possible.
The thing I was most frightened of, along with possible starvation, was boredom. If I couldn’t continually distract and stimulate myself with thoughts and adventures that interested me I knew I would be in danger of sliding into the shadows of despondency, and hurtling on down from there into the pit of despair.
There appeared to be a few options that fitted these criteria; the three front runners were writing, art or acting, all of which seemed to provide the necessary highs needed to stay ahead of the black cloud of depression, but at the same time they offered the constant threat of rejection. It required a fair degree of blind, and naïve, optimism to commit to any of these paths. If I voiced my ambitions out loud I ran the risk of hearing other people’s opinions on just how likely it was that I would starve to death if I tried to make any of them my life, so on most occasions I would decide it was better to keep my own council.
My first year in
London after leaving school at seventeen had not gone that brilliantly
financially. As well as writing anything and everything I could think of, and
selling none of it, I had also dipped my toe into the acting world, which
basically meant being a background extra for the odd day’s filming, (including
an appearance as a footman in a powdered wig in a filmed history of
prostitution, my task being to literally “serve up” Cora Pearl, a famous
nineteenth century courtesan, on a platter to George V while he was the Prince
of Wales), and getting the occasional photographic modelling job.
These scraps of employment had paid the £7.50 a week rent on my room in the shared flat in
Earls Court and not much else. It was fun
but it was increasingly difficult to fool anyone that I was ever going to be able
to support myself on this path.
“You may just have to get a job.”
My father’s perfectly sensible words sent a chill of horror rippling through me. The words he didn’t say, but which seemed to hang in the air between us were, “like everyone else.”
We were meeting for supper in London, as we sometimes did when he thought I needed feeding, and were having a drink in the bar at the top of the Park Lane Hilton, which was then the highest building in the area, so that we could both gaze out over the city lights during any lulls that might fall in the conversation. He liked taking me to places like that and mostly I enjoyed these peeks into the life he led on his company expense account when he wasn’t at home with my mother. Even going with him for a drink at the Playboy Club was an interesting, if somewhat disquieting, experience. I knew several girls who worked as bunnies and was all too familiar with what their real views were of the club members they were trained to serve with such bright smiles.
Taking horrified offence at his suggestion that I should get a job like everyone else, but making a huge effort to hide it, I vowed to myself that I would demonstrate my disdain by getting the most obviously boring job going, the sort of thing that George Orwell, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and my other influences would have held up as an example of the sort of living death that any young creative soul should avoid at all costs. Then, I told myself, my father would see the error of his thinking and would be sorry he had crushed my great creative potential.
My father, probably assuming that he had just given me a sound piece of paternal advice, was by then studying the menu, apparently unaware of the turmoil his words had caused inside his son’s head.
The following day I resigned myself to the fact that I was now officially a failed actor/writer/artist and set about job-hunting with a heavy, angry heart. I bought an Evening Standard and secured some interviews. It seemed a good idea to exaggerate a little to these potential employers as to the A level results I had achieved. My former Head Master gave me a generous reference, accompanied by a kind letter assuring me that this change in direction might prove more rewarding than I was fearing. I was grateful for this attempt at consolation, but remained convinced he was mistaken.
I was offered three different jobs, but only one of my interviewers failed to ask to see any evidence of the exam results I was claiming. That was the job I therefore had to accept. Thus, within a frighteningly short time, I found myself a shipping clerk for the United Africa Company in an office in Blackfriars, spending my days filing bills of lading and my evenings in the company’s amateur dramatics club. I was eighteen years old and it felt in the darkest hours of the night as if my life was at an end already. There seemed nothing to do but hope for some sort of miracle.
Within a few months I realised that no miracle was coming and no-one was ever going to notice that this was a gesture of defiance and not simply a sensible career move. I had backed myself into a corner and was now lost in an office which held little potential for anyone wanting eventually to earn a living as a writer. Rather than realising that they had caused me to ruin my life, my parents actually seemed fairly relieved that I was now earning a steady salary. It dawned on me that if I didn’t want to spend my life filing bills of lading I was going to have to do something about it myself.
To quote the blurb on the back cover of my battered Penguin edition of “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”, the story of Gordon Comstock who saw the aspidistra as the symbol of the artist selling-out to the comforts and security of dull, middle-class respectability; … “in his mulish determination to embrace the full agony of poverty, he walked out of one “good” job after another, to the despair of his friends. For him the Embankment was nobler than the aspidistra, symbol of spiritual death.” I think that was pretty much what was going on in my head, although I lacked even Comstock’s courage because I intended to do all I could to avoid ending up sleeping on the Embankment.
In my desperation to escape this self-triggered trap, I contacted everyone I had met in my first year in London, begging for any possible ways out and, to my amazement an agent who had got me a couple of modelling jobs the previous year, asked if I would like to be his assistant since he had to be out of the office a lot producing fashion shows during “the season”.
Run a modelling agency? Did I have to think for even a second before accepting?
The money was about half whatever I was earning as a shipping clerk, but the decision still seemed like an absolute no-brainer as one of my most urgent priorities since leaving my single-sex school was to meet as many young women as possible in as short a time as possible. Had there ever been a place more tailor-made for providing such opportunities in abundance?
Soon after I took up the new job, based in a room off a photographer’s studio in Charlotte Street, my boss was invited to merge his agency with a large modelling school in the middle of Bond Street, providing me with still more opportunities to meet young women and at the same time opening up any number of opportunities for finding material to write about.
Within a year I was back on course towards being a full-time freelance writer, mainly selling my services for public relations purposes, with the modelling school as one of my clients. Public Relations was still a fledgling industry, which is the only explanation I can give as to how a twenty year-old with virtually no experience was able to make a living from it. I even used to lecture on the subject for the modelling school’s rivals, Lucie Clayton, a secretarial and finishing school that had become famous in the sixties for producing the most glamorous models of the day, although I can’t for a moment imagine that I had any wisdom worth listening to.
By this stage I had decided that being a writer really was the only way I could see that I could ensure a satisfactory level of personal freedom and variety, and hopefully earn a living. But what should I write about? There were plenty of interesting stories and people to choose from but I couldn’t see how to turn them into a living wage.
I tried every possible road that a writer can take and there were many times when it seemed impossible that I would ever be able to earn a steady living from such a precarious profession. To public relations I added business writing and then travel writing, and in every spare moment I was trying to write books. I only ever took two full-time jobs after that, one in a public relations consultancy and the other on a media trade magazine. Neither job lasted more than a few months and I eventually had to admit that I was probably never going to be capable of holding down any permanent position. I was now set irrevocably on a course where self-employment was the only option. Had I realised quite how choppy the waters I was sailing into would turn out to be I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do it ….who am I kidding? I had no option.