I’ve been thinking about identity and roles. Not seriously serious. More playfully serious. Not personal crisis, but what might have been possible and what was partially achieved. What occupations I might have taken up when younger and why I would have. “Occupation” a word meaning taking over a territory or a performing a work activity and, for me, a more comfortable term than career or profession. Those last words often ring-fenced occupation. And in our once again utilitarian age we’ve tended to drop career or profession in favour of getting a job in “The world of work”- as if the UK world only existed to perform work (Not quite an Orwellian concept, though I do think a “job-seeker” working hard to earn their “job-seeker allowance” is.)
I’ve never had a planned, competitive and determined urge for status and money. My vocation was to write. And any other work either aided or detracted me from doing that. I only wanted to be occupied bringing in enough money so that I could be creative. But if I hadn’t been a writer what role would have pleased me? Was there another occupation I could have carried out with some success?
The moment you ask yourself that question, occupations only matter if you had really developed a talent for a different one. This isn’t a question of I wish I could have been a … etc. I’m trying to imagine a different personal history whilst playing with the idea of fantasy fulfilment and real possibility. Being an astronaut is, for me, speculative nonsense. Whilst becoming a musician a lot more probable. I don’t have a passion for science nor the physical or mental aptitude to be shot into space (Even being solitary in my spacecraft would never be the same as solitary at my writing desk.) I do have a sensitivity to music that could have made me a performer, and then ideally, for me, a conductor. Yet whether I could have achieved that circumstances, connections, talent, intellectual and emotional disposition, luck, money (Not always, but often) and the urge to compete hugely matter.
Dancer, artist, social worker, musician, teacher, actor, film director, psychotherapist, doctor, nurse, priest, private detective or interior designer, were alternative occupations for me. If I hadn’t been marked out to write (This dealing with ‘inner demons’ is a either a curse or blessing, creating artifice to entertain an audience -Ingmar Bergman once harshly termed it as a shedding of the snakeskin.) I’d have been fully drawn to these roles. Why didn’t I take them up, as well as writing? Where they real or fantastic propositions? I certainly dabbled in the fringes of these occupations. My trying out was a non-comitial daydream. Whilst my narrower focus on writing was the committed daydream. Here then are my occupation try-outs: real, imaginary and a collusion of both.
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly for me, rather than Rudolf Nureyev or Joaquin Cortes. Ginger Rogers or Cyd Charisse rather than Margot Fonteyn. They’re my kind of dancers (Nureyev, Fonteyn and Cortes are geniuses but I have problems appreciating classical ballet and I can take or leave flamenco’s ‘fire.’) If Astaire had a consummate insouciance then Kelly had a consummate sensuality. Of course these qualities often overlapped. I wanted to be dancing ecstatically inside Swingtime or The Pirate but I was no good; swirling round the living room coaxing my bulky television to leap of its stand and join me.
I tried hard to learn to dance properly but only achieved a self-taught tepid waltz. I was over-ambitious taking on the tango. And my clumsiness proved too much for an evening class dance group. So I was left with clubbing: that was fine but I failed to connect (In the E. M. Forster Howards End connection sense, I was aiming far too high!) with a partner, a supposed hidden self and the music.
I believe tap-dancing to be an amazing art form that everyone should aspire to: musically agile feet beating the earth is comparable to hands belting out, with spontaneity and precision, jazz-piano. The Nicholas Brothers in the 1943 film Stormy Weather (See You-tube for an amazing demonstration) called it flash-dancing which was an hybrid of tap dancing, ballet and acrobatics executed at a phenomenal level of expertise. Achieving those splits on the stairs, re-bounding their bodies back up and beginning to tap again, was a sight that even Fred Astaire thought awesome.
It feels very natural that human beings ought to dance and celebrate their bodies. When a little drunk I still work-out my clumsy feet. But I wanted to be high up there with the gods or even be a competent mortal instructor.
At school I was good at art. Yet painting didn’t appeal as a profession – it was the off-putting smell of the paints, turps and the messiness. But chiefly the fixity of the canvas felt limited and intimidating (Only as creator not later as a visitor to art galleries.) I wished the image to move unaided by my brush stroke. I wanted animation. I desired cinema. No, not even installation art or happenings provided the answer. I could enjoy all that blue-paint covering people, as they rolled over canvases, so joyfully realised by Yves Klein but would have quickly tired of such fun.
It was too extrovert – a genuine expression of my social make up – but not fundamentally me as a creative person (I hate the fashionable use of the term “to be a creative”. Sounds like an alien being, alienated from the hard craft of creation, only ‘creating’, like emoting, as if taking an aesthetic laxative to constantly produce for friends on Face-Book or the celebrity culture.)
I do love the visual arts (Painting, Cinema, Photography) but tempting though they are they’re not my way to make art.
Social Worker / Doctor /Nurse / Psychotherapist.
Apart from writing, these occupations were the principal way I could have had a strong empathy with others in a professional sense: yet these outlets for human were still dangerously close to control of people. I did pursue healing but not along the conventional route. I trained as a reflexologist and masseur. The reflexology made me concentrate on feet as a map of the body minus any connection to the dancing feet that I so lacked. Whilst massage proved exhausting for I didn’t have strong or thick enough hands to effectively pummel flesh.
Orthodox medicine didn’t appeal because of (a) learning anatomy, physiology and naming of diseases. (b) The long training required to be a doctor. (c) Being a nurse wasn’t sufficient for my curiosity about health and the mystery of human organisms (c) My criticisms of the philosophy of the NHS – it’s still not preventative medicine enough. Yet if I had qualified as a physician, the role-model who would have inspired me would have been Anton Chekhov – both country doctor and writer.
“Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress: when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.”
I envy Chekhov to have loved medicine and writing with equal power and his untiring ‘wife’ and ‘mistress’ not to have cheated on him as he circulated between them.
Upfront, counter service for social work appealed more than being a trained social worker with a case-load of crisis intervention issues. And I did voluntary work in residential care homes, hostels for the homeless and paid work in a children’s nursery.All gave me insights into people. All left me burnt-out from helping people to help themselves.
Psychotherapy would have been a rewarding occupation in so far as attempting to understand the human condition, for this comes close to a writer’s sense of observation and detachment. I would have found continuing self-analysis and assessment by other therapists difficult especially long after I’d qualified. Maybe I could have taken this on board. Maybe not. My writer’s ego wouldn’t have made it through.
I have the disposition to be a therapist or counsellor but not be a writer as well. And anyway I need to creatively lie about others so as to form characters, situations and images. All those clients. All that material. Potential subjects. The confidentiality. The trust. You could change the names. But? Chekhov not only had the strength to have two professions but be good at them and, most importantly, stay responsible to both. I would have to choose. I did, giving up the complementary medicine path to write again and maintain a caring edge or hopefully disturb readers in the right way.
“I think I am here on this earth to spread a little misery in the world”
That was dramatist Dennis Potter during a TV interview with Michael Parkinson. I love the anti-sentimental thrust of a partly mischievous, yet deadly serious, claim from a man who was such an ironic and passionate healer through words. (It’s a tall order to write convincing dialogue for a female character who’s dying of cancer. Most TV and film doesn’t convey the gut reality of that, for it’s over-occupied in conveying instant, violent death. Potter’s play Joe’s Ark eschews sentimentality, through the writing and the brilliant performance of actor Angharad Rees to convey the dying process more powerfully than I can remember.)
It was one of those rare moments when acting and writing took on such a reality, an almost super-medicinal gaze, harrowing, affecting, wanting to save yet being unable, that shook you to your core. Potter as dramatist and word-doctor fusing art and medicine. Imagining a young woman’s death not to console or shock but simply witness became an act of healing. The other side of the mirror is someone brought back from the dead as in Carl Dreyer’s magisterial film Ordet (The Word). Here a miracle occurs and a mother is restored to her family. As you watch Ordet the illusion of the miracle is so intense that you leave the cinema convinced that a real resurrection actually occurred.
The medicinal-cinematic gaze restores life for Dreyer and completes death for Potter,with both works containing sincere religious overtones. It’s a cliché to call an artist a healer. Yet I feel that here medicine and art were fused. That those occupations became inextricably linked. These are rare extremes when your creative work performs other work too. Of course it’s all contained within a fiction (Film or play) but does that make it a less healing experience and therefore less real for the spectator? Vicarious forms of transcendence. Occupations can miraculously beget occupations.
The role of a priest, in our post-Christian society, is problematic, less sure, though not quite redundant. I would love to be projected back to an early 19th century England (Pre-Darwin) enjoying a priestly role of pastoral care. A country parson, on horseback, visiting his parishioner’s ala John Kilvert’s diary style. It’s a role that would have satisfied the writer in me. As well as being a ‘social worker’ I could have been an earlier poet/priest like George Herbert or John Donne (His sermons are masterpieces of commanding rhetoric.)
In my fantasy pulpit I’d have been a compassionate but uncompromising vessel for the voice of God. Endowed with the vocal authority of an Orson Welles or Richard Burton I may have gone as crazy as the priest that Burton portrayed in Huston’s film of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. His angry denunciation of the congregation always gives me such a high: as if in my English pastoral role there’d inevitably come a time when I’d gleefully, and probably drunkenly, turn my back on the religious establishment. Such a renegade, de-frocked priest, now free-lance and available for hire, would have been my spiritual firecracker! Unfortunately I won’t ever get there as the 21st century version of me doesn’t believe in God.
The few priests I’ve ever met didn’t impress me. They were too eager to please and frightened to offend. The exception being a Roman Catholic priest named Father Bennet whom I encountered in Brighton. During my old friend Suzanne’s conversion to Catholicism I met her converter. Bennet was a tall man in his fifties and had handsome if satanically inclined looks. He also bore a permanent boil on his neck that you imagined contained the pus and poison of his real business. I always felt uncomfortable in his presence and was shocked at how acquiescent Suzanne was towards him. Behind his soft-spoken, but acutely precise voice, lay a chilly force of a man. I’d no evidence of any abuse of power just a disquieting intuition that this priest wasn’t to be trusted (Others sensed this too and mentioned rumours of a sexual nature.)
I accompanied Suzanne, perhaps naively, for her protection to Midnight Mass, drank the wine, chewed the bread and felt not so much his indignation at my ‘playing’ with the ritual but his suppressed fury that I might be guarding Suzanne. Thankfully she wasn’t harmed by the priest. A year later Suzanne gave up Catholicism. But I’ve never forgotten the glance that Father Bennet gave me on the altar that night, “What’s your game then, unbeliever?” it mentally cried out. If I’d ever wished for a religious ‘game’ it would have been to have warned people about priests like him. I may have fantasized about being a dismissed priest but my excommunication would have been on the grounds of questioning clerical authority not shaming it.
Teacher / Actor / Film Director
Few writers make a living from their writing. A second occupation matters – usually an academic teaching post. I’ve done bouts of teaching – English as a Foreign Language and Adult Literacy. They brought in a small income. Yet neither challenged me in the role of being a teacher who really wanted to impart knowledge. Life as a university lecturer didn’t appeal. But Adult Education once did. I was offered a place to do a teaching certificate but didn’t take it up.
As for acting, I do, as a writer, live in my head (probably too much) and enjoy self-dramatisation. But I have too much of a writer’s self consciousness to be good at professional acting. My writer introspection would get in the way of giving a disciplined performance. I write the inner life of a character. Yes. I inhabit what I create. Yes. But I myself can’t re-enact to make it come alive on stage or film. That’s a job I designate to others.
With a love of cinema and an imagistic style of writing being a film-director might have seemed obvious. I have written scripts to films that were later produced and at one level I could have story-boarded them in my head. Yet directing a film has always struck me as the most stressful of jobs. You have to designate work to others, please actors, calm producers and try to raise money for projects. It takes too long to finish a project and I would have been frustrated by keeping together the collective process.
On one short film production that I worked on as scriptwriter there were times when I wanted to interrupt the director and his DOP and say “You surely don’t want to place the camera there, do you?” But unlike Orson Welles, who acted in so many bad films for the money, that being denied directing jobs, caused his ego to interfere, with the technicalities, I would have let it go. For me directing was a daydream where I might always lose control. Whereas writing allows me to daydream that I’m God and sustain control until a writer’s workshop or editor says that it can be better. Then God’s open to new ideas.
Private Detective / Archivist / Interior Designer
All these activities demand facts, analysis, information and solving a problem or a mystery. Being a private detective, unhindered by the Police authorities, is perhaps an over-romantic role. Being a Philip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes could be a risky business. So I may have occasionally called on the police for assistance whilst staying a loner. It’s the deduction that appeals. The assemblage of facts. And those small details fitting into the overall plan. All analogous to the writing of a novel or play.
Archivist also taps into my analytic powers. I was a public-library assistant for 10 years and enjoyed it. Yet when younger it would have been exciting to have been more specialist, but not with books, but celluloid. A film restorer / preservationist probably working on silent cinema. I’m fascinated by those DVD / Blu-Ray extras that explain how restoration work was carried out. Cleaning up a Metropolis is the equivalent of restoring an Italian Renaissance painting.
Interior Designer is the easiest (unpaid) occupation to take on board. That’s a fantasy role I can constantly work at in my flat as I move furniture and objects around, decorate a room, add a new feature and imagine new arrangements. People talk of harmony and Feng Shui. With me its reasonable order, a small amount of expressive mess (I work and live in this room) and enough comfort. I’m not a minimalist (The photographs of apartments featured in the London Evening Standard property pages make me recoil from their uniform vacuity – they all have such a cold and forlorn exclaiming “My property shall be emptied of extraneous things that make it look lived in”.)
Well, I’m already that. And can now reminisce about the other work I once did. Even write about it. Writing occupies my time and provides sufficient meaning to get up in the morning. And I can’t stop doing it. Not an easy occupation but who said that living was easy anyhow? It can’t be an effortless Summertime all the time as the song declaims.
“When you make music or write or create, it’s really your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you’re writing about at the time.”
My variant on Lady Gaga’s wild activity is the practice of writing as a gentle but probing anarchism. The freedom I like is when the shackles of occupation are subtly broken!