They offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I'd better take anything
Do you wanna make tea at the BBC?
Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be
Career opportunities are the ones that never knock
Every job they offer you
is to keep you out the dock
Career opportunity, the ones that never knock
The Clash 1977
Surely you don't expect me to believe it's just a coincidence? Language doesn't
evolve purely by chance. The study of etymology (the etymology of which, incidentally,
is the Greek etymologia, from etymon meaning “true sense” + logos, “word”) produces
many a fascinating insight into the history and evolution of the words we use today.
And so it can come of little surprise to many that - as we attempt to forge a career:
striving towards financial independence, comfort and security – the same word is
used to describe that out of control feeling one gets when going downhill fast.
I never chose music, it chose me. Or rather, a combination of idleness and the toss
of a coin did. My dream was perhaps to live out my university life as a student at
Cambridge – something I steadfastly ensured remained a dream by my persistent refusal
to do any of the work necessary to get me there. “What's it going to be? University
or music college?” The music college auditions were right at the start of the academic
year; some months before university interviews. Encouraged by a call of tails and
the knowledge that if I got this right I could take the rest of the year off, I set
myself on the path to music college; confident that if something more interesting
turned up later I could always jump ship.
My confidence took something of a knock when nothing more interesting turned up and
so it was that I found myself officially identified, as far as the world at large
was concerned, as a music student. As far as music students were concerned I was
rapidly identified as “Not quite one of us.”
Not quite one of them is pretty much how I've felt ever since. Once refused work
on the grounds of being “of dubious temperament” I feigned horror at the allegation
whilst for several years basing my career on being professionally unemployable. And
I confess, it is nice still to think of oneself as unemployable, it adds that little
bit of edginess and unpredictability, particularly as I am now able to do so, presumably
courtesy of some administrative error, from the luxurious position of drawing a salary.
I was once told that the door to success is marked “push”. Just the other side of
that door are the hundreds churned out every year into an increasingly saturated
and shrinking profession, piling up furniture for all they're worth and desperately
trying to hold it closed behind them. It's at times like this that it is important
to diversify and adapt. As a result it would now be quite possible to put together
a perfectly good orchestra whose portfolio of additional skills includes plastering,
carpet fitting, floor laying, tiling, electrical work, plumbing and more. However,
to the best of my knowledge this “theory” only works in one direction and it would
be inadvisable at best to engage the LSO to build you a house.
My only other dubious skill lay in the equally subjective world of writing. It's
all very well having a talent but there are many who although undeniably talented
are unable to perceive that their particular talent is not entirely suitable or desirable.
Better to have the less specific talent to succeed than the talent to excel in the
disregarded. Still I was lucky enough to be able to garner a few extra quid from
writing. I had the good fortune of being published at my first attempt – or at least,
at the first attempt at which I started counting. It is a virtue to turn ones disappointments
into success and one often learns most from ones mistakes. However, not feeling particularly
virtuous, nor with the lust for learning upon me; I shrewdly set my sights realistically
low, disguising the fact with a carefully reasoned argument to explain my choice
Broadly speaking I was now a journalist – but felt little justification in this epithet
having done nothing more than knock out a couple of reviews for a couple of hundred
quid. This was a practical if not artistic success but since my aspirations lay more
towards that of “creative artistry” I settled on the altogether more vague job description
of “published writer” - reasoning that scant pride could be taken from the generation
of a required word count that took as long as the ink took to come out of the pen
– when I could be bothered.
The most note-worthy aspect of my writing career was its speed. Having commanded
instant success I then went on to make ultimate failure and ostracism my goals whilst
still being home in time for tea. When I wrote what they asked me to, success was
easy. When I went on to explain that they were asking me to write all the wrong things
we parted ways as amicably as a small child parts a daddy long legs from its limbs.
Still, for a while my increased status was clearly apparent . No more so than in
the quality of email flooding into my inbox. Suddenly, I was receiving emails from
publishing assistants and magazine editors – a welcome punctuation to the usual influx
of communications promising me a longer, thicker penis. (Let's face it – if the pills
didn't work the first time they're hardly likely to now.)
Great success is reserved for the singularly talented and dedicated. Though one must
be careful not to confuse the two. Indeed, having stated that “Consistency is the
last refuge of the unimaginative” Oscar might just as well have gone on to add that
diligence is the last refuge of the talentless. A conscientious hard-working attitude
is no panacea for lack of ability.
Which here is the real crime? To be too drunk to do your job or to be too bad to
do your job? And the issue is muddied further when a number of musicians need to
be just drunk enough to do their job. To misquote Churchill when responding to the
allegation: Sir, you're drunk. Madam, you're rubbish, but in the morning I shall
be sober... Well I say morning but probably best not to call until after lunch...
Well I say lunch, I'll probably have a drink, ooh no, oops err....hang on, err...
And so the battle lines are drawn for the great conflict of our time; the struggle
that wages between Art and Artifice. Let me elaborate; time to light the blue touch
paper and retire – or in the case of some of my colleagues just retire. Whilst the
greatest heights will only be achieved by Art it is sad to observe that Artifice
dominates the minor placings at the expense of other superior talents. At times it
is regretful to regard the waning of an ability but when the individual in possession
refuses to acknowledge the fact, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, it
becomes a bloodsport of the most vicious appeal. Unfortunately there is no points
system for musical transgressions and so some are able to continue collecting points
on their artistic license indefinitely with not the slightest fear of a ban. Meanwhile
the crimes against music pile up. I had the dubious pleasure of watching a rather
corpulent character scratching their way through a number of solos. As each tricky
section of music passed (approximately) under their fingers, the little piggy eyes
would widen (presumably at the prospect of impending doom) and these looks would
be accompanied by a peculiar snuffling noise at the increased exertion. The effect
of the whole could only be described as truffling for high notes. When the moment
has passed however, the naked realisation of their limitations is swiftly replaced
by the habitually worn mask of superiority, held all the more firmly in place, lest
it should slip again, by a greater arrogance adopted towards the ranks of onlookers.
Remaining blind to the knowing glances, they climb back onto their self-constructed
pedestal. Rather than having to be able to walk the walk if they talk the talk, the
approach of the Artificer is to talk louder and longer to compensate for each successive
stumble. Talking down others and building themselves in the hope that no one will
hear those foundations (laid firmly in the sand) crumbling away.
The battle continues to rage across the modern art galleries of the world. Artifice
and Art vying with each other for supremacy. As you stand before an exhibit, what
do you look at first: the artwork or the explanatory note? At what point does a pile
of bricks in the Tate cross the line between work of art and badly constructed wall?
The skill lies not in the stacking of bricks but in the justification of it as Art
– and so Artifice triumphs. Sticking a dead shark in formaldehyde is one thing, sticking
a living shark in formaldehyde would be really impressive... but coming up with a
concept to explain it all away – that is clever.
Without the benefit of facade or artifice the majority must continue to strive honestly
for that career... keep pushing at that door. What they neglected to tell me however
is that the door to success is also revolving. Push too hard and if you don't get
clear quick you'll find yourself back out in the cold once more and careering into