Howard Jacobson: Choose life. Choose a job. Choose the future

You descend into unfulfilled old age wondering what your life might have been
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The Independent Online

'Why the long face?" adults used to ask me when I was a boy.

I didn't take kindly to the question. I knew they weren't referring to the fact that my face was, literally, as long as a horse's, but it felt personal for all that. "Why the short fat face?" I wanted to reply. "Why the piggy eyes? Why the slack mouth?"

The other one was "Cheer up, it might never happen". "It already has," I liked saying. Smart bastard. But I meant it. As far as I was concerned, whatever might never happen had already happened. I'd been born. That other people who'd been born didn't think as I thought was their problem. They were dumb. I believed that about everybody who didn't know that what might never happen had already happened. They were too dumb to notice. The knowledge that I lived in a universe of the dumb made my face look even longer.

You grow out of this in time. But it's a slow process. I think I must have been 40 when I first stopped waking up and cursing the hour I'd been born. Waking up feeling frolicsome took a lot longer, but I got there. Now I'm renowned for my sunny disposition.

I mention this in the hope it will be of help to the miserable millions just coming to terms with the realisation that they will soon be out of work, if they are not out of work already, or won't have any work to look forward to, though they've just picked up a starred first in mathematics from the best university in the country. Cheer up, it might never happen? You have every reason to be irate. It's happened all right.

I was on the dole once. I'd done three years lecturing in Australia and could find no employment when I returned. When they asked me in the employment office what I was looking for I told them a chair of English literature, my areas of expertise being the late plays of Shakespeare, late Dickens and Turgenev's influence on the late novels of Henry James. What's with all this late stuff, they wondered. I hated being young, I told them. They didn't find me a chair or even a readership but eventually made me an offer I couldn't refuse, supply teaching in a grammar school in Manchester. I'd say I've never been so unhappy in my life as I was supply teaching, except that I'd been just as unhappy all my life until then – my three years in Australia apart – and I remained no less unhappy in all the jobs I did thereafter.

I supply taught twice more in the next 10 years, never for very long. You know you're not in the right profession when you start giving Chinese burns to your pupils. I make no apologies. It was either that or allow them to give Chinese burns to me. A physics teacher taught me the art of the surreptitious dead leg – "Oh sorry, Armitage you evil little bastard, but you'll walk again, I regret to say" – but once all you can think about when you're preparing lessons is torture (shame they didn't have waterboarding in those days) it's time to go back to the employment office where, by the by, they still hadn't found me a chair of English literature.

In between these pedagogic humiliations I suffered the indignity of being a builder's labourer – a job I had to quit because I couldn't wheel a barrowload of cement along a narrow plank without spilling the cement; a roof tiler – a job I had to quit because I had no head for heights; an assistant to an Italian master craftsman who replaced sash windows – a job I had to quit because he'd drop me off at a site and then drive back to have it away with my then girlfriend, Sashwindow Sarah as she was known; a commissioner of text books for educational publishers – a job I had to quit because I thought there were enough books in the world and I was not of a mind to commission more; and a stop me and buy one ice-cream salesman – a job I had to quit because of my long face which apparently put people off stopping me to buy one.

I leave out the years selling purses in Oldham, handbags in Cambridge market, girls' confirmation dresses in Llandeilo and Ystradgynlais, and pasties in Cornwall, these being jobs of a more entrepreneurial nature and requiring a flair not everyone possesses. Otherwise I recommend my career trajectory to anyone unable to enter the profession for which he considers himself educated. It doesn't matter. Do something else.

Am I saying it did me no harm to confront abject failure for nearly 20 years, so it will do you no harm either? No, I am not. It did me immense harm. I was anathema to myself and to anyone who came near me. I wish the same on no one. But what, in the end, is so great about the alternative? You get your degree, you go into the employment for which you're suited, you marry Sashwindow Sarah with whom you grow bored, you have children who sit at home stuffing rags saturated in lighter fluid into their mouths, you put money into a pension fund which won't be worth a hill of beans by the time you've retired, and you descend into unfulfilled old age wondering what your life might have been had you only had the balls to tile roofs in New Mexico, or wheel a wheelbarrow of cement up Machu Picchu.

Such a scramble to get started. Art students are said to be in despair if their work is not hanging in a major gallery by the time they get their diplomas. Undergraduates reading history at Oxbridge with a novel about the Tudors on the go feel the same; if it isn't published before their looks fade they're finished. The principle of lifelong apprenticeship – what Matisse called "the slow and painful preparation which is necessary for the education of any artist" – vanished with the idea that preparation for anything is necessary. The result of which is trashy work, reputations which inflate and burst, and considerable unhappiness.

Change your thinking, I say. Cultivate an amused patience. You might live until you're 100 – what's the rush? Respect yourself sufficiently to know you're a waste of space until you're 40, anyway. In the meantime, it doesn't matter what you do. Live. The country might be going to the dogs but you don't have to. And even going to the dogs is life. So why the long face?

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