Philip Hensher: The waste of time that is careers advice

Even now, children of doctors become doctors, and children of manual labourers become manual labourers
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The Independent Online

How was your careers advice at school? Did you follow it? This is years ago now, but I remember the careers master having a highly laminated series of job descriptors which he kept in a portable, cardboard filing cabinet. We had to go up one by one and tell him what we felt like doing in life. He looked at me in his wise, all-knowing manner. "You could be an actuary, for instance," he said, and started reading out the professional qualifications required for actuary-ness. I looked at him, dismally. Most of the time, he was the woodwork master. Later in the hour, I heard him suggesting to the form thug that he might consider becoming a hairdresser.

And later at university, there were careers guidance services. By then, the purple laminated sheets had given way to rudimentary computer programmes. Instead of the woodwork master there were bustling professionals in shoulder-padded suits, striding about purposefully and alluding with airy grace to their "contacts in the City" and "in advertising".

The rudimentary computer programmes would ask you a series of questions. You could entertain yourself by answering these honestly. Did you prefer an outside life or one in a cupboard? Was Tuesday a yellow day, or did it smell like the giraffe enclosure at the zoo? At the end of these probing enquiries, the machine would hum and buzz and spit out an answer. This time, it suggested to me that I might like to consider becoming a Roman Catholic priest, or perhaps a bassoonist – my memory is vague.

Not since the beginning of time has anyone, I guess, taken the advice of the careers service. Amusingly, there is an Institute for Careers Guidance, and its president, Dr Deirdre Hughes, was last week complaining that "we have a generation coming through university now that have not had an experience of high-quality careers education". Only a generation? I'm amazed.

The Government, however, has agreed. It announced last month the setting-up of a "careers profession taskforce" to address the needs of the careers advice profession. At this wonderful initiative one is not so much amazed as limply accepting of the inevitable. No one can doubt that the choice of profession is one of the most important in anyone's life. It ought to be the moment when the engines of social mobility start to run. But the influences bearing on the choice of career are fairly well-established. First, there are jobs within the family: even now, children of doctors become doctors, and children of manual labourers become manual labourers, whatever their innate potential.

Then there are role models within the social circle. I would always have wanted to write, but I knew you could make a living out of it because my parents had a glamorous journalist friend. Then there are representations in the media, still keeping medicine, law, even policing in the eye as exciting professions. And perhaps an interested teacher, too; but rarely, in my experience, the careers service.

I never did find out what an actuary is, but I know how I would engineer social mobility and career choice, relatively cheaply. I would give every 16-year-old a tenner, and tell them to go to Islington, Clapham or Richmond with the instruction to find a well-dressed person in their 40s and buy them a cup of tea. And then to ask them what job they had. No doubt very unfairly, I was never very keen on taking advice from the careers advice professionals for one reason. It was what they themselves had chosen to do for a living.

Public patronage ruined Henry Moore's work

Art has its associations, sometimes acquired in an unorthodox way. Who can look at John Millais's Bubbles without thinking of Pears soap? And going round the no-doubt excellent Tate Britain exhibition of Henry Moore, you find no difficulty in enjoying the earlier rooms. But when it gets to the post-War stuff, it can be extremely hard even to look at the work, or to decide whether it is any good or not. Henry Moore was a great favourite of the welfare-state authorities, who liked to place his sculpture in prominent places in public developments. I looked and looked, and for the life of me I could not stop the associations of the shopping precinct, the library plaza, the housing development rising up. They just seem hopelessly municipal to me.

Why has it happened, above all, to Henry Moore? I don't think of John Lewis on Oxford Street every time I see a Barbara Hepworth, though a rather overblown work of hers still adorns its facade.

But the dead hand of committee approval and public patronage has layered the late Henry Moore with a patina of drabness. His substantial later work doesn't give the impression of having been loved by anyone to pay enough of their own money for it. Probably a lesson lies in wait for all artists now depending largely or exclusively on the patronage of museums.

Wayne Bridge's touch of Victorian values

To the casual observer, the ritual handshaking at the beginning of a football match has a peculiar air. I don't know whether it has always been so, but the moment of contact of hand with hand here is probably the shortest span of time known to science. Its only rival, perhaps, is the interval between a traffic light turning to green in Naples and the car behind you sounding its horn. There is no suggestion of sportsmanly esteem visible, and every suggestion of a ritual conducted with gritted teeth.

Nevertheless, everyone was keen to see what would happen when John Terry faced Wayne Bridge, the gentleman he cuckolded, when Chelsea played Manchester City on Saturday. Terry held out his hand; Bridge walked straight past it.

We as a nation are not great hand-shakers, but we know all about the snub and the cut. The Victorians recognised and catalogued degrees of snubbing, culminating in the "cut direct", when you look someone in the eye and ignore their greeting.

It's nice to know that even in the yobbish world of professional football, deliberate rudeness as a reprimand is achievable. Not necessarily by sleeping with another chap's wife or girlfriend, but clearly by perpetrating the "cut direct". Bridge behaved, unmistakably, like a gentleman. Is a duel now inconceivable?