About twelve years ago I went to Oxford to visit Brendan, a friend I had lived with at University, three or four years before. Despite our differences we'd had a shared interest in drinking and talking about how important our futures would be. Other, more mundane aspects of our characters, our taste in clothes and music, the fact that I studied an Arts degree and that he was doing Sciences, were unimportant. We had recognized each other as men-of-destiny in our chosen field.
Essentially we were no different to a lot of young, reasonably smart, naïve young men. We thought we’d re-write the rulebook. That life, when we got to it, would simply not be able to contain or resist us. Our charm and energy would sweep all before us. Instead, the moment University was over we both floundered, went into crisis, took on a series of badly paid jobs, drank even more, tried to figure out just how life could be so oblivious to our evident, if unproven brilliance.
Brendan, whose sense of self-esteem was tied into his social standing, his line of work and how much money he had coming in, pulled himself out of the nosedive first and went off, after a year or so, to take an MA in Manchester. I on the other hand, being more “artistic” and Other-directed, with all my sense of self-worth based on how well I thought I could write, stayed doing those shitty, dead-end jobs, worrying away at a novel in the evenings and catching up on all the reading I’d missed out on while actually at University, due to having invested the majority of my time in the vastly more important undertaking of dazzling those around me with my wit.
Time ticked by and four or five years post-graduation Brendan was living in Oxford and working for a biotechnology company as a salesmen, making, by my standards, an exceptionally good living and always happy to take me out for a weekend’s drinking should I be able to scrape up the National Express fare down there from Leeds. One Saturday night, mid–Summer sometime, we ended up in a Wine Bar-ish place in the centre of town, absolutely pissed, on the tail end of a solid day’s drinking and pub-philosophising. I held this kind of place in utter contempt but was prepared to patronise it for the sake of more booze and so I pulled up a seat at the bar, drank stolidly, hunched into myself, feeling it was necessary to project my disapproval to all those around me vacuously having a good time, unaware of the transparent, formulaic stupidity of their every word and gesture. At this point I had waist-length hair and was probably wearing a pair of very ripped combat trousers and Army boots. No-one struck up conversation with me. I guzzled pints, I sneered, I affected bored haughtiness as I gazed around, casting a cold, Olympian eye on all I surveyed. Meanwhile, Brendan copped off.
All well and good for him. I was in a relationship anyway, and I certainly wasn’t at all bothered by not being found desirable by anyone in a place like that. Brendan made plans to meet up with this new, potential girlfriend the next day, quite gallantly not wanting to leave me on my own for the evening, and so around Two we went back to his place to keep on drinking, dissecting and disposing of all the world’s idiocies on through to the early hours of the morning.
The next day, the Sunday, we woke up relatively early, still half-drunk, and drove off at Brendan’s customary colossal speed to a pub in the leafy outskirts of the city, parking up in the middle of nowhere, then traipsing over a few fields until we found the place and met up with Emma, the girl from the night before, and a few of her friends, some conservatively dressed, unsexy, glasses-wearing types. Brendan and I got our customary pints of Guinness and then we all went outside to sit at one of the big, round wooden tables, enjoy the sunshine, get to know each other a little.
I maintained a discreet distance, as, after all, I wasn’t going to see any of these people again, we clearly had nothing in common, I had a shocking headache and, primarily, we were all just there to buffer the meeting between Brendan and Emma. I drained my pint, felt better, nipped off to the Bar to get another, anticipated a pleasantly detached few hours of getting drunk and scrounging cigarettes with half an ear leant to the usual, strained, middle-class chit-chat, most of my real effort invested in whatever story I was currently writing in my head. They blathered on, I drifted off, it was all going fine, until…..
“And what do you do for a living?” the girl sitting beside Brendan asked him. There were six of us around the table, two couples, one aspiring couple, me.
“I sell software for a biotechnology company, here in Oxford, “Oxford Molecular” Brendan replied. Then, reflexively, “And you?”
She was a pale, chubbyish girl in her earlier twenties, wearing a blouse and with glasses. "Oh! I’m a Picture Restorer,” she explained. “ I did my degree in Art History and then an MA in Restoration and I work at one of the big auction houses up in town,” she told him. Then she looked to her left, to her boyfriend, who was also pale and chubbyish, with a neat haircut and a polo shirt.
“I run my own company at the moment," he began, but the rest of his contribution was lost on me, as I suddenly realised what was going to happen. Each of us, in turn, was going to announce what we did for a living. It was Emma next. She was, it transpired, working as a researcher at the Guardian. Very nice. My eyes flicked up off my pint, which I’d suddenly found myself scrutinising, to the girl next to her. One look and I knew there was no chance that this girl did anything mundane. Sure enough, she worked for a major publishing house. Next came the coup de grace. Her boyfriend, an insanely academic–looking Young-Fogey in bifocals was forced to admit that while he wasn’t working at the moment, he did have a bloody good excuse, which was that he was doing a PHD in Philosophy, something related to Hegel, I believe, at some unpronounceable but intensely esteemed college or other at Oxford Uni.
All eyes, insouciantly enough, were now on me. The wheel had almost turned full circle. I was, perhaps unaccountably, smiling. There was a painful, sublime comedy even I couldn’t deny in the remorseless build-up, as we went around the table, that had reached it’s peak in the declaration that the man beside me was an authentic, an indisputable intellectual of the highest order, whereas I was five years out of scraping through my degree and….well, what exactly was I doing for a living, these days?
Various options for managing the situation had presented themselves to me in the usual rapid-fire fashion of a mind-in-panic as the moment had drawn nearer. I could lie, or at least bend the truth substantially and say, “I’m a writer,” but this would have been naked hypocrisy, as I had always railed against people who claimed to be painters or filmmakers when they didn’t make a living out of it, plus I knew they would immediately ask me if I had published anything and the fact that I hadn’t would make this claim ring loud and hollow across the space between us. I considered simply saying that I was “between jobs” and using the time to work on a novel. Or to tell them what I did in fact do, but qualify it by mentioning that it was temporary of course, invoking my deep knowledge of literature, aspirations and commitment to writing as a counterbalance. Finding someway of making sure they knew I’d been to University too. Maybe not Oxford, but an authentic University nonetheless.
I leaned back in my seat. It wasn’t even midday yet and I was already quite drunk. I suspect I looked a mess. How I could possibly explain everything I would have needed to say? I couldn’t. Whichever way I went there would be shame and awkwardness, but still, there was also something to relish in it too.
“I work in a warehouse in Leeds. As a warehouse assistant,” I told them.
There was a predictable pause and a polite fixedness of expression. Only I was smiling.
“And do you enjoy…..that?” one of the girls asked me, holding the information out in front of herself, trying not to find it too disagreeable.
“No, of course not” I said, my voice expressing as much bemusement as I could manage. What a silly question. “ No, I don’t enjoy it at all.”
There was another longish pause then Brendan manfully waded into the silence, offered to get everybody another drink and the conversation was immediately caught up in the relief of technicalities, of who-wants-what and do-they-do-that-here? as I busied myself with Guinness and kept my head down, rolling a cigarette.
And as I rolled it I knew that I’d write this thing that had just happened to me down one day, this little sequence of events. Oxford, Summer sometime, 1995, but that I’d wait a while, so that when I finally did I wouldn’t have to labour the ending and explain precisely what it was I was feeling as they chatted breathlessly away among themselves and as Brendan returned from the bar with a tray crowded with drinks. Because I’d address this story to you and because you do understand it exactly, because you know it intimately, that mixture of shame and pride that is as close to anger as it is to laughter, don’t you? You know it well enough, as well as anybody.
You can feel it, can’t you? Even now.