How many final demand notices do you need to collect before you can be considered a man of letters?

Having gone through four years of university, I eventually became a man of letters – mostly comprising of threats from the bank. 

I didn’t go into higher education in order to come out with a profession, that was just something that happened by accident. Outside of my dentist and GP, I didn’t know anyone with an education; I didn’t come from that kind of environment. In fact, most people around me were a little confused about why I’d want to go to university at all. To be fair, so was I.

‘Get a trade,’ they said. But all that word conjured for me was an image of someone with their arm up a toilet. This, of course, was purely my own ignorance but, at the time, my own ignorance was all I had. The grown-ups in my life, especially the male ones, never really went out of their way to introduce me to what they did.

I grew up in a women’s world. On my terraced street, men went to a place called work while women stayed at home to look after children, do housework, and arrange coffee mornings with other women who looked after children and did housework. Women were, therefore, the people I got to know. (It’s probably where I got my liking for coffee from.) They were the more engaging, and if they had apparently chosen not to fill their time with going to work … well, that was good enough for me. 

All I knew about my dad’s job was that it was somewhere he returned from each day looking tired and irritable. This didn’t really seem like something I could get enthusiastic about. 

So, when the time came, university seemed like the perfect opportunity to opt out and avoid the issue for at least the next three years. My girlfriend went to the art college while I studied literature in the building next to hers. She painted while I read and wrote stories and poetry. It could have been the perfect start to an artistic lifestyle, had we come from the same socio-economic demographic as Shelley or Byron. Unfortunately, I had neither an inheritance nor an allowance to fall back on while I waited for the world to catch up with my genius. What I also lacked was any sense of self-belief. My bad!

* * * * * * * *

For the next three years, going to work meant reading novels and plays and poetry. I couldn’t work out what all my dad’s fuss had been about, I didn’t come home each day feeling tired and irritable. In fact, this kind of going to work taught me that perhaps actually creating novels and plays and poetry might not be a bad way to make a living. But where do you start?

Unfortunately, this question got buried before it got answered. What buried it were the other questions, questions like, Where did the last three years suddenly go?, How do I pay my rent now? and What exactly do grown-ups do? Answers to these questions came as slow as not at all. For the next twelve months I did what any self-respecting artist might have done under similar circumstances: I buried my head and carried on as if nothing had changed. My girlfriend continued designing clothes and drawing in pastels or charcoals, and I continued reading and writing, with a small amount of badly paid journalism thrown in.

‘Mum,’ I said, the next time I phoned home, ‘do we have any elderly, rich relatives that you haven’t told me about?’

‘No. Why?’

‘… No reason,’ I said, feeling slightly disappointed.

Eventually, there was nothing left to do, I had to think about a job. Luckily, being the late 80s, there were very few jobs going in my part of Wales. This took the pressure off a little. Then, one evening, while sitting amongst friends, someone handed me an epiphany. ‘Don’t teachers get really good holidays,’ they said. A quick calculation in my head told me that school teachers get thirteen weeks paid holiday per year. That was it, I’d found my profession.

* * * * * * * *

The extra year I studied in university to qualify as a teacher was horribly dull. I knew this was not for me but in the absence of an alternative idea, I found myself reluctantly plodding through. ‘At least I’ll get a professional salary,’ I told myself. 

‘… Shit! Is that it?’ I said when my first month’s salary statement eventually came through. ‘I’m putting up with all of that … for this?’ I’d met a few people who did very well out of various forms of criminal activity. I reached for my address book …

In the meantime, the bills kept coming in. ‘How many final demand notices does one need to collect in this drawer before one can be considered a person of letters?’ I called out to my girlfriend, from across the house.

* * * * * * * *

‘What made you become a teacher?’ is a question I’ve been asked on a number of occasions. My answer now is the same as it was twenty years ago: ‘Inadequate careers advice at school.’ 

State school careers guidance was as bad then as it is now. Even my artist girlfriend dared not tell the careers counsellor that she wanted to be a fashion designer (a profession she undoubtedly had an abundance of talent for), instead opting to blurt out ‘hair dresser’, when asked. 

‘But you’re too short for that,’ was the counsellor’s curt reply.

‘Did you point out to him that your clients would be mostly sitting down?’ I asked her, afterwards.

Today, our sink sprung a leak. The plumber’s bill came to just short of £200.00. I should have learned a trade.