life and art

It’s confusing when you’re young and your Whole Life is Ahead of You. When I was young and my Whole Life was Ahead of Me, I didn’t really know what to do with it.  The only thing I’d ever thought seriously about was writing, but that didn’t seem like something I’d even be able to do, let alone make a career of. I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant, even though I had the academic stuff to pursue any of those careers. I didn’t have much ambition, career-wise, at all.

Even so, I ended up going to university and getting a degree, which didn’t make a lot of difference to my prospects – I still found myself working in jobs where the qualifications required were basic maths and English. (It did give me a chance to go to Japan, though. If you want to work abroad, having a degree can help with getting work visas.) Some years later I went back to university and did a PGCE, which I thought would professionalise me, give me a career and some job security. Then the government cut most of the funding for the courses I teach, withdrew its political goodwill, and pushed colleges into becoming profit-making businesses, which meant that I was only able to get work on temporary contracts, only paid for my teaching hours and given few opportunities for professional development. Or I could work in the private sector, where wages for an hour’s teaching can be as little as £8. Finally, last year, I decided to do an MA in creative writing – not because I thought it would improve my career prospects! I thought I might learn something, though.

So I’ve done the whole education thing. And I think, if I had been smarter from the off, and if I had been braver, I wouldn’t have bothered.

Here’s the thing. Getting degrees didn’t open a lot of doors for me. Employers don’t care that I have a first class degree. It’s not in engineering or maths or a specialised subject, so it’s meaningless – like every other humanities degree. Even a professional, vocational qualification like a PGCE doesn’t get you very far when the only decent teaching jobs are at universities where you are expected to have a PhD just to teach on a sessional English course.

What opened doors for me, gave me opportunities, and made it possible to support myself over the years? Being able to touch type. Secretarial skills are the skills I have that are marketable and usually in demand. And those skills, in my case, are entirely self-taught.

Here’s what I wish I had understood back then: If you’re an artist, be an artist. If you’re a writer, write. Get a job that pays the bills and doesn’t corrode your soul, something you can do without giving your heart. Travel and live cheaply, seek out adventures and experiences, find out what matters to you. Give up on the idea of university as a place of enlightened growth and learning. Universities are businesses now. The idea that an expensive education in the arts or humanities is going to open doors for you is a myth. That’s not how this economy works. It used to be that education was a way out for ordinary, working class people, but it’s not anymore. It’s a trap. It’s a rip off. What might open doors for you is having some kind of practical skill, a good work ethic, and no massive debts to worry about. Be more free. And good luck to you.


everybody needs good neighbours

In one of the more hilarious moments of my life, I recently discovered that I am living underneath a troupe of Australian acrobats. I found this out when I went upstairs to politely enquire about the tremendous stamping/thumping/crash-bang-walloping noises they were making. WHAT ARE YOU, GIANTS? ARE YOU SUMO-WRESTLERS? ARE YOU JUST THROWING EACH OTHER AROUND THE ROOM? (I ever-so-politely asked.)

Actually yes, they said. The last one.

After I stopped laughing, they gave me a couple of free tickets to their show, so this afternoon a friend and I went along to see it. I knew it would be good, because acrobats and circuses are always thrilling. We sat right at the front, crowded around the few square metres of performance space.

“It’s audience participation,” I joked to my friend. “Can you remember how to do a forward roll?”

The acrobats started with a bit of fun skipping-and-stripping, but soon got into the serious business of DEFYING GRAVITY. They held each other in the air, balancing on hands, heads, shoulders. They climbed up each other’s bodies to reach the ceiling. I had my hands over my mouth most of the time, thinking there was no way I could be seeing what I was seeing.

In one particularly mesmerising section, two of the guys balanced on one another, whilst the sole female acrobat stepped and climbed over them. The game was that she couldn’t touch the ground. Wherever she stepped, there had to be a hand or a thigh or a head or something to hold her off the floor. This was a beautiful piece which not only showed the strength and coordination of these athletes, but also the depth of their connection to one another. There was something very humane and touching in seeing them move almost like one extraordinary body.

The most incredible piece, however, was the finale, in which the guys literally threw the woman around the space in a sequence that became ever more impossibly wonderful. She leapt from their hands, spiraling through the air, to land on other hands. She flew like a bird. There was always an edge of danger, a sense that they might just drop her (but of course they never did).  Afterwards, my friend and I both had the same thought – how many times must they have flung her off into empty space before they perfected this routine? And how crazily talented she was, how focused, and how strong.

I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like this before. Having said that, whilst they were doing an intense bout of backflips, I did think to myself that I’d heard something like this before. I’m pretty sure they do that in their living room. It would explain a lot. Of course, my first (proud) words to my friend upon leaving were, “They’re my neighbours, you know.”

If you’re in Edinburgh, go and see them! The show is called ‘Gravity and Other Myths’ and is on every day at the Gilded Balloon (Teviot).

(And yes, before anyone shouts at me, I *am* supposed to be writing a novel and I *will* get right back to it, this second. Jeez.)