Vocation, ambition and selling vacuum cleaners

On Sunday afternoon I went for another ramble through hilly countryside and listened to more podcasts.

During one of them, The Guardian’s reliably solid Music Weekly, an interviewed musician (guy from the band, TV On The Radio) mentioned how he tells everyone to live their lives doing something they one thousand per cent want to do.  Or words to this effect.  He said this was how he lived his life and how everyone should.

It struck me as unbelievably blind.  And as I navigated my way diagonally across a field between jumpy sheep, it even angered me that those fortunate enough to have above average talent or even well-aimed, achievable ambition, could be so brainlessly lacking in empathy.  Not everyone has it.  I might even go as far as saying most people don’t.  We’re told we must have when we complete a survey about our interests in school or college – go become that!  Ok..

It brought back the disappointed look of that date in February when, possibly ill advised by a beer too many, I relaxed into a confession that I didn’t much like what I did for a living; it was just ok for now.  There had been a sort of turning point at that moment, I’d felt.  An enthused, absorbed teacher, she couldn’t fathom why or how anyone could do something they didn’t want to do.  Change it.  I disappointed, maybe borderline repulsed her.  You simply must at least like what you do.

Well and good, but we must earn money and live too.

Another point is that we mightn’t even know what it is that we want to do.  There’s no crime in not really knowing, or of never really knowing.

Another is a basic lack of confidence.  We may quite rationally fear the immense competition if we quite like music, books and films.  Music, books and films are popular media.  We may fear our ability, or lack of it.  The internet makes it easy for everyone to advertise their abilities; it’s transparent how good the ones are that aren’t even cutting it, but are admirably having a go.  They’re quite good, easily better than me.  And if they’re not making any headway, is it worth it?

What I’d love to do above all else is either be a professional footballer or a successful musician.  Alas, I’m not anywhere near adequately talented for either profession.  Alternatively I’d like to be Michael Palin.  But Michael Palin’s Michael Palin.  I’d like to be loads of people actually, mostly through plain envy.  I realise these are ramblings of a disillusioned teenager who thinks everyone else has it better than them.

We can only be ourselves – unless we’re some sort of Talented Mr Ripley identity theft genius, (but wouldn’t that be great too?  Or Matt Damon, being him, he can’t have it bad).  So we sit back in jobs which will do for now – but all the same are never guaranteed – and we go on doing what we must.  Because is there much else out there which we could improve ourselves by doing anyway?  Really?

It’s a horribly rational sentiment echoed in the brilliant ‘Of Love And Hunger’ recently read, loved and recommended to me by @blonde_m.  It charts the young life and love affair of a pre-World War Two vacuum cleaner salesman.  I did this job in the summer of 1999, aged 18, receiving roughly £360 for about 6, six-day weeks of twelve hour days, and the experience was frighteningly close to the tale first published in 1947.

It’s a job which was endured by arguably the biggest breakthrough comedian this year, likable Scouser John Bishop, who tried to sell the same brand.  Kirby Cleaners.  Fucking Kirby cleaners.  There’s something in his affable, self-effacing, almost embarrassed charm which may have been key to his rise, and one root of this could’ve been nurtured in the selling of Kirby cleaners.

Bishop mentions the ‘motivational’ songs sung at the beginning of the day by salespeople, songs which are also mentioned in ‘Of Love..’.  In the summer of 1999 I went to a convention in Birmingham, a large hall of hundreds of people singing songs about Kirby Vacuum Cleaners, some of them rich.  But not many.  Most participants seemed genuinely into the songs, knew the words, and were transported to some evangelical plain of vacuum cleaner worship.  I have scarcely been as bewildered in all my life.

I don’t laugh at or pity the vacuum cleaner salespeople now though.  They’re doing what they can.  A younger friend in his early 20s told me a story last week about a week’s canvassing for a charity in a rough northern council estate.  He earned nothing and wasn’t even given travel expenses.

The author of ‘Of Love And Hunger,’ Julian Maclaren-Ross quotes WH Auden throughout the slim novel:

Adventurers, though, must take things as they find them,
And look for pickings where the pickings are.

The drives of love and hunger are behind them,
They can’t afford to be particular:

And those who like good cooking and a car,

A certain kind of costume or of face,

Must seek them in a certain kind of place.

W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland


Coming out

An hour into my return train journey I south, I sent a text message asking if a friend fancied a pint when I arrived back into town.  We hadn’t been able to catch up in the month I’d been back in the city, mainly due to his diary packed full of holiday and weddings.  To my mild surprise, he agreed and we arranged to meet.

He was a sort of by-proxy friend.  My school friend and I attended the same university and he was roundly better or perhaps luckier at finding a good group of friends.  As a result, several of his friends became my friends, all using the school nickname which I was introduced to them by.  This friend was primarily one of his.

Lumbering, a little awkward and a long-time single, despite being smart, funny and professionally successful, he made me feel better about my own ineptitude with female-kind.  If he’s not finding it as easy as our other mates either, I reasoned, then I’m ok too.  Nothing wrong with him.

I greeted him slightly more tired than I expected to be, the whole day and early start now taking its toll.  We took pints and a seat and caught up.

Half way down the second pints, we reached the subject of women.  I mentioned one or two of the events which litter these blog pages, then turned to him: “So anything news on that count for you?  Do you do the whole dating thing much, or..?”  I didn’t know.  I presumed he must do.  His job involved him seeing many people, going on courses.  He’d had girlfriends and we occasionally heard tales that he slept with them, though not for a while.

“No, well.. I should tell you, I’ve told the others.  I’m.. m.. more the other way.  I can’t help going red when I tell people, he smiled.”

I swilled half a mouthful of Guinness and the penny dropped.  Shit.

He mimicked me spluttering my drink everywhere in disgust, which made me giggle.

I hadn’t seen it coming at all.  I thought he was just like me.  He wasn’t just like me.  The bastard.  It did make sense, but made me feel more of a weird useless freak.  Don’t be such a selfish twat.  Listen.

He’d only fully admitted it to himself when he was 24 or 25, he explained, and started gradually coming out to friends a year to eighteen months ago.  He wasn’t out at work yet, but his closest friends and family all knew.  He was still single but had a good gay crowd of friends.

After the revelation, the laughing and the blushing and the shocked swearing had subsided, I didn’t feel able to leave that as our last pint, and went to get another, still dazed, tired and numbly drunk.  Him: a big gay; who would’ve thought?

This could easily be what people think about me..

It’s not the result that matters

“Y know, it’s the team result that matters at the end of the day.”

This is what professional footballers are trained to say in post match interviews, and what those of us stupid enough to watch and listen to said interviews, week in, week out, get to hear.

This is the obvious platitude because it is what matters for the whole team, but not what matters for each individual player.  Team games, while a collective effort, can never fully negate the first person view of performance, dictated by the selfish gene.  This can work for and against you, and ultimately influences individual post-match mood more than the score.

If your team has narrowly won a hard fought game but you personally feel you played poorly, committing the foul which led to a penalty and brought the opposition back into the game (me yesterday), or felt yourself a generally shaky liability (me yesterday), the team result matters less inside your own head, if you win.

It could be an impression which is amplified in your own head: a kind of body dysmorphia like when you believe a spot to be so large it dominates your whole face, when it may not really appear quite so prominent to others.

“You had a good game today,” a team-mate said without any discernible irony in the pub afterwards.  Unthinking charity, or a reflection that you were simply more anonymous in the whole scheme of the game?  Missable, not a key player, not the calamity you’re painting yourself as either.

It equally works the other way.  If you’re a striker who plays well and scores three goals, but your team-mates in defence have a bad day and concede four, five or six goals, you’re justified in feeling less disappointed.  You did your job, your ego is unthreatened.

Dimitar Berbatov’s performance today for Manchester United against Liverpool was a best case scenario.  You score three excellently taken goals, play well, and your team eventually grinds out a narrow but deserved 3-2 win after an unexpected scare.  Your winning goal poetically arrives after the opposition draws level, making you the undisputed hero, responsible for all three fine goals.

Yet if you’re Jonny Evans, who committed the foul on Fernando Torres which led to a penalty and brought Liverpool back into the game at 2-1, you probably take less pleasure than Berbatov.

Of course Evans will still say “it’s the team result that matters at the end of the day” and feel a bit crap.

Steamed open

He pushed the door open and the conversation inside ceased, he became an interruption.  He pulled the door closed behind him and sat down, his swimming shorts squeltching against the marble.  Opposite him was a large, smoothly bronzed man, and along the stone bench was the middle-aged woman, her legs stretched out in front of her.

After several seconds’ silence, she resumed.

“So I only come here on Tuesdays and Thursdays usually because it’s much quieter,” she told her original company.  “At the weekend there are so many children.”

She spoke in clipped, Slavic tones.  The man nodded his agreement, not caring one way or the other, not appearing hugely keen on having the conversation at all.

“So many children,” she confirmed, her distaste of children clear enough.  “But now it is nice and quiet.”

The man nodded.

It wasn’t THAT quiet, the younger man thought.  He’d been on weekend evenings when it had been quieter than this.

“Do you work every day?” she asked the man

“No, I don’t work,” he said in softly spoken Welsh tones, wanting to leave it at that.  But he soon realised that she wouldn’t.  She would pepper him with questions for as long as he sat there, or twitter away to anyone who’d listen.


“Took early retirement last year at 50,” he conceded.  The man did not look 50 years of age.  Bronzed, smooth – was it possible to reach fifty and still be so hairless? the younger man wondered.  He must wax.  Muscular too, the peak of physical fitness, early retirement at 50, financially secure.  The younger man opposite him steamed enviously.

“The army?” she guessed, almost childishly, “or a builder?  Down in the mines?”  She was enjoying herself, flattering him with macho professions.

“Steelworks,” he said.  “They were laying lots of people off you know, youngsters coming through.  I volunteered because I had a private pension.

“Oh, perhaps one day some easy job will come up?”

“No, I don’t want to work.  Moving abroad soon.”

“Oh yes?  To where?  To Spain?” she guessed at random, wanting to get something right.



The unexpected country halted the flow of her questions.

“I am from Russia originally and so we don’t trust the former.. you know,” she trailed off.  “We think they will look to cheat us or..”

Both men smiled at her loyalty and old-fashioned caution.  The younger man thought of breaking his silence by saying something comparable about being an Englishman in Wales, but didn’t.

“You are going to buy a house there?” she asked, apparently recovered.

“Bought one.”

“Oh, so you and your wife will settle there now, yes?”

He smiled and mumbled about a new life, never qualifying who the ‘we’ was supposed to refer to.  The younger man wondered at this clean-cut man’s sexuality for a second, the rough and tumble of steel worker life.  For all his size and obvious strength, there was a coy softness about him.  Men who looked like this usually had booming voices that travelled effortlessly, natural mannerisms which could fill a stage.

“That’s enough in here for me, I think,” he said.  He stood up and, looking mildly harassed, left the steam room.

Minor grievances / Galgutted

Scanning the library shelves I kept repeating the names of the three authors in my head: Dunmore, Galgut, Chalkas (?) – if that’s how you say / spell it.  I held little hope for any of them, given their contemporariness and likely popularity.  However, as I reversed through the Gs, then spun around to face the GAs, I saw the Galgut.

The day before I’d taken a long, scenic, glorious walk through rolling countryside and listened to many podcasts along the way, mostly cultural reviews of film, music and books.  One had passingly discussed this booker shortlisted title, In A Strange Room, by Damon Galgut.  I had heard it discussed in podcasts before.  It appealed: a dreamy sounding semi-autobiographical tale of three separate but interconnected journeys, a slim book of the kind I might stupidly aspire to write.

There it was.  I took a sharp intake of breath and pulled it from the shelf – brand new but with that uncomfortable protective seal which all library books wear, like a disagreeable plastic sheet on an infant’s bed.  As if conscious that the book could easily be spotted in my grasp and confiscated from me, I held it low to my thigh and made for one of the large windows across the large open space, then flopped down on a comfortable armchair, already sated by my smug glory.

“Memories come back of other places he has waited in, departure halls of airports, bus-stations, lonely kerbsides in the heat, and in all of them there is an identical strain of melancholy summed up in a few transitory details…  From this particular place he will retain the vision of a cracked brick wall growing hotter and hotter in the sun.”

“…a sort of primal nervousness descends.  But this is also one of the most compelling elements in travel, the feeling of dread underneath everything, it makes sensations heightened and acute, the world is charged with a power it doesn’t have in ordinary life.”

Damon Galgut, In A Strange Room

Shit, I thought, not quite as eloquently as the book.  This was good.  I suddenly felt compelled to devour the whole book in one sitting, however long it took, then I quickly realised I couldn’t.  Guilt, inboxes and paying duties would call.

I read 33 pages, saw another book en route to the automated machine – DBC Pierre’s latest – then tried to take them out.  The machine rejected the books and ordered me to take them to a manned desk.  My gut squirmed with irrationally strong fear that the book would be wrenched from me.  “No, can’t let you have this one,” the bald, blank man told me, indicating the Galgut.  “It’s been reserved by someone else.”

It shouldn’t have been on the bloody shelf in the first place then, SHOULD IT? – I didn’t say.  Because what was the point?  Just take it.  Accept another slap.

These things have been snowballing of late: minor grievances which in and of themselves are just that: small irritations.  Some are marginally larger than others irritations, but all are essentially inconsequential.  The second DVD rental in a short space of time which was faulty, ruining an long-anticipated pleasure; a bicycle too broken to justify the expense of fixing; a temperamental iPod; confusingly unclear directions during the walk; a weak handbrake which made hill parking unwise; slow drying laundry; the biting misery of the lonely which must be concealed for the sake of coolness and self-pride, but which never gets easier.

You have to be realistic and rational in the face of these things, however minor, significant or stupidly allegorical they can appear: this route doesn’t make any bloody sense!  Woah, deep man.  Fuck off, brain.  And there are no direct correlations here.  Finding the freezer door open can invoke preposterous anger.  Be strong, keep going, take on the next week, see if anything different happens.

I sulked out of the library and walked a short distance up the road to purchase the book from the nearest Waterstones book shop.  I wanted to read all of it now I’d bitten a decent chunk off.  I hadn’t wanted to buy or own it, but now I’d started, I would.  Fuck the library bastards.

Taking it from the new shelf I found my deeply programmed frugality offended at paying full price for such a thin book, the small thrill of its newness and the lack of a protective plastic cover almost non-existent.  (Another thing).  I paid a smiley young shop assistant with a grudging smile, instantly regretting paying by card as soon as I’d entered it in the machine.  I had enough cash on me.  (Another thing).

Why was I being such a miserable bitter dick?  I was my father again.  Like the day before when I was mentally composing the letter of complaint to the author of those terrible directions.  I hated it when that happened.

I left the bookshop and walked past a church, a lone woman crying under its arch.  She could’ve lost a loved one or received bad news about her health.  What were my problems compared to these grown up ones; serious ones which could form plot-lines in hospital dramas and Eastenders?  Nothing at all.  Comedic ones which might make Adrian Mole or The Inbetweeners.

Queuing in Starbucks I made a silly face at an infant who was staring at me from a nearby table, then I made that pu-pu sound which tots in their teen months seem to be engaged by.  A toddler equivalent of the kissing noise which alerts cats.  This one smiled even more widely at the noise and his two female guardians laughed along.  Three seconds was enough of that.  I smiled weakly at the adults, didn’t remove my headphones and faced ahead again, remembering I was supposed to be annoyed and embattled and a dick.  I shuffled forwards, looked gravely at a smug plump banana muffin, all full of itself, and waited.

Through the mill

Glancing at his pint glass across the table from mine, I noticed the liquid level was an inch further down and remembered his gulping, intimidating yet nonchalant drinking pace.  Beer was like water to him and appeared to the similar affect.

One to one, man to man, it’s difficult to NOT keep pace; you just have to.  I would be drunk before too long.

I remembered his pace from that small Croatian island three years ago when I was on the cusp of my move to London.  A group of us had been thrown together and got on well, unknowable pledges to keep in touch had been made at the end of the week, Facebook friend requests had subsequently been accepted, occasional messages, but no more than that.  Then a week into my new term in Cardiff we bumped into each other in the street, met up for lunch, and now beer.  Copious, free-flowing, fast-paced beer.

I could reign it in though.  First game of the season tomorrow, after all.  Didn’t want to miss that, not after playing myself into the starting line-up thanks to a couple of passable pre-season performances.  Wouldn’t mind seeing the England qualifier too.

No need to feel the obligation of watching England really.  Not after the summer.
Go on then.

They were having no discernible affect on him at all.  Whereas I was feeling drunk and wobbly.  He was taking more toilet breaks more than me.  Perhaps that helped.  Neither of us had eaten.  We’d sat outside the trendy bar in the street since about five o clock, watched the sun affably fade and the evening rise, the cackling leering weekend Cardiff emerge.

We got on well and shared similar interests: books, music, outdoorsyness, occupations.  He was a proper valleys boy, a couple of years older and about a foot shorter.  Walking next to him felt awkward, as if I was patronising him by being there.  Daresay he was used to it.

A colleague of his walked past the bar and joined us.  I teased her, possibly flirted, drunk: infected by Cardiff’s cackling leer?  She failed to conceal a smile, said she didn’t like me and bought us a drink; the last one as it turned out.  Rum and coke.  I was done with San Miguel after more pints than I could remember.  They had to get trains back to their valleys.  I couldn’t drink anymore and could now get home for the football highlights.

Jermain Defoe had already notched his first of three when I arrived back.  Fuck me, I was really drunk.  I drank lots of water, which made it worse: stirring an unsettled stomach.

Today saw the worse hangover I’ve experienced in years.  My head has pounded relentlessly, I vomited until there was nothing there, just stomach lining, bile and tears, I spat blood at one point and had brief fleeting fears.  I text messaged an apology for my absence to the football manager, explaining it as some sort of food poisoning.  Sorry.  I’d really wanted to play too.

Instead I slept, more than I have slept in any single day in recent memory, mostly in bed, one hour on the sofa after Football Focus.  It came in wave after sickening wave, just when the worst seemed beaten, complemented by shivers and shakes and fever and cold.  Movement induced nausea and further horrible, exhausting wretches.  Sipping water was pointless, reintroducing itself with mulchy interest inside minutes.  I slept more.  There was no other answer.

Around five o clock, twenty four hours after we had met the previous day, I awoke again.  There was an absence I was emotionally grateful for.  The squeezing and pulling at my stomach had weakened, I could move my body without wanting to hurl.  Could I sip water and..?  More gurgling and clanking, but no cold sweats and nausea which heralded those intense contractions and that gravity-defying rush.

A carefully devoured cup of tea and slice of buttered toast was heavenly.  Each crumb and drop savoured like it was the first thing I’d eaten anything for months.  Would it go down and stay down?

I waited.  Things gurgled and processed.  No sweating or nausea or horrid expectation.

Yes, it stayed down.  Now I was confident I would pull through and this traumatising ordeal would be over.

I stank.