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

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2 Responses to Vocation, ambition and selling vacuum cleaners

  1. Blonde says:

    Glad you liked it. I thought it was beautiful, if very sad. Am a bit concerned nothing seems to have changed, though.

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