Low life

Why I’m touchy about being asked what I do for a living

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

In former times I had acquaintances of long standing, or even friends, who never once asked what I did for a job and neither did I ask them. In the new equitable era I seem to be always introduced to people who badly want to know before proceeding.

Here’s how it goes. We are introduced. We exchange platitudes. I am difficult to place on the social scale, it’s true. The accent, for one thing. The question is shamelessly put just after the off: ‘So what do you do?’

(I complained about it to my American friend Vernon. That’s nothing, he said. In the United States they ask you how much money you make before they let go of your hand.)

I used to tell these social scientists who asked straight away: ‘Fudge packer. And you?’ These days I take a ghoulish pleasure in revealing the truth. ‘Do you mean, what do I do for a job?’ ‘Yes, for a job.’ ‘Well, I sort of splash around in the shallow end of journalism. Why do you ask?’ ‘You’re a journalist then?’ ‘I am. Sort of.’

Presenting the face of a Zurbaran ascetic, I watch and I wait. Eventually it comes.

‘And for whom do you write?’

‘I write for a magazine,’ I say. Again I watch and wait. Less insensitive inquirers might at this point smell a rat. But in spite perhaps of a dawning realisation that as a definite parvenu I’m touchy about being asked what I do for a living within the first three minutes, the majority simply cannot help themselves.

‘And for whom do you write?’

I state the name of this august paper.

Every British expat in this neck of the woods not only takes The Spectator but also reads it from cover to cover each week and has done so for many years. Honestly, everyone. Even the Remainers. Mention the old lady’s name and it’s like lighting the touch paper and retiring. The reaction normally ranges from shock to disbelief to great huzzas of jubilation.

But from that moment the relationship is over. The self I might have revealed or projected; the slowly and pleasurably evolving friendship that could have lain ahead of us; the chance chemistry that might have attracted or repelled us, or both — you can forget it. From now on the relationship — if there is going to be one — is invariably absurd objectification on the one hand and an almost excess of non-pretence on the other. In either case, unfulfilling.

For about a week after each chemotherapy treatment I become this invalid secluded in the upstairs bedroom. After six o’clock each evening the convivial social round continues downstairs on the terrace. The guests come quietly and leave raucously, shouting pious valedictions up the stairs as they go. Or I might go downstairs and make a cameo appearance. The former Master of the Revels sits there with his metaphorical jester’s cap tattered and askew, his glass of wine untouched, his attitude one of resigned cosmic melancholy.

Last week an elderly Dublin couple brimming with wit and comedy came up for a drink on the terrace. They too wanted to know rather soon what I did. But they asked because they thought it polite and on the tacit understanding that every occupation is absurd. Only Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, in their smiling Irish eyes, was not absurd. She, they said seriously, was amazing. Since her visit there, the entire Republic of Ireland, they said, was secretly royalist. They’d not heard of The Spectator.

Next evening an American couple from Washington DC came up for a drink. Again I came downstairs to give them a glimpse, a gonk in pyjama shorts. He was a geologist, she a doctor. She was very talkative and enthusiastic. She said how embarrassed they were about Donald Trump and how glad they were to be away from the ‘madness’ of their native country.

The rock we lived in, said he, was petrified volcanic ash. He also told us about the Dunning-Kruger effect, a hypothetical cognitive bias in which those who know very little about a particular subject think they know a lot, while those who know a great deal think they know very little. Are you sure about that, I said? Their company and conversation was a succession of small civilities and interesting snippets such as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Neither asked me what I did. Perhaps they thought I was a full-time invalid. Therefore I liked them very much and stayed as long as I was able before excusing myself to return to the horizontal.

When I saw them again two days later, however, she said that she’d discovered that I wrote every week for The Spectator. Moreover she had been lent a few copies and had read them. She seemed badly shaken and spoke with less familiarity than before. But she was happy, she said gamely, to try sometimes to see the world from a different point of view.

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