“You may be Shakespeare, but get yourself a job first.”
My mother’s advice has guided and bounded my life since I first told her I wanted to write for a living at the age of twelve. The advice was born out of her own experience, the curious mix of aristocratic and working class sensibility with which she was imbued.
During my childhood we were proudly, honourably working class folk. My mother had a clerical job in a bank, and before that had worked in a factory, a green grocer’s stall and a dry cleaner’s shop. In contrast my mother was born in a palace in India, which at the time still retained some vestiges of the wealth and influence of her family’s glory days.
She watched as the diversion of wealth: the fascination with language and poetry and lifetimes spent indulging it, was retained long after the wealth had gone. She saw indolence and inaction fritter away the estates and her uncle fighting a desperate, lone rearguard action to slow the inevitable decline, while the rest of the family looked on unwilling to believe that what had taken centuries to build could be so rapidly lost.
More of decline and fall, and indeed that ancient heyday in other posts. Suffice it to say that my mother’s sentiment was borne out of watching orchards being sold off while her elders discussed Persian poetry, and her own experience of knowing what it took to secure financial stability.
I started full time employment at the age of 21, and worked until I was 40. In between my brother and I managed to convince our mother that she should retire, despite her protestations. Marriage, house, children followed in that order, and then I hit the age milestone and my elder daughter said “We only see you when you are tired.”
I’m not sure I can explain how strongly that statement affected me. As a child I would wait by the window of our terraced house and watch out for my mother coming home from work. We forced her to retire so she could enjoy the livelihood she had worked so hard to secure. Yet here, with the benefit of that security all my daughter would take away about me from her formative years was seeing a tired man at the end of the working day.
It made me realise I wanted to be more than the breadwinner, I wanted to spend time being a father, I still wanted to be a writer, I wanted to build a treehouse for my kids to play in.
I stopped work in June of that year with modest savings and no plan for how the world would work in the time to follow, other than trusting in my experience.
I took over the school run in the mornings to give my wife a break from the routine, and spend those precious chatty morning minutes with the kids. I’d frequently do the pick up as well, walking home with each daughter holding a hand and listening to the stories of their days.
I built a treehouse. It’s actually a platform on stilts because the pear tree in the garden might not be strong enough. It took weeks, I had no plans, no tutorials other than the DIYing and carpentry I had picked up over the years, and a whole load of ambition.
I wrote two books. I have given away more copies than I have sold, but I wrote them, they exist. My name is on more than just a few emails on an office server somewhere.
And things worked out, I’m back in a job, and if money is a little tighter than it was before, at least there is something to show for the time I took off.
If that is a little smug, a little not about the regret of not doing, but the pleasure of finally doing it, well I’ll say I earned it. And as the royalty cheques haven’t been rolling in, I’m glad I did it Mum’s way.