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Sometimes I get incensed as I stare at the tattered remains of my brilliant career, clutching weakly at the frayed fringes of what I like to think I once had or might have been, before I moved far away from home to be with a man simply because I loved him. Would he have done the same? Well, he didn’t, which perhaps says enough.

Anyway.

I like to think I helped him with his destiny, but some days I feel I put my own destiny in a box in a cupboard then moved continents and forget it was there. It’s easy enough to do when you’re a woman in love, when there are children, when your salary is a pittance compared to his, but still, perhaps I left part of myself behind somewhere.

Or did I?
Do any of us have a destiny or do we just get lucky? Or unlucky?

My brilliant career such as it was — half-witted, half-hearted, half-baked, half-arsed, two-thirds fantasy even – seemed to die, but then so had so many careers before. I was a nurse briefly but loathed the polyester uniform and the broad, flat-footed lecturers with their pep-talks about avoiding intern doctors and their advances.  

I was a waitress and a barmaid, a bank clerk and a check-out girl, and I can do the twirly wrist thing that makes a fabulous peak on softserve ice-cream, thanks to my tenure in a dairy parlour called Milky Lane.

I was a journalist for many years, still am, I hope, and I had a great gig on a daily paper in South Africa, but, like I said, love got in the way. Or that’s my excuse. Maybe I got tired. Maybe I got lazy.

I’ve written three books, although I suppose they’re nothing more than manuscripts really, blinking computer files that no publisher wanted, yet still they taunt me every day on my hard drive.

And once, for a moment in time, I was even a poet…

I was 19 and working near Johannesburg at what was then Beecham, the Aquafresh people, and I was the bored receptionist living on a diet of Smarties, magazines and desperate snatched conversations with people who walked through my little prison, where I sat shut away from the company on the wrong side of the glass security doors. In my sunless brick box, passing sales reps felt like serendipity, their cheap Golfs were chariots to a better place. Anyway, no doubt tiring of me yawning at the visitors, the personnel department agreed to give me extra work, and so I was charged with sending the photocopied rejection letters to the countless, faceless people who applied for non-existent jobs in our factory. Remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where poor Charlie’s dad spends his days screwing the lids on toothpaste tubes? It’s bizarre to think how many people were queuing up to take his place. And we had a machine for screwing the lids on anyway.

So I’d address the standard rejection, scrawl a signature, lick the envelope shut, stick a stamp on it and crush someone else’s dreams, hundreds and hundreds of them each day. But one morning a grubby letter arrived with no return address, hand-printed on a torn sheet of paper, with just a plea to meet the writer at the factory gate, to give him work please, to give him a job.

The man was called Marais Qulu, of No Known Address, County Homeless. I showed it to the HR person, begged him to try to find the man.

“Jennie,” he said, “Do you know how many people queue outside the factory gates every day?”
The question was rhetorical.

I wrote a poem about it, or rather a terrible attempt at one, but still 21 years later I remember it by heart and, soaking in my cesspit of self-pity of late, it came back to me like a slap from my younger self.

Thousands queue for 200 jobs offered in Durban, South Africa. (Picture: Reuters)

It’s called “The Aims of a Job”:

Here I sit
fat as shit,
got a job
Grinning a bit.
Mister Marais Qulu
(he’s a Zulu)
has no job,
like you and I do:
“There is nothing food.
I am write this letter to you
with the aims of a job.

The writing is just as terrible as I recall, I don’t know if he was Zulu at all, but in the current world climate (lashing rain, with more expected) it’s just as apt. And as Japan is shaken and washed away, as people lose their homes, offices, possessions, security, children, their very lives just because the world doesn’t play fair, as they scramble for food, for fresh water, for warmth, I know how lucky I am that I can afford to stare out of the window, that I have the full tummy and the spare time to lament my battered dreams. A room of one’s own? My God, I have several.

Marais Qulu: in hope, I googled his name. No results were found.

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We did late dockets in our secondary school. There are variations elsewhere, I know – late slips (why dockets in ours, I’m not sure, unless it was along the lines of the ‘shifts’ in Synge’s Playboy of the Western World and they feared revolt amongst the demure young ladies of the school), black marks, late marks, points, minus points, demerits, order marks for your form (though I think that one might have only existed in the land of Enid Blyton). The trick was to be let off the hook by the receptionist, pleading some kind of crisis – or to sneak past if she was away from the front desk for a moment.

Of course, despite the late docket – the proof that you’d already been chastised, reprimanded, and had clocked up one more mark against yourself – some of the teachers would still frown and demand an explanation. Parents were often blamed, especially in those pre-Junior Cert years when they could be held responsible for so many things, before the Leaving Cert era of ‘it’s your future – it’s up to you’. Others, conscious of limited time in the classroom, skipped over such things and moved on with the class. If you accumulated enough of these dockets, you received the particularly apt punishment of early morning detention – an hour before school began on Friday morning.

It was understood that being late was something to be avoided, but as the years crept by it mattered less. A couple of the girls in the school had their own cars, and could talk about traffic and/or car trouble in terribly grown-up terms as they stood in their crest-adorned jumper and pleated skirt explaining why they were late. It started seeming like something ridiculous, to be given out for being late. As the exams drew closer it became more common to arrive after a first class had ended, if it wasn’t a favourite. For the exams themselves, of course, we were on time, there was no question about that – and if parents had been lax or treating their offspring like responsible human beings during the year, they were taking no chances with the almighty Leaving Cert.

In college, that great world of freedom beyond the walls of uptight schools, it was possible to skip classes entirely (depending on one’s course and institution, of course), and certainly it was inevitable that the first seven minutes of any lecture would be punctuated with shuffling latecomers finding a space – sometimes including the lecturer themselves. If you were meeting someone for coffee, the text message to let you know they’d been delayed was a not-uncommon experience. And then out in the alleged real world it was more of the same – I’ve never been to a talk that’s started at its designated time, never known a concert or stand-up comedy routine to begin anywhere close to the ‘show’ time on a ticket. Theatres are usually a little bit better – I was at the Gate recently and there were apologies to the audience for being kept waiting three minutes. People looked at their watches in bewilderment.

It is, of course, considered something of a social faux-pas to arrive at someone’s house within half an hour of the given time, unless food is being served. And if you’re meeting people for pints, unless it’s within ten minutes of their workplace and their designated workday, you’d be a fool to turn up on time. I’ve done more than my fair share of sitting at the bar, looking intently at my phone, trying to exude an air of aloofness rather than desperation, wondering why seven o’clock really means half-past eight and whether this should be something taught in schools when they’re teaching you how to read the time.

At work meetings and other engagements one is generally expected to arrive on time, but not early, and in fact it’s often proof of one’s busyness and importance if you’re late – so many people to see, so many things to sort out, so little time! I remember adults always seeming very busy, very busy indeed, when I was growing up, but I wonder whether it’s worse now – with the various things to occupy us (we need to keep up with our email, with our phone, with what the Internet is saying, now now now now) and various ways of letting people know that we will be delayed.

At twenty-five I see myself slipping into it more and more – the feeling that actually it isn’t worth apologising for being five minutes late, because no one else does. How terribly childish and schoolgirlish – no one’s going to hand out a late docket, we’re so beyond that. Turning up on time doesn’t mark you as an organised person – it’s an indicator of how little else you must have to do, what a leisurely life you must lead. Aren’t we all too busy to remember that there’s always traffic this time of day, or that we meant to get back to someone? Deadlines? Prioritise, bargain your way to extensions, plead whatever you need to – it’s just what has to be done. Who bothers praising punctuality? That’s one of the things in a reference that means they don’t have anything else to say, isn’t it?

But I do wonder – if we all had some equivalent to that early-morning detention, that needing to reorganise our schedule, no excuses, so that we absolutely simply had to be somewhere well before a time that had consistently proved such a hardship – what would happen.

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A couple of weeks after I’d started work in Dublin, a colleague-of-a-colleague asked to pick my brains about the British publishing industry. He’d written a few books for the Irish market and was keen to spread his wings. Could I put him in touch with someone in England?

No problems, I said. If you let me have the proposal, I’ll look through it, make any suggestions I think might help your chances in the bigger, more saturated UK market, and once you’re ready with that and your sample chapters, I’ll steer it towards the appropriate editor. Of course, since I didn’t know the publishing house’s forward schedule, I couldn’t tell him if his book would be a fit; but if the editor thought it might be, the proposal would go forward to the commissioning meeting for due diligence and then….

The would-be author, a successful businessman in his, I’m guessing, mid-fifties, cut me off. ‘Oh!’ he said (I’m paraphrasing here). ‘I don’t have any ideas for a book yet. I just wanted to work with a big British publisher. Can’t you introduce me to an editor who’d just agree to publish my book once I *did* have an idea? Doesn’t it work like that over there?’

I was reminded of this yesterday, listening to BBC Radio 4’s morning news show, ‘Today’. In a somewhere-in-the-middle news item about the Irish election, the presenter made an offhand reference to ‘the end of cronyism’. It pulled me up short. Not because of its incisive commentary (hardly) – but because it suddenly struck me, listening to the end of the report, that it’s so much harder than it sounds for the nation to achieve.

From the outside (by which, for these purposes, I mean England), it all looks so simple. Ireland got rich, people did each other favours that they really shouldn’t have; this behaviour should cease and desist instantly. Even the news I’ve seen from within Ireland seems to think this is the answer. To which I say, we’re missing the point.

The Irish mentality is hard-wired to lend a hand, to try to help each other out. To go back to my author-businessman story, I can see how it came about.  You want to write a book and become a British bestseller? No problem. I know someone who worked in that field. She’ll help you to do it. No matter if you have talent, the appropriate skills or, you know, an actual concept for a book; that’s all secondary.  From an English perspective, this looks utterly bonkers. But two successful businessmen thought this was more than reasonable, and looped me in.  Sound familiar?

(image c/o Zazzle) Right, who's first?

During my time in Ireland, I saw iterations of this ‘I know someone who can help’ mentality, in different aspects of daily life, time and again. And really, the sentiment is admirable. Why on earth *not* help someone if you can? I’ve been aided in this way, personally and professionally, more times than I can count. And in Ireland you see why the instinct is particularly strong; it’s a small country with historically large families; your degree of separation from everyone must be far fewer than the traditional six. So ‘helping someone’ in the abstract becomes, very quickly, helping your niece; or your boyfriend’s sister, or your sister’s boyfriend. Something that’ll make the next family gathering beyond awkward if you say no.

The American version of this, of course, is networking, where the emphasis has somehow shifted from how can I help others? to how can others help me? A logical consequence of arriving in the Land of Opportunity and needing the support of others to get on your feet, I suppose. But in Britain, where nepotism is a fate right up there with queue jumping, cronyism isn’t a close cousin of, well, helping your cousin. It’s wrong. And it’s absolutely not something you want in business.

We all know that whatever went on on that golf course, and doubtless in countless other situations we don’t know about, was desperate and should never have happened. But my point is this. When we’re looking to rebuild Ireland, especially those of us looking from the outside, we should think carefully before we insist the Irish give up the urge to help each other along. It’s a core component of the national  character, and when it’s not bringing down the Euro, we’re all incredibly pleased to be associated with it.

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