I used to despise and look down upon some people I know, because I’m not terribly nice like that, and because they were so determined that they would be the next Big Thing, a bright star in the world of proper literature or music or whatever, and I would despise and look down upon even more the people who thought they could do it and were really fish as big in the real world as they had seemed in their home ponds. I say ‘despise’ and ‘look down upon’, I’ll temper that by saying these were friends of mine, so my despite and looking down was usually pretty minor compared to how I felt about these people as friends. I’m going to use ‘despite’ in this sense because I think it’s right, if archaic. Yes, there are some people who I think genuinely could and can succeed in their chosen field; unsurprisingly they also tend to be the ones who are most aware that it takes a lot to stand out, and are least sure that they have it. There are or were also friends of mine who seemed to ‘just know’ that they would be published authors one day, or famous composers, or whatever, and reading or hearing the stuff they wrote it was and is easy to think, well, I write just as well, and that isn’t a compliment. (I’d like to say at this point that I feel horribly sorry for anyone called upon to mark A-level music coursework – facing up to the deluge of knock-off Einaudis out there must be pretty soul-destroying).
So you start writing stories from the moment you can pick up a pen? So you were able to sing before you completed a sentence? There are millions of kids like that. Millions of kids who could successfully dribble a ball before they could say ‘Daddy’ or whatever. I certainly wasn’t one of the latter; I’m pretty sure I still couldn’t successfully dribble a ball if I tried, be that in basketball or football.
I stopped believing at the age of about fifteen that I would ever be anything stand-out amazing in any given field. Not because I’m not clever or good at this, that and the other, but because there are plenty of people out there who really are a lot better, and who are prepared to do the work, and who really have something going for them. The nearest I guess I would have got was with music. When I was fifteen I was pretty good for my age (and I do regret that I didn’t do a diploma on the cello, just because) – but I stopped doing the practice, and I don’t mind, that’s that. If I really cared I would practice more but I am happy that I am good enough to be in my university orchestra and scrape through bits of the Elgar Cello with my dad once in a while. Or, reasonably happy. It would be better if it sounded better. But I knew long before I stopped working at it that if I had gone down the professional route I would have been at best fighting for a place in a decent orchestra, and struggling to make ends meet in various quartet gigs and peripatetic teaching posts at an assortment of public schools, travelling constantly and never particularly settled, and I knew that wasn’t what I wanted.
And now I am just confused by the people who, at twenty, still don’t seem to realise that they’re not the next big thing, and who would never settle for being just plain ordinary. Good enough to write for a local paper, or publish critical papers on this or that author, or be in a decent regional orchestra and occasionally perform the Bruch Violin with the local amateur orchestra in the town hall. Like I say, I do know some people who really won’t surprise me when they start making a splash in a few years time, appearing in the Times2arts review or appearing holding a baton and wearing a penguin suit in the Royal Albert Hall. But, well, as far as a lot people go… how long does it take you to realise that perhaps you’re not as big a fish as you thought you were?
I remember when I used to love bitching about people like this from the safety of my own mediocrity. And I’ve just realised that that particular hobby has lost the sharp-sweet thrill it used to have; and I’ve realised, maybe actually it took me right up until now to finally accept my own place in the pond as some kind of ground-sucking ray or something – you know, kind of cool, but there are a lot of us. It’s nice that these days my so-called ‘ambitions’ run no farther than 1) do well at this degree. I really would like a 2:1 and really I should be capable of a first if I pull my socks up a bit, and 2) whether it’s in journalism or something, or continuing within my field in a lab in either a pharmaceutical company (pick carefully to avoid ethical misdemeanours) or a university (well, ditto), getting a job in which I am challenged and in which I make some small difference to the good, somewhere in the world. Because I think they are reasonable expectations of myself, and I’m happy with that, and that makes me feel good, and I would wish that on others.
That entry should definitely have ended with the sentence on ground-sucking rays. That would have been delightfully weird. Ah well. More coffee, vicar?