Life, don’t talk to me about life

This week I have been talking to a lot of seventeen year olds about what to do with their lives.

This is part of my actual job, in case you were wondering. It isn’t a hobby or anything, stopping sixth formers in the street and asking what they want to be when they grow up. Although as hobbies go, that would be rewarding and certainly very cheap, with the added frisson of a possibility of a restraining order at some point.

And what do I advise these young people, fresh faced and panting on the threshold of adulthood. Which way is the world going, and how can they make the most of it? SHOULD they train as an economist, a quantity surveyor, an artist, a lawyer? (Those are different people, by the way, not one very confused youngster.)

Is it worth going to university at all? Should they just get a job (from where? good question) and not saddle themselves with a massive debt, or is a degree the only way to make your way in the world these days, the very bare minimum for anyone who wants to have a chance of material success and intellectual fulfilment in their work?

Christ I don’t know.

The truth is this: the more I see of the world, the less I understand it. If it’s one thing I have learned in the last twenty years, the rollercoaster ride of my adult life, is that nothing repeat NOTHING is predictable. Nothing at all.

This applies to personal lives as much as the Real Big Scary World. Relationships that seemed solid and everlasting end suddenly in a flurry of pain and recrimination. Death and injury and disease throw rocks in the paths of us all, and we trip, and we fall. And we get up again. And love – love is an unpredictable little bugger. It makes us all stupid, at some time or another. Ever fallen in love with someone, you shouldn’t have fallen in love with? I bet you have, even if you never admitted it to yourself.

And if you think teenagers behave ridiculously when they’re in love, well that’s nothing in comparison with the middle-aged gimmer who thought they were past it, feeling the fluttering of the wings of love again, and trying to grab hold of that flighty little butterfly, just in case it’s the last time.

I know so many real life stories of love sending people bonkers that – if I were to include them in a work of fiction – would be immediately rejected as stupidly unlikely and unbelievable. Yet they’re true. And I don’t even know the half of it, of course.

But the workings of the human heart can seem ploddingly predictable compared with the business world, the corporate merry go round. The examples are too numerous to mention them all, but every one of you can think of an example that is close to your heart. Ten years ago, I used to do some work for Natwest, an organisation so large, so powerful, so solidly permanent that we used to refer to it as The Bank. The humiliation and break up of The Bank that as a result of the banking crisis is so improbable to me that it can – even now – make me shake my head in wordless disbelief.

More painful is the sight of the brewery where I grew up. As a child, its imposing Victorian façade seemed like an impermeable castle. My mum worked there, my dad worked there, we lived in a tied house: my life revolved around it. Inside, we were safe. The family owned the town, more or less. Its logo was everywhere, its pubs were everywhere, even when we went on holiday, two hour’s drive away. Now it’s a crumbling ruin, abandoned and – yeah, you know this part – about to be redeveloped into flats. Curse you Greene King. As I drive around the area I grew up in, I try to screw up my eyes and imagine the pitheads that used to tower over and dominate the landscape – all gone, in their places scrubby nature reserves and stubby trees. It’s almost surreal.

And don’t get me started on Woolworths.

And in the wider world, the maps and boundaries I knew as a child are all shifted and jiggled and changed. The world turns, and the next thing Saddam Hussein is hiding in a hole and – incredibly, wonderfully – Gaddafi is on the run. Everything changes, and then nothing changes. Apartheid is abolished, but grinding poverty keeps the old barriers in place. The IRA gives up its arms, but peace in Northern Ireland stays brittle and fragile.

So what can I say to the young folk, who seem to think that my advanced age may have resulted in a little wisdom? (Fat chance.) What can I tell them? That the world is a surprising place. That time heals, but people don’t change, not really. That you had better learn to like yourself, because you are stuck with yourself and you are all you have to keep yourself company on the long and bumpy road. That the world is a complicated place and you can’t protect yourself from change and knocks and setbacks, but get yourself the best education you possibly can because no-one can take that away from you. Don’t let fear hold you back. In particular, don’t let the idea that everyone else knows what they’re doing hold you back – they don’t.

No one does. Not even me. Especially not me.

Chuck that five-year plan away and don’t even admit to the ten-year one. Actually don’t thrown it away, put it in a drawer and get it out in ten years time. God knows you will need a laugh by then. Life’s not a journey. On a journey you know the way. It’s set out for you. There’s a map. Maybe even one of those big ones that you can’t fold up without dislocating your arms. There no life-sat-nav that you can buy. No stilted voice will tell you to make a U Turn where possible.

Life’s a story and you tell it yourself. Make yourself the hero – why not? And make sure you write yourself some decent lines.

But for God’s sake don’t train as an economist. Give yourself a break, dear. When the revolution comes, those guys will be first against the wall.

About number6

I am not a number, I am a free woman. More or less.
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