Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Labourer's Advice

I remember reading an interview with someone who was currently the darling of the media. I can’t remember who he was or what he had done. Something to do with theatre, or opera, or fashion perhaps. All I can recall was him saying this: I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve never taken on any job that I didn’t want to do.

When I read this, my first thought was, I’m not sure you’ve been fortunate at all. Privileged perhaps but that’s not the same thing. In my experience you very often learn most from the things you don’t want to do.

When I was at university I worked on a building site in the summer holidays in order to make enough money to survive. I didn’t want to do it. I hated the work, mainly because I was a hopeless weakling who had spent the last eighteen years with his nose in a book.

I remember having to move a huge pile of paving stones on my first day. After I’d shifted about half a dozen, my back was aching and my soft, pink hands were torn and bleeding. But there were dozens more to shift so there was nothing for it but to keep picking them up and carrying them away. A few years later, however, I wrote a novel that featured a character who worked on a building site. It wasn’t hard to do because I knew all about it.

It was on that site that I began to understand properly that other people’s minds sometimes worked in very different ways to my own. That sounds a very obvious statement. Everyone is unique, after all. Surely I could have come to this relatively banal realisation just by looking around me – at the other people in my road, for example, or at the boys in my school, or the people in my church. Certainly I could have. But I didn’t. I was still a child.

The last Summer I worked on the site I was twenty-two and I was planning to get married in August. I was, and still remain, an incurable romantic and to say that I was in love with my wife-to-be is to make a considerable understatement. I was utterly crazy about her. One of my fellow students once said to me, ‘You really do worship the ground she treads on, don’t you?’ Without hesitation, I agreed.

It was known on the site that I was getting married and I was the butt of a number of jokes. Mostly well-meant but often very crude stuff. What really stuck in my mind though was when one of the other labourers, a short, square, block of a man with narrow mean-looking eyes, drew me aside and said, I hear you’re getting married. Let me give you a piece of advice.’

This was his advice. As soon as you’re married, give your wife a hell of a beating. Let her know who’s boss. After that you won’t have any trouble with her.

It wasn’t a joke. He was perfectly serious.

I was too stunned to reply. We stood there facing each other. He was looking me right in the eye, watching his advice sink in. Then he nodded and walked away.

I wouldn’t have had that experience if I hadn’t been working on the site. Perhaps you think that’s a good thing. I don’t. I think it’s important – especially for hopeless romantics who want to be novelists – to understand what really goes on in other people’s heads, and in other people’s lives.


Keren David said...

Completely and totally agree. How dull to have a life where nothing goes wrong and you never do anything you don't want to.

Paul Lamb said...

I've heard it said that every person's life is a complete book, and if we're lucky, we get to see a page or two of each others. Sometimes the pages we see are utterly boring, but sometimes they are so moving or insightful that we remember them always (for good or ill).

Aisley Crosse said...

Oh my gosh! I supposed I shouldn't be surprised by that, but I was, I am, I mean... wow. You've shown the perfect dichotomy of thoughts there. And it is that, small division of thoughts and views that fascinated me about people. People I wouldn't be exposed to if I was constantly able to chose who I was around, and for what purpose. Great post, but then again Brian, you always have such great posts!

Derek said...

Now I know why my partner beat the crap out of me when we moved in together - only kidding!
An experience is only useless if we don't make use of it. The most interesting biographies are those where the individual has travelled a circuitous path to get to where they are now.

Brian Keaney said...

Thanks Aisley (and everyone else). BTW Aisley, I love your quotes.

KC said...

Agreed! Especially in terms of how life experiences feed into novels. Stories thrive on hardships, conflict, peril and antagonism after all. That advice from the labourer is shocking, but then I've worked in odd jobs where casual sexism, racism, homophobia and bullyish behaviour is still a commonplace thing. I think that NOT being content with the world, work, society, etc, is part of what drives us to write.