This short story was a third and final chapter in the life of Oliver, a semi-autobiographical character whose misfortunes I greatly enjoyed charting in a variety of circumstances. Indecisive, snobbish and self-important, Oliver also has the more positive qualities of being intelligent and romantic, if in an all-too autistic fashion. The story needs to be fleshed out more and is more of a sketch than anything else. It is also dependent, to some degree, on being united with its predecessors. I have, however, other plans for the fate of this character, thus making this installment redundant.
The Benefits of a Broad Education
Oliver’s thoughts were on Wordsworth as he sat in the box office, for he had just finished reading Lyrical Ballads. The poems had left him with a feeling both beautiful and sad, and he was pleased in the late afternoon that business was quiet. It was a perfect prelude to the busy evening to come, when customers would arrive in droves to collect their tickets for the night’s performance.
At around seven two young couples, whom Oliver guessed to be just out of school, approached the counter. While taking an order from one of the girls, he could not help overhearing the loud and slightly inebriated conversation of the other three.
“So what’s Greg doing at university?” asked the other girl.
“He’s doing history,” said one of the young men.
“Like, why?” said the girl, with such astonishment that Oliver felt a stab in the breast.
“Hell knows,” said the young man. “He’s always been into that sort of stuff.”
“Yeah, but like why?” said the girl. “What’s the point of doing history? What’s he supposed to do with that?”
“I don’t know,” replied the young man. “It’s like Arts full stop, what’s that going to get you? It’s a total waste of time.”
Oliver kept his cool. He was sorely tempted to speak in defence of the arts, yet was tired now and did not feel sufficiently articulate. In fact he was sorely tempted to bash them all over the head and drag them off somewhere to be quietly gassed. So often in his life he had come across people with the same attitude and he had wanted to murder every single one of them. They were clearly beyond redemption as human beings, if indeed, they were human to begin with. His ire was rising and his neck was reddening, but he caught himself just in time. No, no, he cautioned internally, heart pumping fast, he was being unfair. They were ignorant and naïve, they had been brainwashed by materialism and acquisitiveness. It was re-education that they required, not extermination.
Following on from this caveat to himself, and in spite of the burning hostility in his breast, Oliver’s thoughts took on a more charitable aspect. He longed to tell them of the benefits, both to the individual and society, of a broad and specific education in the arts. Yet, as such words hovered, not so much on the tip of his tongue as at the back of his throat, it struck him that were he to mention having a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge, and add to that the observation that he found the study of history both fulfilling and worthwhile, they would have immediately pointed out to him that he was working in the box office of a theatre. Perhaps they had a point after all.
When the young customers had departed and the strange mix of rage and shame had settled down in him, Oliver was left soul searching. What was he doing with his life? What was his story? He wasn’t by any means useless; indeed, he regarded himself as rather versatile, having majored in Literature as well. But still, what was his story? What was he doing? If there was one thing the study of literature had taught him, it was that from start to finish a story must demonstrate a process of transformation in the main character; bringing them to a new understanding of themselves or their circumstances. There had to be a trajectory of sorts – the character arc – for surely that is the nature of a story; to start one place and finish somewhere else.
Yet what, Oliver asked himself, was his own character arc? He had been through many emotional ups and downs and seen significant changes to his circumstances, yet had he changed at all or was he more than ever himself? If the latter, could that be considered change? He had resigned himself to a fate of diminishing returns, yet was that progress or change of emphasis? He had to grab at things faster and faster, his relationships grew shorter and shorter and he had less time for making amends when things were not working. Yet was that change or acceleration?
Oliver had always been a man of phases and, in reflection, it seemed to him that for the last few years he had merely switched between old and understood phases with varying degrees of intensity; work, play, obsession, mission, lust and asexuality. His life was not an arc, but a dial. It was a turntable. Nothing really changed him, but the disc kept spinning. It wasn’t a lack of experience, but rather a consequence of having experience. Indeed, Oliver felt so saturated by experience that he did not see how anything could change him without being extremely traumatic.
What was to be done? What might shake him from his torpor?
Oliver sat at his desk, furiously tapping his leg up and down. He felt a great, energetic, vigorous disappointment. Soon, however, the stream of customers had him on his feet again; twirling, stretching, fetching their tickets from the bench upon which they were arranged. He smiled and exuded good cheer, yet behind the helpful eyes his displeasure was paramount.
How angry that girl’s comments had made him! If she and her friends lacked the foresight to see just what one might do with a mind geared for lateral thinking, for query and inquisition, then it was time someone got up and showed them.
In Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth he makes the point that ten to fifteen years from now there will be no more snows of Kilimanjaro. How is it possible that things could have come to such a pass? Will nature one day be merely a subject for nostalgia?
William Wordsworth had just an inkling of what we were doing. He knew the way things were going when he walked through the smog and stink of industrial London. He’d seen the hellish fires across France as well, seen the towers of smoke and plume. It was clear to him that industry had entered a phase of expansion and intensification that was liable to be ongoing and, if left unchecked, potentially devastating.
In itself, industry on a large scale was nothing new. The Romans had built factories too; huge industrial workshops for beating out thousands upon thousands of swords and shields; great mints for smelting metals and clinking out coins; foundries, tanners, whole hillsides of waterwheels for the mass production of flour. Yet, the scale of Roman industry was hampered by the comparatively primitive nature of their mining and exploration. Most don’t realise that the curious pocks hacked into the masonry of ancient buildings were caused by thieves seeking scrap; the lead-coated braces of iron that secured the stone blocks. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, and tin, though plentiful in China, was extremely rare in the west. By the sixth century, the classical world had run significantly short of metal.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, new sources of raw materials sprang up like mushrooms after imperial rain and Wordsworth found himself choking. He saw what monstrous tumours were growing in the hearts of the towns and called upon his contemporaries to return to the earth. He saw just how greatly the conditions and consequences of industry were degrading the human condition and he exhorted people to fill their lives with natural beauty.
His poems, therefore, as much as they were a genuinely heartfelt celebration of the wonders of nature, were a reaction against the industrial revolution. For many years his contemporaries laughed him off as childish and unrealistic; coy and “namby pamby”. His poetry was roundly dismissed as so much dreamy claptrap, just as, until very recently, the greens were so often dismissed as a bunch of unrealistic lunatics.
Yet, whilst Wordsworth rebelled against the destruction of the human soul and the turning of people into termites; while he recoiled from the blight of the towns and the smog and the slurry, unlike the green movement he could never have imagined that whole natural vistas could actually turn to deserts; that once snow-capped mountains, whose thaws fed vital rivers, might be snow-capped no more and the rivers vanish. Nature was surely too great, too powerful, to be affected this way. Could mankind truly create a wasteland? For Wordsworth the more obvious and immediate concern was the wasteland of the soul. We might have divorced ourselves from nature, but surely we could not destroy it altogether.
“Oh, Nature,” thought Oliver, channelling Wordsworth as he sat out the end of his shift staring at the cover of Lyrical Ballads with its watercolour of the Lakes District, “how often have our spirits turned from thee!”
It was to prove a fateful evening for Oliver. As they were about to close the doors of the box office, a tall, tanned, middle-aged man walked in, wishing to purchase tickets for a concert the following week. While Oliver took care of the transaction, the customer stood examining the large, colour photograph of the interior of the venue, displayed beside the counter.
“So, for a standing show,” asked the man, “all the seating comes out downstairs, is that correct?”
“Spot on,” said Oliver, looking up from his monitor.
“And the only seating for this show is on the balcony?”
“So, how does it work? Do you mean that every time you have a standing show, someone has to take all of those seats out and put them back in the next day?”
“Pretty much. They often go from standing to seating and back again on consecutive nights. It can go on like that for weeks, until we get a longer running show.”
“My god,” said the man, “that’s gotta be a hell of a job, to have to do that every day.”
“Yeah,” said Oliver. “Strange, but I never really thought of it like that.”
He leaned back in his chair.
“It’s a hell of a job,” the man said again.
“It does seem like a hell of a job,” said Oliver, “but then, the world is full of awful jobs, isn’t it? I mean, some people cut the heads off fish for a living, others shovel manure, some have to patrol war zones; in the scale of things, it’s not so bad.”
“I suppose not. Though that all depends on how much you get paid for it.”
“Not a lot, I imagine,” said Oliver. “And anyway, that’s not necessarily any consolation. I think it was Aristotle who said that all paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.”
“Well, you wouldn’t catch me doing it.”
“No,” said Oliver, “I guess not.”
Cycling through the streets of Cambridge on the way home that evening, Oliver pondered the spiritual penury of his circumstances. He was a nobody who was doing nothing to save a dying world; a nobody whose education ought to cut him out for greater things; a person whose wisdom should find a more practical application. He saw himself as a wasted resource, an untapped vein, and if it wasn’t his wisdom or education they needed, then hell, surely someone, somewhere, working for a good cause must need a spare pair of hands?
Oliver was a man who had played a lot of role-playing games in his thirty-two years on the planet and, almost invariably, he played a bard or minstrel character. The ultimate jack of all trades and master of none, bards were the show-ponies of the adventuring world; all lyrics and no action, they added more colour than punch. It was no great leap of the imagination for Oliver to see the parallel between himself and his avatars, and though this occasionally made him feel effete and useless, he did at times remind himself of the true greatness of bards: not only did they significantly boost morale, they were famed for their knowledge of lore and could try their hand at anything.
Perhaps, he wondered, it was really his context that was at fault. For the last two years he had been unable to find any work in his field, and outside of it, nothing that was morally, ethically, or intellectually stimulating. This had, admittedly, a good deal to do with his over-qualification, his lack of practical experience, and a certain unwillingness to compromise by committing himself to anything distastefully serious. Yet he found himself increasingly blaming not merely the particular city in which he dwelt, but the entire country.
Perhaps, he reasoned, in some troubled land, the absence of properly qualified people might allow for their substitution with intelligent, lateral thinkers. Must he now go in search of such a land? Must he join a team of adventurers who were off on some vital quest to save a people, a nation, or indeed, the entire planet? The planet was dying, people were dying. He had heard and ignored the call of the trumpet all his life and now the trumpet was blowing louder than ever! Yes, thought Oliver, pushing his way through the cool, thin evening, balancing the ideas and emotions that had assailed him that day, it was time to take up the reins of adventure.
He stopped a moment to chide himself. Was it right to make vital decisions such as this whilst examining his life through the prism of fantasy role-playing? Wasn’t he the first person to criticise misguided, foolhardy, romantic adventurism? Had he not just recently argued that the real reason Tony Blair went to war in Iraq was because his favourite novel is Ivanhoe?
“The imperial romance,” said Oliver aloud, “the fairytale of the damsel in distress. Huh! But these people run the world. Well, the hell with them,” he muttered, wheeling his bike across the footbridge over the lock, “if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. Why can’t I have a crack at rescuing the world as well?”
His voice went unheard; lost in the winds that swept the empty dark of Jesus Green.
When the ice-shelf gave way, Oliver knew instantly that it was all over. Curiosity had caught him out, trying to take a photograph he should never have attempted. Still, how was he to know when his luck would run out?
Tumbling head-first into the crevasse, he emitted a piercing cry. This time, his voice did not go unheard, though his colleagues from the Scott Polar Research Institute were in no position to help him. They had told him not to go, told him that it was risky, and still he went, though he was not a reckless person; not normally anyway. Perhaps, given time, he might have become one. The mission would have to end now, and soon his colleagues would all leave Greenland. Had he survived the fall, he might have wondered at how, in the end, he had come only to hamper the efforts of the true. So much for volunteering to make a difference! So much for the dabblers of this world! How often fate can be cruel to them; how often it turns out that they are, after all, just in the way of everyone else.