‘I hope there are theatres wherever she goes on to,’ I wrote, when I learned that my mum’s elderly neighbour had died. The afterlife would be no heaven for Pat if it was a mere resting place, devoid of art, entertainment and gossip.* I don’t know everything about Pat, but I remember this: as a young woman she got into RADA (Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art) and her father forbade her from attending. Something about actresses not being entirely respectable. It was probably the late 1950s or early 60s, when Dames Judy (Dench) and Vanessa (Redgrave) were beginning to hit their stride, an untimely period to squander this opportunity to fear and small-mindedness. Who knows what would have happened if Pat had been allowed to take her place? Her talents might have made her another Dame of the Realm; she could have joined a low-budget travelling theatre group and slept on cold creaky floors all around the country; or jacked it all in to marry the first Stage Door hound who asked. She might have been happier or less so, or both at different times. I wonder what her ghost will do, if it has a choice.
Careers are born when talent meets opportunity. In my view, talent always meets with opportunity; it just might not be the one you anticipated. In the arts, opportunities are rarely tailored to individuals as snugly as Cinderella’s slipper matches her foot. Most art practitioners, curators and academics are clomping around in odd-fitting roles. Sometimes you can feel too big for the tiny, Miss-Havisham-sized boots that have been assigned to you. You’re boxed in, blistered and unable to grow. At other times, your little feet might be pacing through a multitasking army of boots that would better suit a human centipede. Given the grail-like scarcity of a fulfilling, decent-paying role, square pegs are filing down their idiosyncratically calloused edges to fit the prescribed round hole. There’s this sense that steady, even career progression doesn’t exist- you have to acquire training and experience, promote your work and then the rest is down to canniness and fortune. It’s a wonder arts professionals don’t go about with a string of good-luck charms.
There are a disproportionate number of stories about people risking everything for love, but in my lifetime, I’ve seen people do bolder and madder things for art. Here is a select list of impassioned acts: working four days a week, full-time, unpaid, to gain experience, at the same time as finishing a masters (that was me); leaving your well-paid, secure job to make or research something with erratic returns; moving an ocean and maybe a few continents away from everything you know to pursue training and opportunities which will leave you with unfathomable levels of debt; making a criminally low salary s-t-r-e-t-c-h to cover rent, living expenses and the occasional perk in one of the most expensive cities in the world; saving money and gaining bohemian kudos by staying in the same room as a couple, separated from them by a partition so thin, you can tell they’re not having relations; holding out for that one perfect job in your industry, though someone might have to retire or die for you to get it; setting yourself the task of completing something nearly impossible, whether it be a theoretically nuanced survey of Tudor brooms or an initiative to revive the cod-piece for a new generation.
The subsistence theme crops up in almost every example, because most arts practitioners feel that at least half their creative energy goes into making ends meet. In fact, the stories of how people stay afloat whilst serving the Muse, are often more engrossing than the art itself. How much are people willing to yield to sometimes nonsensical conditions to further their goal? Everyone comes to know their limits. I soon learned that working unpaid for other people doesn’t agree with me. Apparently it’s meant to make you feel beatific with self-sacrifice and gratitude. It never worked out that way for me. Instead, it made me broke, anxious and gluten-intolerant. The latter was especially cruel, because bread and pasta cost less than the lentils and nuts I had to replace them with. (FYI, I was able to eat toast again as soon as the exploitation stopped). But the worst symptom of all, was that a previous delight had become a burden, a guilty excuse for not finding a decently-paying job that served society more transparently.
Some years later, I’m serving a different muse, more a Calliope (epic poetry) than a Clio (history), and have taken earning into my own hands. To the great shock of some employers, I insist on knowing (and sometimes naming) my salary out-right. It can be tight and my tax return, which has to account for so many different income streams, is an epic to work through in itself. But, it’s a path I’ve wanted and was free to choose, where Pat wasn’t.
*As a teenager, I remember my friend saying that she thought heaven wouldn’t be the generic glowing place but the deceased’s personal idea of bliss. For both of us, that was New York, a city we’d never visited, but had been sold to us through sitcoms, Alicia Keys and advertising. To this day, each time I take my first steps in New York after a hell journey, I float in a jet-lagged haze, where everything, from the fire-escapes to the drains is tinged with wonder. I feel an almost divine rush of energy from my feet to the crown of my head, like I’m priming myself for miracles. And each time I leave, I get depressed because it’s an expulsion from Paradise.