Mark Twain put it like this: history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. I’ve been chewing over that gristle of wisdom ever since Sam took off on his travels. The era of the family holiday is over. I can’t complain, because once I went off to university, I too spent my summers far from home. Unlike my son, however, my summers never required a passport.
My three-month breaks were evenly divided between attempts to save the world-organising a quilting co-operative in Appalachia, teaching black teenagers from the Bronx how to read-and attempts to earn money to pay for the education that I hoped would make me a more competent saviour.
Those roles certainly never appeared on any CVs that I would concoct in later life. I hadn’t even thought about them until I began listening to the interval talks in this season’s Proms by writers on the theme ‘My Summer Job’. The first was by the American Joe Queenan, who described his job in the Fleer bubblegum factory in Philadelphia.
His was an impressive account, not only because he was offered a chance to enter the management-trainee programme, but he figured out that by taking on the onerous job of cleaning the metal funnel high above the factory floor, he could spend most of a shift reading. High in the rafters, far from the peering eyes of the supervisor, he read The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby and The Magnificent Ambersons.
Second in the series was Julia Blackburn, who was stranded in Majorca when she got a job as a lexicographer, writing dictionary definitions for H and L in English ‘as it is spoken’. The job freed her from a crippling awe of words, and as she made her way from ‘haphazard’ to ‘haze’, from ‘lop-sided’ to ‘loquacious’, she turned into a real writer.
I wish I could say the same. Dusting off memories of my summer jobs, the pattern that emerges is how regularly I was sacked. One summer, I was hired to tutor three little girls, aged 6, 8 and 10, whose entire experience of schooling had been at Summerhill in England. My job was to prepare them for entry into the American school system. All they learned from me was how to make pancakes, execute a perfect back dive, and sing Stop! In the Name of Love as lustily as The Supremes, a performance that didn’t persuade my employer that I was a suitable governess.
My next job was the National Utility Service, a company started by a Mr Maynard, who realised that utility suppliers weren’t required to provide their customers with cost-effective rates, that finding the ‘best rate’ was up to the consumer. My mornings were spent trawling through listings in Standard & Poor’s for companies that would benefit from scrutiny of their utility bills.
In the afternoons, I worked in the mail room franking the hundreds of letters to be sent to prospective customers. One day, I discovered that I could adjust the company logo on the machine. I carefully inserted the letter F in front of Utility, then watched as hundreds of letters plopped into the mailbags, each franked with the required postage of five cents and the inscription ‘National Futility Service’. A telegram informed me that my services were no longer required.
My summer jobs didn’t make me a writer, but I learned that being sacked, even from a job you hate, feels awful. And while I was writing this, I realised the truth in the saying that a job, like life, is what you make it.
I Googled the National Utility Service to see if it still exists. It’s now a global company with offices around the world, advising 20,000 clients. The driving force behind the company’s growth was Sarkis Soultanian, who became president in 1986 and bought the company from the founder in 1990. He began working at the company while studying for an accounting degree at Queen’s College. His first job was in the mail room.