“Wanted: Experienced male window-dresser. 20+, full clean driving licence. Must be prepared to travel.”
Back in the days when one could advertise for precisely the staff member you wanted without the risk of appearing politically incorrect, that was the advert that caught my eye. To be fair, at just 16, with examination results still months away and no possibility of staying in education, I was looking at anything and everything, applying for jobs as varied as dental nurse and milkmaid. In spite of the expectations a Grammar School education might have raised, the family couldn’t afford for me to stay on at school. I needed a job. Any job. Even then, I was aware that probabilities were a numbers game; the more I applied for, the more chance I had of getting at least as far as an interview.
By this time, I had only a couple of months left at school… and so did everyone else leaving that year. I needed to get in early. Even so, “I can’t apply for that…what a pity.” “Why not?” Asked my mother. “You won’t get it, but you can always apply.” I wrote the letter, in spite of the fact I was an inexperienced female, far too young, who had never travelled and who would be ineligible for a driving licence for another two years. It couldn’t hurt. The letter was posted, along with the daily sheaf of others and promptly forgotten about. Until they called me in for interview.
I can even remember the brown, birds-eye tweed suit that I wore… nicely tailored but smelling of wet dog whenever it rained. I took a seat in the reception area with half a dozen professional and arty young men and felt ridiculous. They exchanged experiences, talking about their training and previous positions. I’d worked in a butcher’s after school since I was twelve. I shouldn’t have come.
I was the last to be shown to the office of the owner of the business. I’d done my research as best I could in those pre-internet days. He and his brother had started on the market stalls a couple of decades before and now owned several chains of menswear stores across the north and drove a Rolls Royce apiece. I felt very small and out of place as he faced me across the big desk and folded his hands. He looked at me in silence for a while. Me, the little brown mouse who wouldn’t say boo to the proverbial goose… I shrank inside, wishing fervently that I hadn’t been this stupid.
He read the advert out loud, pausing to look at me with raised brows with every requirement I failed to meet. Which was all of them. He smoothed the sheet of paper and pinned me with his eyes. “What have you got to say for yourself? Why should I hire you?”
I will never know where it came from or why… neither confidence nor arrogance were any part of the timid creature in tweed. To call me a mouse was unfair… mice have a certain amount of audacity.
I held out my hand… “Give me a pen and paper and I’ll show you.”
I spent the rest of the interview answering a barrage of questions and piling up sketch after sketch of fashion designs. He looked at the last one as I placed it on the pile. “I can’t offer you the job, I’m afraid.” It was no surprise really. Only getting an interview at all had been a surprise. I stood to leave. “But I’ll create one for you…”
I sat back down, open mouthed, as he outlined his plans. Then left the building on winged feet. I would work with the teams, train fully and travel alone to deal with the window crises in each shop as they arose. And for the next few years he worked my socks off… I ended up training the new window dressers as they came in… had a lot of fun and became a darned good window dresser.
So why the sudden memories? Well, I picked up a book of poetry from the shelf and read Keats for a while. John Keats is one of the best loved English poets and was a leading figure in the second generation of the Romantic movement. Almost everyone will recognise his work, even if they do not know its source, and Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci has a particular resonance at present as we work on the April workshop.
So where’s the connection between one of the great poets and a schoolgirl luckier than she could imagine? Well, Keats was doing something he ‘shouldn’t’ too.
Born to the family of an ostler turned innkeeper and trained to become a surgeon, Keats’ passion lay in poetry. He should have been a doctor. He was, by all accounts, good at it. And anyway, he was way too young at that point to have anything to say that was worth reading. Great writers need to live before they can write… experiencing the world and its emotions, growing from childhood to adulthood and beyond. While all writers seem to start scribbling when young, there is a general acceptance that it is only in later life that the great œuvres will flow from their pen. It is a common dictum that one should not seriously write when ‘too young’… writers should have lived something to say.
Keats, acquiring his apothecary’s licence, quit medicine to write. Lacking a paying career, he struggled financially all his life, unaware, it seems, of the legacies left to him that would have eased his situation. In 1816 Leigh Hunt agreed to publish one of his poems in a magazine. Other works followed, securing Keats’ place in literary history. He died in 1821. Aged just 25. Far too young to be a ‘real’ poet… or so young writers are now told. About the same age as Wilfred Owen, in fact. Arthur Rimbaud stopped writing at 21.
So who says you ‘can’t’?
We live in a world of ‘ought to’, where expectations are piled upon us, if not by those closest to us, then by our society itself which sets the tram lines we conform to with little thought most of the time. The expectations of others, though, are not what holds us back. We choose to meet those expectations… or to try our best…or not, as the case may be.
We expect a certain normality of ourselves, often without realising that ‘normality’ is unique to each one of us. In effect, we accept the confines of barriers that no-one has actually imposed upon us, simply because we are aware of what we think we ‘ought’ to do and be. What truly holds us back are the constricting and limiting expectations that we draw around ourselves. We decide what we cannot do… yet it is only when we overstep those lines we have drawn in the sand that we find out what we can do.
For me, landing that job taught me more than just how to dress a window. It taught me to have confidence in my own instincts, to stand up for the things I thought were right, to defend a principle and most importantly, to believe I could do more than I believed and be things I ‘shouldn’t’ be. I have often wondered if the academic route I ‘should’ have taken would have taught me half as much.
Next time you feel you can’t do something, don’t ask yourself, ‘why not’… just ask yourself, ‘who says?’ The answer is probably very close to hand…