What Exactly is Your Job?

Last weekend, I had the joy of seeing members of the Norwich Stonemasons' Guild perform a Mystery Play outside the doors of the Cathedral.  It was a warm, sunny afternoon, a brief summer interlude before putting our coats, scarves and gloves back on in time for June.  The first Mystery Play to be acted by a Norwich guild for five hundred years – Cain & Abel.

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As an eager crowd gathered outside the Mediaeval Benedictine cathedral, the Beadle of the Guild, in his black velvet cap and cloak, and gold-tipped staff, announced, in imperative tones, "You will enjoy it. You will laugh," triggering the first giggles among the willing audience.

I couldn't begin to describe the sheer delight and fun of this ten-minute performance.  I couldn't do justice to its highly imaginative props, to the brightly-coloured, makeshift set, to the hysterically funny performance by the actors, who, fuelled by the audience's laughter, gave into corpsing themselves, thereby increasing the overall giggling.  There was something so earthy about the whole event, so uniting.  Inevitably, I thought of the Mechanicals of Athens performing Pyramus and Thisbe.  An unwitting trigger to laughter was also the organ player in the Cathedral, where that evening's concert was being rehearsed, whose notes from Fauré's Requiem thundered through the stone walls at a couple of appropriate Biblical moments.

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At the end of the performance, after the cheers and bows, the Clerk came on and spoke of the history of this Guild, and repeated the last line of the performance, "Perfection in an imperfect world." Summa Inter Mediocria, the St Stephen and St George's Guild motto.

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These words sent a tingle up my spine.  I often walk past the Church of St Clement, and catch a glimpse of the stonemasons at work, complete with their square white caps.  Everything about their body language and that of the Master Stonemason who supervises them oozes something we seldom see nowadays: fierce pride in one's work.  A refusal to produce anything less than as perfect a job as any human can aspire to.

Over the days that followed, I pondered over something that has been much on my mind, recently.  Job titles.  Pride in one's job. A sense of achievement when performing a task.  The refusal to compromise quality and "make do".

Stonemason.  Baker.  Translator.  Writer.  Carpenter.  Lawyer.  Priest.  Journalist.  Teacher.  Actor.  The words immediately tells me clearly what the jobs entail.  It took me ages to work out what a CEO did.  Chief Executive Officer.  What's that? What's wrong with "boss"? Or MD.  Managing Director.  What is "manage", exactly? Is it to regulate? To direct? To organise? When I taught Business English, the majority of my clients' job titles weren't words but abbreviations.  I often had to ask them what they did exactly and, in most cases, still couldn't put my finger on what precisely their professions involved.  After many a lengthy explanation, I frequently yearned to ask "What do you actually make? What is the tangible, physical result of your work?"

I once worked for an oil company for two months.  The second month was to work out my notice.  My job title was also an abbreviation.  Much of it seemed to involve entering long serial numbers into a computer.  I wasn't quite sure why.  One day, when one of the top honchos of the company circulated through our department, shaking everyone's hand, and asking what they did, I embarrassed myself.  His question suddenly stumped me and I replied, "I don't know.  I'm not really sure what I do." He laughed politely, probably assuming I was joking, but I was totally serious.  Inappropriate for the occasion, but serious.  I had no idea what I actually did.  I couldn't be proud of a job I didn't understand.

Recently, at the London Book Fair, I asked a woman if she was a publisher.  She replied, "No.  I facilitate publishing."

I stared, totally at a loss.  What's "facilitating publishing" when it's at home?

In one of the very executive London language schools I used to teach ("executive" – another hermetic word for me – executing what?), we weren't called teachers but "trainers".  I wondered if the management considered the word "teacher" to be too authoritative, too passé, or – what the heck – too politically incorrect.  Similarly, students were referred to as "course participants".  I went around feeling like a rubber sports shoe, facilitating learning rather than teaching – which is what I'd signed up to do when I qualified in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (there, the word is "teaching"!).  As for "course participants" as opposed to "students", the difference in connotation made me somewhat uncomfortable, the latter suggesting in my mind individuals who were simply required to attend my classes and not necessarily learn from them.

Other job titles that have recently puzzled me are "Community Banker" referring to the advisors/clerks at my local bank, "Presentation Team" printed on the uniforms of cleaners,   and anything with the nouns "Consultant", "Executive", "Corporate" and "Officer" (outside the military) attached.

Stonemason.  Baker.  Translator.  Writer.  Carpenter.  Lawyer.  Priest.  Journalist.  Teacher.  Actor.  These I understand.  But perhaps I'm too simple-minded.

Scribe Doll

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Luxembourg Wine

In Anglo-Viking-Flemish Norwich, a Londoner and a Roman invited a Venetian for dinner at their home.  The Venetian had some Austrian, Spanish, and Moroccan blood, the Londoner originally came from a Polish-Jewish family, and the Roman was of Armenian-Welsh-Cornish descent.  All three were Europeans to the core.

 

While the meal – a Sicilian dish – was simmering in the kitchen, the hosts and their guest sat in the living room, chatting in an English interspersed with Italian words, and an Italian with the odd English expression slipped in, listening to a Bruxellois singer on CD, and sipping wine from Luxembourg.  A smooth, silky, golden, elegant Riesling with a twinkle in the eye.  It had been sent courtesy of a newly-formed acquaintance who was not only very knowledgeable about classical music but – all three agreed – clearly a connaisseur of good wine.

 

There was a strong difference of opinion regarding the absence, in English grammar, of gender for nouns.  The Venetian argued that this lack made English colourless.  The Londoner insisted that there was no logic in arbitrarily deciding that a chair was "she", a book "he", or vice-versa.  The Roman expressed outrage that animals should be referred to as "it", as though they were inanimate objects, then went all sentimental when mentioning that in Russian, белка – squirrel – was feminine. 

"Why? Don't they have any male squirrels in Russia?" the Londoner asked.

"In Italian, scoiattolo is masculine," said the Venetian.

"So are all Italian squirrels female, then?" the Londoner enquired.

 

Nobody answered his questions and, during the brief pause in the conversation, the Roman brought in a steaming bowl of pasta with Sicilian caponata, into which she had stirred some creamy French goat's cheese.  They all tucked into this dinner, the ingredients of which had been thought up by Jews, Chinese, Normans, Arabs and North Americans – in other words, a European dinner.

 

As they ate, they discussed travel.  It's only an hour's flight to Amsterdam, or Paris, or Hamburg.  You're an hour away from Dutch, French and German.  Here, we don't fly for hours and hours and still hear the same language when we land.  Because our small continent is like the colourful pattern of Harlequin's costume, with lozenges of different, contrasting colours, all sewn together.  Over the centuries, we have complemented one another, enriched one another, challenged one another's comfort zones.  Foreign winds have blown new seeds onto our lands, and sprouted into new fruits, and our winds have carried our seeds abroad.  We have destroyed any dams that threatened to turn our limpid, gurgling rivers into stagnant, smelly ponds.  We have knocked down fortresses that imprisoned people within their walls and restricted their human rights.     

 

"Oh, look, there's still some Luxembourg Riesling left," says the Roman, toying with her napkin, wondering what she's going to do with all the food left over despite everybody's triple helpings.  

The Londoner picks up the slender bottle and pours the remaining golden liquid into the three glasses in equal measures.  "What shall we drink to?" he asks.

"To this wine – from a country none of us has been to – for bringing us all together this evening," the Venetian suggests.

"To peace and unity within this dear Old Continent," the Roman adds, raising her glass.

 

 

Scribe Doll      

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