I still get a hot flush of embarrassment when I recall my first interview. It was for a summer job at Selfridges in London when I was 17. The lady from personnel asked me how my friends would describe me. Maybe it was the heat or nerves but all I could think of was the funeral oration by John Hannah’s character in Four Weddings and a Funeral where he describes his deceased partner, played by Simon Callow, as ‘so very fat and very rude’. So I did something you should never ever do in an interview: I tried to be funny. ‘Rude — my friends would describe me as rude,’ I replied. I didn’t get the job.
People from my background are meant to sail through such interviews. Supposedly, public school pupils are not only given an excellent academic education but also career guidance, and are drilled in interview technique so that they float through life on a cushion of money and privilege. In an article in the Guardian the philosopher Julian Baggini writes of how people with a public school education ‘approach the world with a sense of entitlement and possibility which means they simply expect to be taken seriously and given opportunities’. We all know the types: confident entrepreneurs barely out of their teens; blithe young journalists pronouncing on foreign affairs; smooth Etonian politicians.
Despite my public school education, I too regard people such as these with bafflement. How do they do it? Where do they get this confidence from? My school wasn’t exactly Eton or Winchester but it did give me a good education. I can still quote huge chunks of Antony and Cleopatra thanks to my inspiring English teacher. I became adept at writing essays: if you wanted 3,000 words on how the Bolsheviks were successful because they had sexy beards, then I was your man (perhaps good training for writing for The Spectator). But it didn’t feel like we were being moulded to be the elite. The careers adviser suggested that I might be better off applying to former polytechnics rather than to Leeds or Edinburgh. Because my grade predictions were low, I had to be interviewed for a place at the better universities. During one particularly gruesome exchange, I was asked if I had any questions and, having learnt nothing from the Selfridges humiliation, attempted another nervous joke: ‘Did I get in?’ I asked. The professor looked at me with undisguised contempt and said, ‘You will hear from us.’ I did not get in.
Much to my career adviser’s surprise, I did rather well in my A-levels in the end, and got into Leeds to study English purely on grades. But I still struggled with interviews. While most of my friends got office jobs through employment agencies to earn extra money, I was always sent off to work in warehouses where I was teased for my plummy accent. After graduating, I didn’t feel qualified to do anything, so got a job in a local wine merchant’s. I worked in a shop for two years until a friend from university suggested I try publishing. I did like books, after all, so I sent my CV off by fax with a hand-scrawled covering letter. They didn’t respond.
My friend couldn’t believe that I was so bad at all this. ‘Weren’t you shown how to do this at school?’ she asked. She showed me how to write concise letters saying why I would be good for a specific job, and letting them know that I’d done some research into the company. She told me the kind of questions I would be asked in interviews and we prepared answers. I learned to flatter the interviewer. I even learned the right time to make a little joke.
In his Guardian article, Julian Baggini goes on to say how public school pupils have the ‘kind of confidence… most of us who went through the state system never acquire’. I wonder whether this confidence might owe as much to money as education. That ‘I can do literally anything’ attitude is probably a lot easier when you’re rich. Then again, some of the most articulate and confident people I knew at university were state-educated — perhaps because they’d had to work harder for their success. I was very fortunate in my education. It taught me to do certain things well, write essays and pass exams, and it instilled a love of learning which has never left me. But it didn’t give me a blueprint for life. Nor did it give me that borderline sociopathic confidence you sometimes find in people who went to public school. None of my contemporaries are tech millionaires, politicians or hedge-fund managers. My highest achievement was becoming head of publicity for a small publishing firm in London.
At this particular firm, there was a steady procession of young people doing work experience. The company could not function without them. Most of them impressed me with their single-minded determination to succeed — some working evenings in a pub to make ends meet. However, one particular ex-public schoolboy was so irritating that I found it hard to share a room with him. He was almost completely unintelligible; his every utterance came out somewhere between a guffaw and a mumble. Taking his lack of engagement as arrogance, I took him aside one day for a quiet word. It was then I discovered that he didn’t really know why he was doing work experience. It was just something he thought he should be doing. When I told him that taking an interest in the work would make it more likely he’d get a proper job at the end of it — and that otherwise the whole thing was a waste of time — he was genuinely amazed. He’d never thought about it like that. I couldn’t quite believe that someone could be so ignorant. It was only later that I realised the truth. He was me 20 years ago.