It is late, past midnight. In the faded blue sleeping-bag he has brought from South Africa, he is lying on the sofa in his friend Paul’s bedsitter in Belsize Park. On the other side of the room, in the proper bed, Paul has begun to snore. Through a gap in the curtain glares a night sky of sodium orange tinged with violet. Though he has covered his feet with a cushion, they remain icy. No matter: he is in London.
There are two, perhaps three places in the world where life can be lived at its fullest intensity: London, Paris, perhaps Vienna. Paris comes first: city of love, city of art. But to live in Paris one must have gone to the kind of upper-class school that teaches French. As for Vienna, Vienna is for Jews coming back to reclaim their birthright: logical positivism, twelve-tone music, psychoanalysis. That leaves London, where South Africans do not need to carry papers and where people speak English. London may be stony, labyrinthine, and cold, but behind its forbidding walls men and women are at work writing books, painting paintings, composing music. One passes them every day in the street without guessing their secret, because of the famous and admirable British reserve.
For a half-share of the bedsitter, which consists of a single room and an annex with a gas stove and cold-water sink (the bathroom and toilet upstairs serve the whole house), he pays Paul two pounds a week. His entire savings, which he has brought with him from South Africa, amount to eighty-four pounds. He must find a job at once.
He visits the offices of the London County Council and enters his name on a list of relief teachers, teachers ready to fill vacancies at short notice. He is sent for an interview to a secondary modern school in Barnet at the far end of the Northern Line. His degree is in mathematics and English. The headmaster wants him to teach social studies; in addition, to supervise swimming two afternoons a week.
‘But I can’t swim,’ he objects.
‘Then you’ll have to learn, won’t you?’ says the headmaster.
He leaves the school premises with a copy of the social studies textbook under his arm. He has the weekend to prepare for his first class. By the time he gets to the station he is cursing himself for accepting the job. But he is too much of a coward to go back and say he has changed his mind. From the post office in Belsize Park he mails the book back, with a note: ‘Unforeseen eventualities make it impossible for me to take up my duties. Please accept my sincerest apologies.’
An advertisement in the Guardian takes him on a trip to Rothamsted, the agricultural station outside London where Halsted and Maclntyre, authors of The Design o f Statistical Experiments, one of his university textbooks, used to work. The interview, preceded by a tour of the station’s gardens and greenhouses, goes well. The post he has applied for is that of Junior Experimental Officer. The duties of a J.E.O., he learns, consist in laying out grids for test plantings, recording yields under different regimens, then analysing the data on the station’s computer, all under the direction of one of the Senior Officers. The actual agricultural work is done by gardeners supervised by Agricultural Officers; he will not be expected to get his hands dirty.
A few days later a letter arrives confirming that he is being offered the job, at a salary of £600 a year. He cannot contain his joy. What a coup! To work at Rothamsted! People in South Africa will not believe it!
There is one catch. The letter ends: ‘Accommodation can be arranged in the village or on the council housing estate.’ He writes back: he accepts the offer, he says, but would prefer to go on living in London. He will commute to Rothamsted.
In reply he receives a telephone call from the personnel office. Commuting will not be practicable, he is told. What he is being offered is not a desk job with regular hours. On some mornings he will have to start work very early; at other times he will have to work late, or over weekends. Like other officers, he will therefore have to reside within reach of the station. Will he reconsider his position and communicate a final decision?
His triumph is dashed. What is the point of coming all the way from Cape Town to London if he is to be quartered on a housing estate miles outside the city, getting up at the crack of dawn to measure the height of bean plants? He wants to join Rothamsted, wants to find a use for the mathematics he has laboured over for years, but he also wants to go to poetry readings, meet writers and painters, have love affairs. How can he ever make the people at Rothamsted—men in tweed jackets smoking pipes, women with stringy hair and owlish glasses—understand that? How can he bring out words like love, poetry before them?
Yet how can he turn the offer down? He is within inches of having a real job, and in England too. He need only say one word—Yes— and he will be able to write to his mother giving her the news she is waiting to hear, namely that her son is earning a good salary doing something respectable. Then she in turn will be able to telephone his father’s sisters and announce, ‘John is working as a scientist in England.’ That will finally put an end to their carping and sneering. A scientist: what could be more solid than that?
Solidity is what he has always lacked. Solidity is his Achilles heel. Of cleverness he has enough (though not as much as his mother thinks, and as he himself once thought); solid he has never been. Rothamsted would give him, if not solidity, not at once, then at least a title, an office, a shell. Junior Experimental Officer, then one day Experimental Officer, Senior Experimental Officer: surely behind so eminently respectable a shield, in private, in secrecy, he will be able to go on with the work of transmuting experience into art, the work for which he was brought into the world.
That is the argument for the agricultural station. The argument against the agricultural station is that it is not in London, city of romance.
He writes to Rothamsted. On mature reflection, he says, taking into consideration all circumstances, he thinks it best to decline.
The newspapers are full of advertisements for computer programmers. A degree in science is recommended but not required. He has heard of computer programming but has no clear idea of what it is. He has never laid eyes on a computer, except in cartoons, where computers appear as box-like objects spitting out scrolls of paper. There are no computers in South Africa that he knows of.
He responds to the advertisement by IBM, IBM being the biggest and best, and goes for an interview wearing the black suit he bought before he left Cape Town. The IBM interviewer, a man in his thirties, wears a black suit of his own, but of smarter, leaner cut.
The first thing the interviewer wants to know is whether he has left South Africa for good.
He has, he replies.
Why, asks the interviewer?
‘Because the country is heading for revolution,’ he replies.
There is a silence. Revolution: not the right word, perhaps, for the halls of IBM.
‘And when would you say,’ says the interviewer, ‘that this revolution will take place?’
He has his answer ready. ‘Five years.’ That is what everyone has said since Sharpeville. Sharpeville signalled the beginning of the end for the white regime, the increasingly desperate white regime.
After the interview he is given an IQ test. He has always enjoyed IQ tests, always done well at them. Generally he is better at tests, quizzes, examinations than at real life.
Within days IBM offers him a position as a trainee programmer. If he does well in his training course, and then passes his probationary period, he will become first a Programmer proper, then one day a Senior Programmer. He will commence his career at IBM’s data-processing bureau in Newman Street, off Oxford Street in the heart of the West End. The hours will be nine to five. His initial salary will be £700 a year.
He accepts the terms without hesitation.
The same day he passes a placard in the London Underground, a job advertisement. Applications are invited for the position of trainee station foreman, at a salary of £700 a year. Minimum educational requirement: a school certificate. Minimum age: twenty-one.