It was a rainy morning in the late 1970s when I was called for an interview with the school’s careers adviser. He was an unkempt man and he smoked a pipe.
“Come in and sit down, sonny,” he said, “I am the careers adviser. I am here to help you decide what you want to do with the rest of your life. Generally speaking, I find most boys fit snugly into one of two careers. Welding, for monoglots, and the diplomatic service, for polyglots. How many languages do you speak?”
I was a single-minded, even obsessive, teenperson, so I ignored his question and jabbered back. “Ever since I was tiny, sir, it has been my dream to follow in the footsteps of my hero, Johs. Schmidt, 1877 to 1933. Are you familiar with his work?”
He seemed taken aback by my pure ringing confident tone, and choked on his pipe. “I can’t say I am, sonny. Now, about welding . . .”
But I interrupted him, and babbled on.
“Johs. Schmidt was the author of a book I have treasured since first I discovered it tucked away in the aquatic life forms section of my parents’ bookshelves. I have read it, from cover to cover, hundreds of times. It is entitled Danish Eel Investigations During 25 Years 1905-1930. Though both welding and the diplomatic service undoubtedly have their attractions, I have already determined, young as I am, to spend the next twenty-five years investigating Danish eels. After that, well, who knows what I might turn my hand to?”
I had presented the careers adviser with a fait accompli, so he tapped his pipe on the side of his desk and sent me on my way.
The very next morning I set sail for Denmark, bent on eels . . . Dear God in heaven! How I wish that were true! But life was not as simple as I assumed, and things gang agley, as it were. Instead of spending the next quarter of a century investigating Danish eels, I found myself welding. Weld, weld, weld, that was me, for more than twenty-five years, day in day out. It was never clear to me precisely how this came about, and it would be melodramatic to describe it as a living death, but my eel dreams were shattered. It has to be said that there were certain aspects of welding that I enjoyed, particularly arc welding and the welding of rivets, but at the end of each welding day I would return home and pore over Johs. Schmidt’s book – well, pamphlet – and reread those stirring words, and gaze for untold hours at his Danish eel map. I made a promise to myself that one day, I would write my own pamphlet, with exactly the same title and with only the dates changed, that one day, I would write “I set sail for Denmark, bent on eels . . .” And do you know what? A week ago, I kept that promise.
With no more welding to be done in my town, I was freed from my duty to the regime. They gave me a medal, and I had my photograph taken for the Worker’s Sop (Welding Edition), but these honours meant nothing to me. For years I had been secretly in contact with a Dane called Lars. Lars knew little or nothing about eels, but he had a tiptop grasp of Danish geography, particularly its watery places, and I had long been convinced he would be an ideal companion for my investigations. I sent him a message arranging to meet on the harbourside of an important Danish seaport, packed a bag, locked up my cabin, and went straight to the tram stop. I did not have the necessary papers, but after waiting for over a quarter of a century, I was determined that nothing would stop me. On my way to the tram stop, I popped in to the cemetery, and found the grave of my careers adviser from long ago, and I thumbed my nose at him, or at his headstone. An act of childish petulance, perhaps, but boy oh boy did it feel good. Then I caught the tram to the canal, and went down the canal by barge to the railway station, where I boarded a train to the coast. All the while I had to keep my eye out for Lavender Cadets. At the docks, I bribed a sailor with my welding medal, and he helped me to stow away on the SS The Joy Of Bumper Harvest Overflows Amidst The Song Of Mechanisation. If I was not mistaken, I had welded many of the rivets on this very ship! And so, at long last, I was heading for Denmark. Hiding away among huge bales of fusewire in the cargo hold, I reread Danish Eel Investigations During 25 Years 1905-1930 yet again. In my excitement, I was struck anew by Johs. Schmidt’s marvellous prose, which now seemed even more magical. I could barely wait to begin writing my own version. Would my eel-prose come up to snuff?
At the important Danish seaport, Lars was there to meet me, bearing gifts. He gave me a cap and a Thermos flask and a lemon meringue pie. I had nothing to give him in exchange except my unbridled gratitude.
“So, tomorrow we shall begin investigating Danish eels, yes?” he said.
“I have been waiting over a quarter of a century for this moment!” I shouted, “Let us begin our investigations right now!”
Lars gave me a funny look, but acquiesced. It will of course be twenty-five years before I am able to publish my pamphlet, but I see no harm in allowing you a glimpse of the first entry.
Danish Eel Investigations During 25 Years, Day One. I arrived in Denmark. At the important Danish seaport, Lars was there to meet me, bearing gifts. He gave me a cap and a Thermos flask and a lemon meringue pie. I had nothing to give him in exchange except my unbridled gratitude. We immediately set to work investigating Danish eels. I managed to spot one there at the harbourside! To my consternation, it looked exactly – and I mean exactly – like an eel from my homeland. This cannot be right. Luckily I have plenty of time to investigate other Danish eels. Sausages for supper, and so to bed.