17 JUNE 1955, Page 14


Offices and Open Spaces

IAM constantly, or anyhow at fairly frequent intervals. meeting young men of good education who say that they want to lead an open-air life. My sympathy with their desire to live out of doors is complete, but I understand it only in a groping sort of way. It is a strong desire but—com- pared. for instance, with the wish to go to sea, which is really a vocation—a rather imprecise one. I had it when I was young, and by good luck (possibly assisted by a lack of ambition and certainly abetted by the Axis Powers) I have been able, so far, to spend more tiny under the sky and less time in offices or their equivalents than most people of my sort manage to do.

But the various flukes and follies to which I owe my good fortune do not constitute anything in the nature of a formula which one can pass on to others, as dying sepoys used to transmit recipes for chutney; and when—it happened again last week—a young man on the threshold of his career tells me that he cannot abide the prospect of working in an office and asks how he can ensure for himself a life in the open air.

I do not know what to answer. • * * * Agriculture is an obvious possibility on paper; but only very few young men possess or have in prospect the capital which farming initially requires, and anyhow farming—as most people now realise—is not a pursuit which you can 'take up' as you `take up' painting or fretwork. No amount of study and practical experience will make a man into a successful farmer unless he has got in him something instinctive which study and experience cannot supply; and there is very little future in being an unsuccessful farmer. Besides, it seems to me a mistake for a highly educated and reasonably enter- prising boy to choose, in his early twenties, a way of life which. however rewarding in its way, is essentially a rather narrow one. He will be lucky if, by the time he is forty, he is not a dull man with an unusually limited experience of the world.

What about forestry? In the United Kingdom, unless you have a good deal of capital or are almost completely devoid of ambition, this virtually means the Forestry Commission; and with them, though you may start out of doors, you are bound to end up in an office, and to be increasingly tied to it as you ascend the rungs of their ladder.

This principle applies in other professions. Advancement leads inexorably to the desk, the telephone, the filing cabinet, the conference room. In the Army a subaltern's ration of ozone is larger than his company commander's, while a commanding officer, though less continuously tethered to the orderly room than his adjutant, can hardly in peace time be said to lead an open-air life. In all three Armed Services staff officers are for the most part condemned to a troglodyte's existence.

* * * I suspect that it is much the same with land agents, who, as they rise in their profession, are concerned more and more ' with correspondence and calculations and less and less with trotting round one estate on a cob. In theory the natural sciences would seem to offer opportunities for a career devoted mainly to work in the field; but I doubt whether in practice zoologists and botanists and so forth spend very much more time out of doors than sanitary inspectors.

They do, of course, sometimes get the chance of taking part in expeditions, on which—unless you go to the Antarctic and have to stay indoors most of the time—any amount of open air is available. In this sort of sphere mountaineers, who have no homework to do, in laboratories, probably come off the best; but even they have to pay the piper afterwards by writing books and articles and lecturing interminably to ladies with cherries in their hats. They can make, for twenty years or so. prolonged and enjoyable sorties into the sort of life they like to lead; but they can hardly, in old age, be said to have led that life.

There are of course a good many people whose working days are spent largely in motor-cars; but the difference between a modern automobile and an office is, in this context, only the difference between a tin box and a stone chest. A man who drives a tractor leads an open-air life (though I expect that before long he will be given the all-weather protection with which some machines are already provided), but a man who drives a Car does not—unless he is a racing motorist. Spiritu- ally, perhaps, the commercial traveller is less straitly cribbed than the bank clerk, but that isn't really the point. Even taxi- drivers, those strangely disconsolate rovers, are now sheltered against the elements and no longer, when they burrow in their pockets for change, have to contend with the skirts of two or three overcoats.

In this country the only career I can think of in which one could, without a twinge of conscience, spend the whole of one's life out of doors, in which. success and seniority would bring no paper-work in their train, and which one could go on pursuing, with luck, until one dropped dad, is that of a Master of Foxhounds. But a young man would have to be exceptionally circumstanced for a serious-minded person like myself to suggest that this would be an avenue worth exploring.

* * *

Professional cricketers; racehorse trainers; civil engineers; landscape painters; white hunters who lead American million- aires up to big game in Africa—there are, I suppose, various possibilities of a less esoteric kind; but broadly speaking I think it is true that, for more than 90. per cent. of the young men who leek it, the open-air life proves an ignis fatuus. They have in then end to settle for an office job, or something corre- sponding to an office job; and before long routine—that harmless and I suppose beneficent drug—anaesthetises their vague sense of grievance or disappointment; they cease to feel miscast and give up inserting `do anything, go anywhere' advertisements in the agony column.

I imagine that for most of them theft comes, soon after they start work, a moment when 'an office,' the abstract prison which they dreaded and meant to shun, is transformed into 'the office,' an institution of which they have become a part and in which they cannot help taking an interest. A similar process is observable in National Service men who, before their call-up, intensely dislike the idea of the Army. but immediately on joining acquire an unreasoning loyalty to their regiment. Moreover, office life is sheltered and sure and sociable, and as these amenities are, however subconsciously. recognised, the nebulous image of a less unnatural existence slowly loses its distracting allure, and the white-collar worker wisely resigns himself to his lot. This is just as well for every- body concerned; but I would still like to know exactly what it is that makes a minority of young men in the mid-twentieth century desire so ardently to spend their lives out of doors.