Friday, June 8, 2007

Shadow Scheme

Reading David Lodge's "academic romance" Small World was a delightful romp, but the opening of its sequel, Nice Work, stirred up some unhappy memories. Chapter 1 introduces Vic Wilcox, the Managing Director of a general engineering firm in Rummidge. He's reading the Daily Mail, preparing to go in to the office.
He turns to the City Pages. HOW TO GET UP A HEAD OF ESTEEM.
What has been designated Industry Year has got off to a predictably silly start. Various bodies in Manufacturing Industry are working themselves into one of their regular lathers about the supposed low social esteem bestowed upon engineers and engineering. [p. 11]
What this brought to mind for me was my own years of going to work everyday "in industry." Ironically, I could never accept that our society paid programmers more to communicate with computers in their elementary language than it paid the teachers of our children to communicate in the language that had been Shakespeare's.

The other major character is Robyn Penrose, a scholarly junior English faculty member at Rummidge University. She reminds me of my "road not taken" forty years ago, when I dropped out of a doctoral program in philosophy and ended up at the International Business Machines Corporation. She represents for me what I might have been....

And then—as if to drive home the story's pertinence to me—the book mentions the precise date of my birthday during one of the darkest, most troubling of my years at IBM. Robyn's Head of Department (none other than Philip Swallow of "Swallow in Turkey") has just been reminded that his nomination "for the Industry Year Shadow Scheme" is due. He fishes from the bottom of his in-basket an unopened letter from the Vice Chancellor:
A Shadow, as the name implies, is someone who follows another person about all day as he goes about his normal work...Shadows will be asked to write a short report of what they have learned at the end of the exercise. Action: Nominations to teach the VC's Office by Wednesday 8th January, 1986. [p. 54]
Well, in case you haven't already guessed, Swallow nominates Robyn Penrose.

Could the precise mention of my 43rd birthdate be more than a meaningless coincidence? Is the only meaning it can have for me as reader whatever meaning I may care to invest in it? It appears that even if some occult shadow somehow engineered my being introduced to David Lodge and led me to this novel, where I would find the "birthday sign," its only more or less "objective" meaning would seem to be something elementary like, "Hey, pay attention!" I would still have to invent whatever further meaning there might be....

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