I’m sure many of you readers are familiar with the old adage that you can tell if your date is worth keeping if they’re polite to the people bringing your drinks, taxi drivers, etc. etc. There is something to be said for the idea that we can judge the moral quality of those around us by how they treat people over whom they have power, people who can offer them nothing for themselves.
In both of my lives, as a junior academic and as a fiction writer, I’m often mixing with and dealing with people with a great deal of power over me. I’m sorry to report that I don’t have any power over anyone, not even my cat, whose greatest joy in life is to shout at me at 7am, and hit me in the face with his paw until I feed him.
This isn’t the most wildly relevant image but I do love the Blues BrothersFor the most part, I have benefitted from kindness, generosity and excellent mentorship from the people in both of these lives. But the times when I have not do stick out to me, especially since they came at the hands of people who, for a short while at the start, had been kind.
I remember my secondary school headmaster who felt the need to tell a seven-teen-year-old girl under his duty of care that she was not “serious” enough to get into Oxford (I did) and then withheld the results of my interview and publicly chastised by for being “conceited” for asking to know my (positive) when a friend told me he had them and I asked to know what they were.
I remember, years and years ago now, a senior academic who offered mentorship, to read my work, incredible kindness and support, which was all taken away with a threatening email that copied in other senior members of the field I had hoped to work in when I supposedly broke a rule of etiquette (of which I was not aware) when I spoke to another academic at another institution about the work I had planned to do. This was enough, it seemed, to turn Jekyll into Hyde.
People in power have fragile egos. That is the lesson I learned. People who have power over you can (though, thankfully, most of the time don’t) dispense kindness, generosity and praise about your work and your prospects, and then, if you make one error of etiquette, one request they don’t like, stand your ground on one issue that matters to you, that can all go away, and in that moment it goes away, that is when you learn something about them.
Perhaps it makes me a cynic, but in those early moments in my career, I learned not to trust kindness when it happened while the going was good. I’m still disappointed when people with power over me choose to exert it by suddenly switching from praise and encouragement to criticism and threats, but I’m no longer upset. I’m no longer surprised.
And it’s a shame. It’s a shame when critique turns to criticism and when you realise that people’s effusive praise of your work was perhaps as insincere as their condemnation of it when they rip it to shreds once you’ve displeased them.
But I am so grateful to all of those powerful people who have dealt with me as a professional and an equal. The incredible mentors I have had in both halves of my writing life. And it’s a lesson learned. Every day, as we like to say in the Collins house, is a school day.