As a young boy, Karl Coppack was a protégé chess player, but instead of making the most of his talent, somehow he ended up in a stressful sales job he hated. But now he's determined to rediscover his dreams and here he explains why we should too.
‘Here lies Reginald Iolanthe Perrin. He didn't know the names of the trees and the flowers, but he knew the rhubarb crumble sales figures for Schleswig-Holstein’
That line is from the BBC TV series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin - a 1970’s sitcom starring Leonard Rossiter and one of the greatest ever comedies produced on these shores.
If you’re new to Reggie here’s a brief synopsis. Perrin lives in Surbiton with his devoted wife, Elizabeth. He works at Sunshine Desserts for his eccentric boss C.J., who didn’t get where he is today without being Reggie’s boss. Perrin, or R.I.P as he was once known, is slowly going insane thanks to his mundane life and begins to have strange fantasies, such as his mother in law being a hippopotamus, about humiliating his family and friends and sharing extra curricula activities with his secretary, Joan. Quite the life but nothing like his actual one.
Every morning he wakes, eats his breakfast, walks to the station, takes the train, arrives at the office (late), dictates letters to Joan, has increasingly bizarre and petrifying meetings with C.J., usually about such things as the rhubarb crumble figures for Schleswig-Holstein, before taking the train late, walking from the station, eating his dinner and then going to the same bed he left earlier. He repeats this again and again and again. Reggie has had enough and craves change.
How many of us are caught in Reggie's world?
I won’t go into the intricacies of the plot as you either know it or I’d be spoiling it for you and, in any case, this isn’t why we’re here. No. The reason I’m tugging your sleeve is because of that quote. I’ve always been fascinated by it.
How many of us are caught in Reggie’s world but never think about it? I know I have been. Day after day of the same job, the same faces and the same conversations. Maybe, like me, you’ve worked on a project that ends on one day and then begins afresh the next without a break in between. I worked in exhibition sales and found that intense pressure of selling the show and then running it was always replaced by even more pressure to better it the year after and then the year after that.
People live that life for decades and I did for two, but was this something we always wanted to do without our three score and ten? I can’t recall waking up as a small child and telling my excited parents that I wanted to work in media sales when I was older. I wanted to do something worthwhile – something noble, exciting and worthwhile. And I wanted to play an awful lot of football. Where has that ambition gone? That charm?
Forgive a bit of autobiography here but let’s see if any of this strikes a chord.
'We were young protégés'
When I was small, very small, I played chess. I played chess very well. It was a perfect storm, really. My Granddad played to a decent standard and bought me a set when I was six years old. My Mum couldn’t play so she borrowed a book from the library and learned to the extent that she could teach me. It wasn’t long before I was borrowing other books and playing both my parents as well as my five-year-old sister – all easily vanquished, so much so that I would berate them for not trying. I then moved on to my Granddad, whose fault this all was, and beat him too. I was hooked.
Luckiest of all, my best friend, a boy called Gary, also played and was streets ahead of me in terms of age (one day older), tactics and concentration. I could still batter everyone in sight but he was by far the superior player. We were young protégés and beat pupils of all ages as well as the teachers who set up the school chess club.
One thing we didn’t do, Gary and I, was play each other. At the age of seven, we were asked us to and we flatly refused. No way. No chance. This always gets a sigh and an ‘Oh, isn’t that sweet?’ but the reason we didn’t play was because we were mates first and foremost. Had Gary beaten me and beaten me comfortably (which he would have) it would have changed things and our intense discussions on TV programmes such as Barbapapa and Noah and Nelllie’s Skylark would be forever changed. I would resent losing and losing to my mate and he would have been sympathetic. No. Not going to happen. Nevertheless, we were told that we had enough talent to train to become ‘Masters’ in our teens if we worked hard enough.
'Who are we alive for?'
Well, not for me. I changed schools and played for that team too but come puberty my interest had waned. I was warned that if I didn’t keep it up and study openings and endgames it would all go, but I was more into football and guitars by then. Oh, I played the odd game but once I started losing more games than I’d won I pretty much gave it up. A shame really.
I often thought about taking it up again. Nothing serious, you understand, but just to enjoy the feeling of an opponent sitting opposite you in a quiet room and doing battle. Nothing ever came of it.
The worst thing is I never really knew why. Why did I put something on hold just because life stepped in and dragged me to money worries and other distractions? You can’t outgrow pleasure.
Who are we alive for? The nine to five? Did we always want this? Did we ever want to know the name of the trees and the flowers but got caught up in sales targets or reading Danish export reports? Has that fascination for pleasure for the very sake of it evaporated? Is this, as Jack Nicholson once roared to cinematic audiences, as good as it gets? Do we just wait until retirement before scraping the bottom of tired minds for any traces of things that once interested us? Or do we do something about it?
Time to make a change
I write these words during the strangest week of the year – that between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. It’s essentially a week in limbo, neither one thing nor the other. Neither fish nor fowl. If it were possible to grab hold of the calendar and push things through we might put New Year’s Eve on straight after Boxing Day and have five days of gluttonous debauchery without a break, but no. It is not to be. Now we just twiddle our thumbs and wait for permission to be allowed out again.
There must be a point in this week though. Maybe it’s a period of reflection. Maybe it’s a period of indigestion. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a period of change. Yes! That’s what the New Year is for, after all. We begin anew with a list of planned changes, be them enormous or tiny, and seek either change or improvement.
It’s usually the first topic of conversation on that miserable return to work. What are you giving up? What are you going to begin? What are your plans? This conversation seldom makes it to a second week but there’s seldom a need to increase your knowledge of, say, sales figures or anything along the lines of ‘I must work harder for the same money.’ All resolutions are selfish.
'What's wrong with now?'
But why wait till now? What makes 1st January so special? What’s wrong with 23rd October, for example? What’s wrong with 5.30pm on a rainy day in March when you realise that this isn’t what you signed up for? Not that this has to be all work-related. Maybe it’s an epiphany of a different kind. Waking up from four hours of sleep with stale lager sweats that no shower or brand of mint can disguise? Yes, I can do something about that. Possibly a glimpse of a belly in a mirror. Well, I could look at that. Maybe it’s the smile of the woman from accounts that seems to suggest that further conversation may be rewarded. Maybe it’s everything.
Societal conventions are strange things. How many times have you heard a friend tell of losing weight, taking up a gym membership, being healthier in January etc. but only in January as they have parties to attend or cupboards worth of crisps, biscuits and sweets to get through before the metamorphosis can begin? What an odd thing to do? ‘I must put more weight on before I take it off?’ The career equivalent is ‘I must become a little more miserable in this job/station before changing it?’ What’s wrong with now? What’s wrong with this hour? Hell, what’s wrong with this very minute?
We’re only on this Earth for a small amount of time and God knows we deserve some pleasure at least. So why not start something new? Take up an instrument or learn a language? Get out of that job or do better in your current role? Speak to the man/woman who you’ve always thought was out of your league. After all, no one wants to go to their graves only to be remembered for their knowledge of rhubarb crumble sales.
I’ve joined a local chess club and my first game is on Thursday night. I’ll be destroyed. I can’t wait.
Have a happy New Year. Have an enjoyable, educational and downright pleasurable one while you’re about it.
Photo courtesy: Flickr/**RCB**
Karl writes for The Anfield Wrap. He is troubled with the modern world, grimaces at ball playing centre halves and frowns at fancy-dan back heels. Apt to talk about the magnificence of Ray Kennedy wherever possible.
Also by Karl on insideMAN:
- The game no fan forgets - his first
- Men, it's time to stop suffering in silence
- Being forced to leave the job you hate...