Listen to this article
Waiting in a queue today to send some Christmas presents abroad, I thought of the post office I staffed as a child, in my room. It was a slick operation. There were pale blue and mint green envelopes; sheets of coral-coloured stamps; officious looking forms and slips to fill in for tots with a mind to claiming family allowances. Sometimes, with daring, I included my real cornflower blue post office savings account book in the game. Where it said “occupation” I had grandly written “student”, although I was seven and had never been near a mortar board or a cheese toastie in my life. People brought me back real forms and slips from actual post offices and banks to swell my counter. I didn’t, like the heroine of Henry James’s In the Cage, have a telegram department, and become far more drawn in to the lives of my customers than is strictly wise but I would have if it had crossed my mind.
In addition to this thriving business, I also kept a grocer’s. In the parade of shops near our house there was a store that sold raspberry cream biscuits; the actual biscuit was longer in length and shorter in texture than your standard custard cream, more like a Nice biscuit in reality, and the cream filling was an antique Barbie pink colour and ever so slightly vinegary. Still, I liked to have them in stock, keeping them until they were almost squishy with damp in a small cupboard. Coffee-mate, a product that seemed exotic to me, was the other staple of my store. I would measure out white powder in small spoonfuls, like a miniature drug dealer.
Do our childhood play-businesses have a bearing on our later careers? Stationery and biscuits have been important in my life, for sure, although it’s only rarely that I sell them now. But it’s part of my identity that I boast a good table. I am proud of my stationery department, the restocking of which is one of my favourite things about autumn. So it adds up in its way.
A brief survey of my friends’ “play jobs” revealed interesting results. One pal, a grown-up editor of newspapers and magazines, used to run a whole stable of titles from her bedroom as a girl. Chief among them was The Daily Dad, typed on the eponymous hero’s old typewriter and including crosswords, news items, a cut-out-and-keep feature and dispatches from assorted cousins. Tycoon-like, my friend would sit behind the dining room table with the “newspaper” on the music stand so she could get a view of the whole publication and make informed decisions.
A friend who works in film told me of the vast studio complex he ran as a child, with offices and buildings spread out across his sitting room. MGM in its prime had nothing on him: the sound stages, the rehearsal rooms, the costume department.
“Oh how glamorous,” I said. “It is as if even then you somehow knew.”
“OK OK,” he snapped, no longer able to live the lie. “It was just a garage. All right?”
A newish friend, as a child, busied herself with the task of letting people down gently. “I’m terribly sorry” – she’d speak the words out evenly, gazing into the mirror – “but I just cannot marry you.” Then, extremely tactfully, she would go into her reasons, sending the fellow off with hope that he might be better suited elsewhere; it really wasn’t him, it was her. In later life, it’s true, she broke a certain number of hearts but she did it with style and tremendous sensitivity.
Another friend’s play-job was receiving Academy Awards, and perfecting her acceptance speeches. She runs her own pub now and stars in a television cookery show. It’s all good.
A writer I admire was Robin Hood shooting arrows at the neighbours as a tot. Among my inner circle, there’s also a conductor and a bus conductor, a teeny restaurateur, an early years’ ballet school proprietor, a supermarket owner who arranged tins on his book shelves and a coal miner. None have made great strides in their early chosen fields but the Robin Hood is bold and kind and writes books with a strong moral thread. The coal miner is a man of great dignity and bearing.
My seven-year-old likes to play at driving a black taxi. Sometimes I test her on her routes. Last year her career plan was to be “the person who licks the pandas”.
Next year, who knows?
More columns at ft.com/boyt
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published