Thursday, 15 December 2011

Unusual Occupations

I've been reading Dubliners and, among all the other peculiar aspects of the stories, one I hadn't noticed before is Joyce's fondness for giving his characters unusual occupations. This intrigued me because, ever since my first child was born and the woman I shared a ward with in the hospital told me confidentially that, although her husband was doing carpetlaying at the time, his dream was, as she put it, 'to break into the lawnmowing world', I've been interested in alternatives to the unexciting office jobs that until then had framed the horizons of my employment ambitions.

Of course, in that case, it was the phrasing, rather than the occupation itself, that lent an aura of glamour to the way of life that was being aspired to. In the same way, when Joyce mentions that a character is 'in the church decorating business', I don't actually immediately think, 'Ooh that's what I want to do' (apart from anything else, I am still harbouring residual gargoyling aspirations) . What I do think is, 'Ooh, I suppose that must be an actual thing - I'd never really thought about it before, but I guess someone does have to do that.'

Then, in the story called The Sisters, Joyce includes this detail: '...a notice used to hang in the window, saying: "Umbrellas Re-covered"'. Again, here is a way of earning money that is new to me. Mind you, while I assume church decorators are still needed, I suspect umbrella recoverers are all but vanished - and, in fact, Joyce was probably implying that they weren't exactly thriving even when he was writing, before the advent of two bob umbrellas, or of umbrellas given away with evening papers (and, of course, any occupation involving evening papers or newspapers of any kind - but this sentence is getting much too long.)

Anyway, from now on I'm going to collect odd occupations that crop up in fiction, in the hope that one day I'll have a long list that I can put on this blog. That's one of the problems with blogging (which is, when you come to think of it, among the very oddest of all odd occupations [and unpaid, to boot]) - you have to keep stoking the thing, feeding it more and more delicious and tantalising bits and pieces. I didn't realise that when I started. At the time, I challenged myself to do it for a year. Then I read about Mark Watson and his vow to blog every day for a decade. After that I thought I'd maybe set the bar too low. It's a pointless activity, of course, but I'm hoping (as I suspect Mark Watson may also be) that in some obscure way it's good for my soul.

Mind you, ten years? And every day? I can only say I take my hat off to young Watson. What a plucky lad.


  1. Recently I wrote about winkle boilers - an occupation I'd never heard of before

  2. The United States Census Bureau has a couple of classification systems for businesses, the older being the Standard Industry Classification (SIC), the newer the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). So, for example, the SIC code 0139, "Field Crops, Except Cash Grains, NEC [not elsewhere categorized]" has several subdivisions, one of which is the NAICS code 111219, "Other Vegetable (except Potato) and Melon Farming (pt)".

    There has been some loss of precision, by the way, in going from SIC to NAICS--popcorn farming is no longer separate from corn farming. (Or as Europeans might say, "maize" farming.)

    You can find a correlation of the two at

  3. I wonder if those strange occupations (it never occurred to me, either) aren't meant to add a tone of dark humor to the recurring theme of social or urban captivity that runs through Dubliners: the strange jobs are as far as they're going to get outside of the box that is Dublin/Irish urban culture.

    That said, "Araby" leaves me with a lump in my throat every time. How does a man who can write such beautiful stuff go off in the directions he did?

  4. That's going straight on the list, Nurse
    That's hilarious, George
    I think The Dubliners are/is Joyce's masterpiece, Chris - Ulysses, I reckon, is not nearly as original, merely a continuation of what Melville started so brilliantly in Moby Dick.