The young daughter of a good friend of mine has aspirations to act. She has passion and talent and temperament and, at 17, has built up a small but impressive portfolio. Acting can be an uncertain profession. Between jobs you might find yourself “resting”. While she was preparing to audition for a part, a family friend, an elderly gentleman, took her aside and said, no doubt in a well-meaning and avuncular way, “Now then Rebecca, just in case it doesn’t work out, what is your Plan B?” She replied, with some indignation. “Nobody ever asks Debbie what her Plan B is!” Deborah is her older sister. She studies engineering at university. I think of Debbie and Becky as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility.
This started me thinking about Plan B. Last September the Chancellor made a day trip to Edinburgh to inform the Scottish people that, in the event of their voting for independence, there would be no currency union with the rest of the UK. Unequivocally. No ifs no buts. Then Mr Darling, leader of the No campaign (perhaps he should have called it “Oxi” to give it a bit more oomph) engaged in debate with Mr Salmond and kept hammering away – “What is your Plan B?” Mr Salmond didn’t have a Plan B, or if he did, he was keeping it to himself. Mr Darling upheld this as a proof that Mr Salmond was living in cloud-cuckoo land, but I have to say I rather admired Mr Salmond for his position. He was seeking a mandate from the Scottish people that would allow him to enter negotiations that were real rather than hypothetical. In short, he had not given up on Plan A.
He never got his mandate. Then Scotland returned 56 Nationalist MPs of a total of 59 to Westminster. This reminds me of “Ally’s Tartan Army” that went off to the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, got a terrible drubbing, and then beat Holland 3-2 in a game that in the end didn’t matter. It’s a Scottish characteristic. 56 MPs are returned to a place where they don’t matter. This is by the by.
I wonder about the Plan B advice to the aspiring actor. It’s a very tricky business, the dispensation of advice, especially if it is not asked for, and especially to the young. As a doctor, I have spent a career dispensing advice, but I could never get very enthusiastic about giving it out when it was unsolicited. I suppose that is what screening and case-finding are all about. I always preferred the patients to set the agenda. They would outline their problem and then ask me one of two questions which they used more or less interchangeably: “What would you advise?” and “What would you do?”
But these questions are not interchangeable. Doctors are very bad at taking their own advice. Sometimes I would point this out to the patient and then ask him which question he would like me to answer. Usually the patient opted for the latter. That was because he recognised that the practice of medicine, while grounded in medical science, is really an art. The patients didn’t solely want an explication of the evidence base; they wanted it with a human face. But then I had to be careful. Why should I fob off my own prejudices and preconceptions on to the patient? Personally I belong to the “ostrich” school of health care. Keep your head down and don’t go looking for trouble. Just deal with it when it turns up. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. So, asks the patient, “Should I go for my ultrasound screen for aortic aneurysm? What would you do?” The trouble with screening is the amount of anxiety it creates. Your aorta turns out to be a little wide, though not dangerously so… yet. We’ll screen you again next year. As Job said, “I was not in safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came.” And again, “Yet man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Here is the difficulty of dispensing advice: you intend to soothe, and you end up causing harm. You become a Job’s comforter, like one of these oily saxophones in Vaughan Williams’ Job, A Masque for Dancing. Or like Polonius, loitering behind the arras, with his smug desiderata.
So I don’t think I will presume to give Rebecca advice. But if she were to ask me, what would you do? – I would answer as follows:
If I were lucky enough to have a Plan A, and if the plan were honourable, I wouldn’t even think of looking at Plan B. Because if you do, rest assured, Plan B will begin to unfold, and before you know it you will have constructed a B-life, you will surround yourself with like-minded B-lifers, and your life will become a bit part in a B-movie. If you’re really serious about Plan A, give it everything you’ve got. As Brutus said to Cassius,
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
Of course you are taking a risk. But then life is inherently risky. And after all, what, precisely is that risk? If you analyse the concern and the preoccupation of the purveyors of Plan B, you will always find that at its heart lies fear. And it is usually the fear of poverty. Plan B is Project Fear. Project Fear is favoured by the wealthy, preoccupied with the acquisition and the hoarding of stuff. Yet “what shall it profit a man…?” We are taught that the man who buries his talent in the ground will lose even that which he has buried. And this is not because of some divine retribution, but rather because the act of repressing or suppressing a talent has already made him destitute. The difference between Plan A and Plan B is the difference between somebody who is alive, and one of the undead. Purveyors of Plan B (not thinking of anybody in particular) will try to frighten you with the prospect that you are imminently going to become an economic basket case. But remember the words of the bard – the other bard:
Is there for honest poverty
That hings his head, an a’ that?
The coward slave, we pass him by –
We dare be poor for a’ that!
Reckless? Winston said to the boys at Harrow, “Never give in. Never give in. Never never never never…” Yet even Winston tempered that with a rider – “…save for convictions of honour and good sense.” Yes, you might fail. Whatever happens, you have to be completely honest with yourself, and ask, is this worth the candle? Nobody can advise you on that. Plan A, unfolding, may change, and will certainly change you. You may need to make adjustments to the plan as you go, because of events that you could never predict and you never saw coming. That’s not a Plan B. You just found you had to open your reserve parachute. Yet you still made the jump.
Becky got the part.