It wasn't hard to fill in the backgsound. The two men who walked into my local that weekday afternoon had clearly just met, undoubtedly in a business context, and from their casual dress one inferred that the business in question was something to do with media (there are many companies under that umbrella, including various regiments of the BBC, nearby). A joint venture had been agreed, or a job had been offered and accepted; in any case, the meeting had been a success, and the pair of them had come to the pub to cement their relationship. For certain one of them had just asked the other how he had come to occupy his present position, and the reply was all I actually heard of their conversation: "Well, I started life as a management consultant."
After that I had no interest in eavesdropping, so appalled was I that anyone could say such a thing without irony. For a start, when this chap was born — he was about my age — management consultancy as an industry did not exist, so he could only mean one of two things: either that his life began with his first job, or that he was somehow created specifically for the vocation of overcharging for parasitism, but had subsequently abandoned it.
This is not the place to get into the medical ethical question of when a human life begins, not least because I trust my readers would share my view that it begins at conception. But the question of when we, emotionally, subjectively, consider our own lives to have begun is, for us at least, more complex. At what point in our memories do we recognise ourselves? I have friends who feel that they only became recognisably the people they are now as a result of marriage, or giving birth, or ordination. All three of these, in their different ways, fulfil our humanity in a transcendent contact with the divine, and so the claim is not hollow or sentimental. But nobody in their right mind would make it for their first day at a management consultancy firm.
So what did this bozo really mean? My first recorded act, captured fortuitously with a Box Brownie, was to reach up from my pram and grab my father's nose with a grip from which he was unable to escape without inappropriate force, so I suppose you could say I started life as a satirist. By such a definition said bozo might be on reasonably solid ground, since all small children speak incomprehensible twaddle, and this has always seemed to me the management consultant's principal gift. The way these people mangle language has become legendary in the few short years during which we have been aware of them: my favourite example is from a training manual which exhorts new recruits to ensure that all their suggestions are "actionable".
All right, enough. Of course the man thought he was simply referring to the start of his career, but there is still a terrible sadness implicit in his choice of words, for he could well have been one of those who always had his eye on the inflated salary and the over-mortgaged flat on the river, the cocktail bars and the threehour nights, all through university, even school. I've certainly known enough of them to be convinced that the phenomenon is lamentably common, and though such people might once have pitied me for my lack of focus and the meagre worldly goods that would be mine, I now pity them, instead of laughing at them as I did at the time. For they were ridiculous: undergraduates wearing suits and carrying briefcases, their noses buried in the FT, (if it hadn't been banned by a L,efty JCR committee equally ridiculous in its way), oblivious to the poignantly delicious folly of youth, and willing middle age upon themselves instead of soaking up the lushness and the grandeur all around them.
For such people the point of a university education was the CV that would get them the job, and the point of school had been the grades that would get them into university in pursuit of the job. It might be objected that, before the revitalised Conservative Party of the late 1970s made ambition socially acceptable again, our best schools and colleges had produced far too many lotuseaters content to rest on the laurels of their civilisation. and there is much truth in that.
But the alternative seems to have been a generation of movers and shakers who never enjoyed being young, but who, much more importantly, never bothered to learn anything that was of no direct use to them. But that's efficiency, if you like. It's what management consultants are supposed to be good at.