Growing up in a vicarage, there were always things that couldn’t be discussed outside the family – village gossip, people’s personal problems, dad’s views on members of his congregation, and most sensitive of all, his own future plans. I remember being taken out of school for the day aged 5 or 6 to go and visit another parish on the other side of the country, and being told not to tell anyone (not even the teachers) where I had been. “No comment” I must have said in the playground the next day.
Occasionally dad would come home and say that he had ‘put his foot in it’ about something – by which he usually meant that his views on some topic had become known in the parish, or he had mixed up the names of someone’s mother (whom he had buried) with their daughter (whom he had baptised). Many people came to the house, in all states of mind, (a vicarage is a bit like a pub that only serves tea), and often I was tasked with letting them in and making small talk before dad was ready to see them. I learned not to ask questions about why they were there, nor to comment on their appearance, nor, on occasion, to ask why they were crying.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning to be discreet.
Aged 11, my own future was shrouded in discretion. The local comprehensive was, shall we say, somewhat lacking in OFSTED plaudits, and so I sat the tests for an assisted place at a small private school 20 miles away. These tests and the subsequent interview were conducted without the knowledge of my teachers or peers. If asked whether I was going to the local secondary school, I was simply to say that I didn’t yet know, but that all would become clear in the fullness of time.
And once at said private school, I had to be discreet when interacting with my friends who had gone on to the local comprehensive, being careful not to draw attention to the yawning chasm in life chances which had presumably opened up between us, nor to my school’s extensive sports facilities and wide range of extra-curricular activities, nor to my assisted place (without which my parents couldn’t have afforded the fees).
During my teenage years, topics requiring discretion included my mum’s work (in the local crown court), the location of our holidays (I remember dad once telling a taxi driver that we were going ‘further over’, in order to ward off burglars, he told us later), and the fact that one year, we were unable to afford a television licence. We were not a family prone to idle chit chat. Even around the house there was a need to maintain privacy – dad would always draw the curtains while we were eating to stop people “seeing straight into the kitchen”.
I soon found that with discretion comes trust, and with trust, responsibility. Aged 6 I was escorting the class trouble maker to the headmistress’s office (feeling his collar if he tried to flee en route). Throughout my pre-teen years I was the designated courier for teachers’ notes, the person designated to guard their things when they left the classroom, and the ever-reliable custodian of keys, cash, certificates, contraband or privileged inside information about casting ahead of the christmas play. I could be confident that if I was pulled aside after assembly it was only for the teacher to seek some informal advice on what had really been going on with the boys at the back. When a delegation of children disfigured by the Chernobyl accident came to visit for the day, guess who was the liaison between them and the rest of the class? Aged 10, I was tasked by the year 6 teacher with the job of discreetly double-checking the spellings of the words he wrote on the board. If the school had needed to conduct an internal leak investigation, flush out a cigarette selling operation, or secretly negotiate a treaty with France, there would only have been one name on their lips.
I think the word teachers would have most readily applied to me and my kind would have been ‘sensible’. “He’s always one of the sensible ones” they would tell my parents. But the control and reserve that word implies was really an offshoot of discretion. It wasn’t that I was I felt inhibited in how I could behave; rather that personal indiscipline and over-sharing of my own views would somehow have undermined my reputation as someone to be trusted – a reputation that felt valuable because it was clearly something which adults prized and children largely ignored (thus enabling me to lead a comparatively normal social life). I could play silly games with the other children while inwardly calculating the point at which an adult was likely to intervene if things got out of hand, and withdrawing before that moment came.
This trend continued as a teenager. I made a name for myself as the lead tour-guide for prospective parents and pupils – carefully selecting a route around the school which included the prestige areas but carefully skirted the delapidated ones, and fielding their questions about when the new sports hall might finally open with deft and carefully worded answers. I was the one chosen to front up an interview on local radio about the semi-successful visit of a Caribbean dance troupe, with the teachers correctly assessing that I could convey earnest and innocent enjoyment while also hitting key talking points.
My first holiday job, aged 17, was in a cathedral, where duties included monitoring the flow of visitors, conducting bag searches, and ensuring that people climbing to the top of the tower did so in an orderly and timely fashion (I had access to a tannoy system to enforce this). It was around the time of the Iraq War protests, and on the date of the key march, I could be found on duty outside the cathedral (walkie-talkie in hand), discreetly monitoring the assembled crowd – which I should add, included several people from my year in school – for signs of trouble that could threaten the safety or wellbeing of visitors or the cathedral structure itself. I was very much a law and order teenager.
By now it will not surprise you to learn that my informal role as part of the wider apparatus of state – what Max Weber might term an enforcer of the “monopoly of legitimate violence” – soon converted into a paid position in government. Not for me the post-university gap year (having served as Internal Affairs Officer on the student committee, I hardly need add), but instead a string of sensitive civil service roles. I won’t be giving away any details, but let’s just say that if you needed a note delivering to a former terrorist leader, a remote island supervising for a few weeks, or a delegation of war victims introducing to the Prime Minister at a summit, I was likely to be involved.
I’m far too discreet to say what I do now of course, but it’s fair to say that little has changed. I continue to be bound by a duty of impartiality and political neutrality, so if you overheard me talking down the pub you’d probably catch phrases like “Brexit? – well I can see arguments on both sides”; or “there are no easy answers for politicians at the moment” and “I’m sure everyone involved was doing their best in difficult circumstances”. My private life tends to reflect studied discretion and neutrality as well – I give fake phone numbers as a reflex when completing online registrations, never advertise my plans in advance or give away my location or opinions on social media, and never volunteer information to strangers. I occasionally visit Facebook, but only to review my privacy settings. I give fake names in Starbucks. The one time I went to a professional football match, I sat in the middle stands and if pressed during half-time would have volunteered that both sides had aquitted themselves well and that it remained anyone’s to play for. I provoke less of a reaction than water to litmus paper. I am the middle box on customer satisfaction surveys transposed into human form.
Can I change? Might I one day get into a fierce argument, express outrage, contempt, behave recklessly, swear freely, dance wildly, or indulge in casual gossip and rumour-mongering? Might I participate enthusiastically in local politics, or be able to travel on a train without wanting to check everyone’s tickets and keep them informed about any delays. Might I, in short, play the role of an ordinary human being going about his life, rather than feeling that to be present somewhere without an official role is barely to be there at all? I fear not. Don’t misunderstand me, all these traits are borne out of habit and instinct, rather than out of any sense of superiority or meglomania. I have to be in charge of things because I don’t know how not to be, and I have to be neutral and discreet on most subjects because it genuinely reflects my views. I suppose I should count myself lucky to have been born in the UK, rather than a country where my slavish underpinning of bureaucratic ideals might have taken me down more sinister roads.
But you know what? The world needs me and my kind. For while you are busy being you, we are busy not being us. We are duty, self-sacrifice, modesty, efficiency – bravely foregoing our right to have a personality of our own for the greater good. In a world where we are encouraged to be nothing more than ourselves, and to share all of ourselves all of the time, we need a band of faceless, wan administrators to provide a sensible counterweight to the mass of extrovert showboating which surrounds us. We are the neutral background against which your kookiness can be manifest. You won’t even notice us, but we are here, clearing up, overseeing, mediating and imposing order – the cricket scorers, community support officers, volunteer stewards, traffic monitors, school governors, treasurers, ticket-inspectors – The Sensible Ones.