I'm due to be interviewed for a new post next Thursday. It might affect the outcome if I go into too much detail about the job specification, but if I tell you that it's in the general area of media consultation, and that it involves several long trips abroad, you'll understand my eagerness to give a good performance.
The man who rang from Top Executives to see if I'd be interested in the position began by asking if I had any objection to being "head-hunted" in this manner. Objection? Was he joking? Any man who has spent most of his life feeling generally (and specifically) undervalued can only exult in the news that he has a secret admirer out there in the world who has been conscientiously adding up his attributes until the moment arrived when they could be appropriately honoured. I could have been more pleased only if God had called to say that he'd put my name on the door at the Paradise Club.
All that concerns me about next Thursday is my capacity to become a credible interviewee. I estimate that, over the past 30 years, I've conducted around 5,000 interviews, and only once have I found myself on the other side of the desk. In that time, I've become expert at persuading potential undergraduates to come up with some other reason for studying sociology than their interest in people; at pressing doctoral students to circumscribe their sprawling theses on globalisation; and at encouraging researchers to describe their findings in a manner that suggests they might be of interest to those whose knowledge of academic life is confined to University Challenge.
My one appearance as an interviewee in all those years was for the post of assistant lecturer at York back in the early Sixties. It was not a particularly harrowing interview. Sociologists were in such demand at the time that there were unconfirmed rumours of people dropping into departments to fix the central heating and being offered senior lectureships in order to make up the shortfall.
But I like to think that I would have obtained the position at York even if I had been up against rather tougher opposition than that provided by the ex-wife of the incumbent biology professor and an amateur criminologist from Tadcaster. I later learnt that he had become so hysterical during his interview that he'd confused corporal and capital punishment, and ended up effectively suggesting that delinquents might best be deterred from opportunist burglary and petty vandalism by the threat of personal extinction.
Geoff has been doing his best to ensure that no such anxiety affects my own performance. All the same, one of the examples he used last week in the Lamb and Flag to reinforce his point that one must remain clear-headed throughout the interview has become a recurrent nightmare. It seems he was once interviewed for a post in psychology at Exeter University. For nearly an hour, he dealt expertly with everything that the six interviewers could throw at him. But then the room fell completely silent. As the seconds passed, Geoff was seized by the absurd idea that he was somehow responsible for the conversational impasse. The longer the silence persisted, the more he became convinced that everyone present was waiting for him to make a move. But what move? What was absent from this interview that had been present in all those others he had attended? Suddenly, he knew the answer.
With all the confidence of the completely deluded, he raised himself in his chair, looked around the panel, and heard himself saying: "And now, are there any questions you'd like to ask me?"