Blake’s 7: moral darkness in outer space

Gareth Thomas as Roj Blake

PAUL GARNER pays tribute to an innovative sci-fi series which gave grim glamour to late Seventies and early Eighties evenings

In the dark winter months at the beginning of 1978 I began to regret signing up as a cub scout. We met on Monday evenings in the school hall, and, thanks to the vagaries of BBC scheduling, that was also when episodes of the brand-new science fiction series, Blake’s 7, were being broadcast. I remember hurrying home from all the ‘dyb-dyb-dybbing’, anxious that I was going to miss the beginning of the latest instalment.

For Doctor Who fans like me, the new series would help to fill the gaps between Saturdays when the TARDIS would whisk us off on another adventure. But if we expected Blake’s 7 to emulate the fantastical whimsy that characterized late-1970s Doctor Who, we were in for a shock. The BBC’s new ‘space opera’ was tonally very different and about to subvert all our cosy assumptions.

Creator Terry Nation claims to have pitched the series to BBC executives as “The Dirty Dozen in space”. Blake’s 7 is set in a dystopian, post-atomic future in which the Terran Federation controls the human population with a combination of drugs, mind control techniques and old-fashioned thuggery. The earth and its colonies are police states, with Stasi-like informers everywhere. Citizens can trust no one and betrayal is the order of the day. In the opening episode, we are introduced to Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas), a man who has been brainwashed and can remember nothing of his previous life as a resistance leader. When his former compatriots help him to break his conditioning they are mercilessly eliminated, and Blake is subjected to a show trial with trumped-up accusations of child molestation. It is hard-edged stuff.

Blake is convicted and sent on a transporter to a prison planet, Cygnus Alpha, but en route organises a rebellion and manages to escape with two of his fellow convicts. Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) is a computer genius and embezzler and Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette) is a space pilot and smuggler. Commandeering an abandoned alien ship, the Liberator, with its master computer Zen (Peter Tuddenham), they mount a rescue bid, and on Cygnus Alpha recruit Olag Gan (David Jackson) and Vila Restal (Michael Keating). Vila is a thief and expert lock-breaker, Gan guilty of killing the Federation guard who had raped his girlfriend. Soon they are joined by Cally (Jan Chappell), a telepath from the planet Auron and lone survivor of an anti-Federation guerilla force. Pledging to destroy the Federation, the seven head off into space, hotly pursued by the leader of Space Command, Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce), and her psychopathic henchman, Travis (Stephen Greif in series one, Brian Croucher in series two).

Given this set-up, Blake’s 7 could easily have lapsed into two-dimensionality, but one of the most notable things about it is that nothing is cast in black and white. We are never entirely sure that the ‘good guys’ really are good guys. The Federation is ruthless and brutal, but the rebels are not averse to some ruthlessness and brutality of their own. The body count is unquestionably high whenever Blake’s crew are around, and not just on the Federation side. Blake himself seems fully prepared to risk the lives of others in pursuit of his political ideals, and his quarrelling followers often seem ready to abandon one another to save their own skins. They are at best anti-heroes. The most morally ambiguous of them all is Avon, whose obvious self-interest leads to some tense confrontations with Blake early in the series. Avon is not the kind of man on whom it would be wise to turn your back. Even Vila, for whom Avon shows some grudging affection, is not safe. In the episode Orbit, Avon is ready to throw Vila overboard so their shuttle can overcome the gravitational pull of the planet from which they are making their escape, and his stalking of Vila through the darkened corridors, while his companion cowers terrified in the shadows, is genuinely chilling. Avon’s callousness is also spotlighted in other episodes, such as Stardrive, in which he coldly sacrifices Dr Plaxton, and Rumours of Death, in which he seeks revenge against Shrinker, the man he suspects of murdering Anna Grant, the only woman he ever loved. Shrinker is soon reduced from sadistic torturer to quivering wreck, begging Avon for mercy, in a fantastic performance by guest actor John Bryans. But viewers are left wondering, with the crew of the Liberator, whether Avon is any less monstrous than the man he is punishing.

Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan, and Paul Darrow as Kerr Avon

Later episodes introduce changes to the regular line-up. At the end of series one, Orac, a flashing box of tricks with an irascible personality, is acquired by Blake and his companions from the computer genius Ensor. Midway through the second series Gan dies under falling masonry during a raid on Federation Central Control and at the end of the season Blake and Jenna go missing after bailing from the Liberator during an intergalactic conflict. With Blake’s departure, Avon appoints himself leader, and in the third series the crew is joined by Dayna Mellanby (Josette Simon), the daughter of a fugitive and revolutionary, and Del Tarrant (Steven Pacey), a defector from the Federation’s Space Academy.

At the end of the third series, Avon’s recklessness in the teeth of opposition from his fellow crewmembers leads to the destruction of the Liberator, along with Zen, and the unhappy survivors are trapped by Servalan on the planet Terminal. This was originally intended to be the climactic episode, but late in the day the decision was made to commission a fourth series. By this time the production office had already closed down and there was a scramble to reenlist cast and crew, and get a production line of scripts going, which accounts for much of the unevenness of the first half of series four.

The fourth and final series opens with Cally’s death in a booby trap left by Servalan. Then we are introduced to Soolin (Glynis Barber), an expert gunslinger whose parents had been murdered by hired mercenaries. The rebels acquire a new ship, Scorpio, along with its computer, Slave, and they establish a base from which to launch an offensive against the Federation. Meanwhile, Servalan, who by this time has been deposed as Federation president, takes on a new identity as Commissioner Sleer and resumes her vendetta against Avon and his crew.

Forty years on, Blake’s 7 remains loved by many, though it is difficult to regard it as high art. It has a reputation, not wholly undeserved, for looking cheap, though it must be remembered that it was made in the unionized days of the late 1970s, when budgets were stretched by rampant inflation and there was an ever-present threat of strike action bringing a halt to production. The clichés about dodgy special effects, wonky sets and quarries masquerading as alien worlds are clichés for a reason, and the constraints that faced the production team are often all too evident in what appeared on screen. Despite this, the series has a loyal fan following and conventions continue to be held annually, sadly with a dwindling number of original cast and crew as the years pass.

Inevitably, comparisons are made between Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who, though in reality the two programmes are very different. Blake’s 7 is darker, grittier and more clearly written for an older audience. There are references to sex, drugs and alcohol in Blake’s 7 that would never have been allowed in classic Who. Blake’s 7 is also much less reliant on aliens and monsters, preferring to concentrate on human drama and action. On the few occasions when Blake’s 7 does venture into monster territory the results are less than satisfying, object lessons in how ambition cannot always triumph over practicalities. Director Vere Lorrimer wisely keeps the Phibians lurking in the shadows in Orac, teasing the viewer with occasional glimpses of claw or tail, but on other occasions the programme makers are less circumspect, and, unfortunately, the giant insect in The Harvest of Kairos possesses all the menace of a pantomime horse and the climax of Moloch is rather spoiled by a laughable monocular glove puppet.

However, the play’s the thing, and the great strengths of Blake’s 7 are in characterization and story. The regulars turn in some magnificent performances, even if, at times, a certain amount of scenery-chewing is indulged. Paul Darrow’s Avon is beautifully crafted, dark, self-centred and cynical, with a nice line in sardonic asides, such as when he says of Tarrant that he “is brave, young and handsome; three reasons not to like him”. Michael Keating brings great humanity to his portrayal of Vila, whose cowardice and complaining could have been irritating in the hands of a lesser actor. Yes, Vila is often employed as comic relief (there are lighter moments, even in Blake’s 7), but he is not stupid, on one occasion feigning drunkenness so that he could pass on to his crewmates the solution to an intractable problem while making sure he didn’t have to endanger himself by dealing with it. From the outset, Jacqueline Pearce’s Servalan is deliciously sadistic and scheming, and one can’t help relishing her performance even when it goes over the top. Finally, special mention should be given to Peter Tuddenham, who manages to invest all the series’ computers with distinct personalities, from the detached logicality of Zen to the fussy obtuseness of Orac and the Uriah Heep-like obsequiousness of Slave.

There were some notable guest appearances too, including Roy Kinnear as the bumbling, avaricious security officer of a passenger liner in Gold, Aubrey Woods as a corrupt and flamboyant casino owner in Gambit, and Julian Glover as an unpleasant neurosurgeon and Federation informer in Breakdown. As in any long-running series, the scriptwriting hits highs and lows, but Blake’s 7 delivers many stand-out episodes and even the most mediocre often contain memorable lines.

Among my favourites are City at the Edge of the World, in which Vila almost gets the girl and we meet Bayban the Butcher (Colin Baker in pre-Doctor Who days), Terminal, a well-crafted and pacey episode, with a heartbeat soundtrack that sets a funereal tone, and Sand, in which Tarrant and Servalan are thrown together in unlikely fashion on a planet with a very strange and threatening lifeform. Nor are the scriptwriters above the shameless plundering of plotlines from classic fantasy literature, especially in the fourth series which gives us episodes based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (Rescue) and H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (Animals). Even Headhunter trespasses into the domain of Frankenstein, with its lumbering android grotesquely wearing the decapitated head of its creator.

Blake’s 7 ran from 1978 to 1981. Looking back now, one is struck by how unremittingly bleak it all was. Every series ended in some kind of catastrophe, and there was never any guarantee our heroes would even survive. In the final series, we witness Avon’s slow descent into paranoia and madness, culminating in the shocking denouement on the frontier planet of Gauda Prime. For more than two years, viewers had eagerly anticipated Blake’s return, but when he does finally reappear it is not the glad reunion for which we had hoped. Blake, battered and world-weary, stands once again face-to-face with Avon, only for his old comrade to shoot him in the stomach at point-blank range, under the tragic misapprehension that Blake has betrayed him. What follows is one of the most shocking endings to any television series, with all the Scorpio crew except Avon being gunned down in slow motion by jack-booted Federation soldiers. As Avon stands over the bloody corpse of Blake, with the guards closing in around him, he raises his gun and smiles. And that’s where the curtain falls, the closing credits breaking in with another volley of shots. There is no happy ending. The ‘good guys’ don’t always win.

Of course, fans of the programme have been endlessly inventive in coming up with scenarios in which their favourite characters survived or the story continued. Sequels have been written, new episodes recorded for radio, and there have been rumours for years about a television revival, although a reboot seems as far away as ever. But I can’t help feeling that the ending we got was the right one. The rebellion is ultimately a failure. The Federation is still in control, even expanding after the setback of the Andromedan war. And Servalan, who mysteriously makes no appearance in the finale, is presumably still out there and plotting her route back to power. It’s bleak, but anything more hopeful would rob Blake’s 7 of its soul.

Return of a native

DEREK GOW welcomes the ‘New Nature’ revolution

The word ‘rewilding’ is in the wind, provoking elation and scorn in equal measure. It may yet spark a revolution.

Although those who make the rules are doing all they can to brush its disruptive brand of hope under the carpets of their palatial offices in Nobel House (London lair of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), they know the metaphorical beaver has long since gnawed out of the bag and bolted. Shutting the reinforced stable door is pointless as real beavers are now swimming in the Tay and the Forth, the Tamar and the Otter.

The static world these bureaucrats worship is slipping steadily away.

And that is good.

I was born in Dundee but brought up in the Scottish borders, in a landscape where blackcock lekked by the sides of the road, and peewits whirled high in the cloud-mottled sky beyond Coulter Fell. I can still see the sprite-like reds of the squirrels running the drystane of the cottage wall that surrounded my father’s cottage in the Tweed Valley village of Broughton. I found a peregrine once whose broken wing and bloody breast testified to the gamekeeper’s art. Though still alive, with the talons on one golden leg capable of piercing my grandmother’s gardening glove with ease, nothing could be done to save its shattered life. With my mother I buried it gently in the garden. Its carcase at least did not degenerate and swing on the stinking gibbets suspended around its killer’s troll-like lair.

Nature was everywhere – in abandoned complexes of tomato houses – in wet fields where attempted drainage had proved futile in its time. In the winter the skies filled with northern geese as pinkfeet in their tens of thousands flanked down in honking cacophony into the stubble corn. I remember my grandmother telling me that the last wolf in Scotland had been killed at Wolf Clyde, a stone’s throw from our house. It had been finished off by a doughty wife when it attacked her children, and she in turn hit it over the head with a pancake griddle – a song-line and story ill-informed to silence an enquiring child. The tale was generic, and the name in the sheep lands of the Fleming family who once ruled from their fortress at Boghall was old long before the death of the last wolf in its deep, dark, den, high in the juniper-swaddled flanks of the northern hills.

I read the books of Gerald Durrell. There were marvels of colour in his Drunken Forest, and so much to consider in his Overloaded Ark. He talked of a world where life was failing. Joy and George Adamson of Born Free fame, Gavin Maxwell (author of Ring of Bright Water), Peter Scott, Guy Mountfort (author of 1954’s A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, and a co-creator of the World Wide Fund for Nature in 1961), Bernhard Grzimek (author of the 1959 bestseller Serengeti Shall Not Die) and David Attenborough all said the same. Poachers in Africa. DDTs in Europe. Acid rains.

Biber in der Küche by Ernst Zehle (1876-1940)

Looking back, these were the good times – before the great destructions of agricultural intensification, international forest loss and industrial pollution really began – when there were many, many fewer of us.

In my lifetime, I, like many others, have witnessed nature haemorrhaging away. Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring is near reality now.

Rewilding is no threat, although I do not care for the term. The Dutch who coined its initial use now refer to rewilding as “New Nature”, and that description is more fitting by far. Those who claim it to be a blight generally come from a cadre seeking to preserve the privileges they owe to the Common Agricultural Policy. They are afraid of change and do not relish examples of different ways. If these prosper, their failings will be spot-lit on the stage of life and they have no wish to dance.

New Nature is for me about many things. It’s about accepting that much of what we once knew and cherished has passed irrevocably. We are bereaved, and only words of comfort can be spoken at the wakes for species such as the complicated corncrakes whose short lifespans, tricky migratory routes and great fondness for old insect rich hay meadows renders recollections of their presence mere sepia now. It’s about what we can do to heal, and that involves farming. Played-out and exhausted soils, pesticides in rivers, toxic silts, antibiotics applied with merry abandon, slurries full of disease, and contaminants of all hues do not make for a prosperous or long-term future. We need to farm to produce top-end food sustainably in a rich natural environment. Perhaps we need to explore new technologies such as clean meats, cell-cloned on dark shelves, and other foods derived from soil-produced proteins if we are to ensure a future supply of nutrition for without destroying the earth completely. Given our species’ natural tendencies for greed, narrow-mindedness and shortness of thought this is going to be something of a mission.

New Nature is about large areas of land being enabled to become free-willed, where large, semi-domesticated and wild ungulates can create landscapes that give opportunities for smaller creatures – where purple emperors can flit to find sallow, here colonial bees excavate their burrows in bull-exposed soil, where burring squadrons of dung beetles pour down from the sky into piles of still-steaming shit.

The exhilaration that is Knepp Castle (1) demonstrates clearly that systems of this sort can enable fresh life to reform on a simply staggering scale of diversity and bio-abundance – and that this can be accomplished in even impoverished environments. More projects of this type are needed urgently in Britain, and everywhere else.

Beaver by Aert Schouman (1710-1792)

New Nature is about corridors – about linking landscapes around these dynamos of natural productivity as they cough and splutter into life and start to create a steady stream of creatures which spill out from them into the surrounding landscape. It’s not all about rewilding. It’s about reserves owned by the worthy, and their good deeds – the preservers of species and the environments they occupy, which would otherwise have been lost – the trusts and charities who have been toiling for years to save, innovate and replace. They understand full well that their efforts are not enough and that the widely dispersed nature of their holdings will not in itself prevent calamitous decline. Dwindling godwit, collapsing curlew or large blue populations in scattered pockets have no future on their own. It’s about making space in a farmed environment – not using all up to the edges of hedges, streams, and woodlands. It’s about relaxing and letting the wild creep back – just a bit.

I am converting my modest Devon farm into a corridor too. I no longer wish to follow a conventional model to produce sheep and cattle which are worth very little in the southwest of England, while driving near all other life from my land. I do not want to smell the rankness of ovine waste which cannot decay, because the insecticides we spray on our flock allow no insects to approach. I don’t want to witness pastures which could contain flowers reduced to a psoriatic leaching of their top soils in the depths of the wind-whipped winter when they are gouged by a myriad of hooves. I want to forge a new partnership with nature which gives us both satisfaction, which is easy and content.

Beavers are the bringers of life. Their impoundments and tree felling provide the twin life essentials of water and light. Without them, there can be no wetlands brimming with life. No darting kingfishers. No purring demoiselles. No broods of peeping ducklings following their hard-harassed mums. They do so much more. My journey with beavers, although I hope not yet complete, has been long. They have taken much of my time and I of theirs. I am content with that. I love them for the wonder they are – for their creative abilities, humility and sociality – and for their care for each other. When my journey is over theirs will have barely begun. I hope in the end they will bring wonder to at least a few of the human lives that follow mine.

My farm is not on the scale of Knepp. I will have to cultivate change to protect the valuable assets and to promote and enhance the impoverished. To restore the drained fields of rush and ryegrass back to flower-rich meadows, excavate infilled ponds, fence out valley mires, readjust the course of streams, destock to the point where trees can grow again in fields, to plant the fritillaries and the southern marsh orchids where I consider they would do well. I feel sure already that nature will come. Every indication is that this is so. Within a year, we have had nesting reed buntings and grasshopper warblers, and this August our first marbled white butterflies.

But we need to reintroduce the lost. I intend to farm life – to produce English wildcats and release their kittens, protect my breeding beavers and nurture water voles, graze with much smaller groups of ungulates which will produce high end beef, mutton, pork and cheval on a scale that is more than adequate to feed to my customers. Their money will pay for more alteration – for monitoring the returning stonechats, assessing the distribution of the armoured tadpole shrimps colonising the welcomingly variable wallows wrought by pigs, for the creation of a market garden to grow good food, for tents, huts and gypsy caravans to encourage more folk to follow.

Beaver by Derek Gow

While this is not a model for all, farming is after all a business. It is not a hobby which deserves to be subsidised by society. It’s not a martyrdom essential, a combined cross and crown which one must carry alone. If it hurts, just leave; find another life-way and allow those who would come to change what you cannot or do not want to alter. It’s not difficult to understand. Farm well on the good land. Produce products that markets want, and let the rest produce a different kind of life. Hold water and grow trees.

New Nature is about people. It’s about individuals saying ‘I can’, and acquiring the skills they need. It’s about guerrilla gardening, and cultivating sedge and frogs. It’s about permaculture, and forest schools – restoring soils, and multiplying and repeating the good things already done. People small and large are beginning to do. Small gardens can join up. Hedgehogs can move through created gaps under fences. Not every tiny lawn or roadside verge must forever be shorn. Some of the great estates in England held in hand since Norman times are beginning to act well. They can rise to the challenge. With their landholdings and influence, their ability to accomplish is immense. They employ good minds and have a vision used to looking well beyond next month’s milk cheque towards a time that might yet come. Small organisations are releasing bison. Good-hearted souls have achieved much with pine martens and cranes. The legend that is Roy Dennis is returning the white-tailed eagles of the past to where they should be, on the sea cliffs of the Solent. Vultures have come and remarkably stayed, for the first known time in our island’s history. Is their presence an omen of hope or are they assembling to circle in more sinister anticipation? While the fate of the young lammergeier perched on the edge of the great grouse death lands is by no means certain, other problems remain.

Great issues hang in the balance. Farming will fight hard for business as usual. If they lose their subsidies for doing nothing much, it will never come again. Their influence will wither and their political power remit. They seek to imagineer a false vision of progress while remaining hermit crab-secure in their tight clasped shells. The ghouls of the timber-industry will try to grasp the gold in the casket being transported to fund future forests. They want chip and pellet; there is no room in their spreadsheets for carunculate giants, or vibrant scrub which resounds to the melodies of warblers. They don’t care, and laugh at those who do in closed court. If they can, they will swing down from the low limbs of their sitka plantations dressed in green mantle to get their hands on the loot.

The proposed system of government payments for Environmental Land Management (ELMs) is the mantra and myth of the moment. While it should be a system to reshape landscapes to give true coexistence with the wild, to subsidise carbon capture, store water and produce good for all, its acolytes attempt to form a belief with little faith of their own. Their hearts are torpid and contain no zeal. As they issue commandments from on high, their transparent commitments are of little current worth.

Official nature conservation bodies are mired in a do-nothing, say-nothing culture. They meekly print the death dues for badgers, and seek to explain why no killers of raptors – even those reared and recorded by them – can ever be found. They stall support for bustards and revile the joy of storks. They are out of touch with reality, so completely lost in a self-created maze that they can lead no more. The pace of change must be forced and forged by others. In the quarter century I have worked with beavers I have heard many pleas for delay from some of the most prominent people in conservation – to give time to ‘adjust’, to ‘get it right’, to stop or at least slow projects until more lumbering others can find their feet. Sometimes they made me wonder if my course was right; I am now utterly convinced it was.

Other life on this planet more than ever needs more of us to act in its (and our) interests now, without concern for fortune or favour – to do what’s both ecologically necessary and morally right. If we wait too long to aid, we will all suffer and perish together. There is no need for this. We are clever and must not let this happen.

There is never a perfect time, or an ideal place. There is only the here and now, with the good people you live alongside to help, with whatever knowledge and resources are at hand. As individuals we should not seek to pass with regret and remorse, but rather to help New Nature happen when we can.

Editor’s Note

  1. Knepp in Sussex is the best known English example of a rewilded landscape, its creation/recreation described in Isabella Tree’s 2019 book Wilding
  2. My Spectator review of Derek Gow’s book may be found here – https://www.derek-turner.com/2020/10/28/eager-for-beavers/

Corporate account

Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of the Arts

BENJAMIN GELMAN describes a shocking – but salutary – first foray into the ruthless world of work

It was my first relaxing summer weekend. I had been toiling away at one of America’s ‘Big Four’ accounting firms as a consultant for ten months, and felt I needed a break. I received a negative COVID test, took off from work on Friday, and drove a couple of hours for a peaceful few days in the woods with a friend. I was about five minutes into my return journey when I got phone service again. Alone in my car, I pulled over to see if I’d missed anything important on my work phone. There were the Friday newsletters and a few emails I was CC’d on. I also noticed I now had A Conversation With the Talent Leader on my calendar for Monday midmorning, which I knew wasn’t the protocol for getting a raise. Sure enough, within 24 hours I had been fired.

Once COVID-19 sent the United States into full-blown lockdown, my firm claimed its employees were its number one priority. It would limit promotions and raises, reduce discretionary spending, and contract the partnership payout pool, all to protect employees during these tough times. The higher up in the company, the more you’d feel the impact – the logic being that higher-ups are, quite literally, able to afford it. As an entry-level analyst, this sounded quite fair, if not altogether redemptive for Corporate America.

Then COVID survived its first news cycle unhindered, and it was pretty clear we were dealing with a radically different kind of event. All bets were off. The Big Four entered survival mode, and would do whatever they had to. I was just one of thousands of employees left to fend for themselves.

My family and friends have assured me that these are unprecedented times. It wasn’t my fault and I shouldn’t beat myself up. And to some extent they’re right. If COVID hadn’t ravaged the world, I probably wouldn’t have had The Conversation put on my calendar. However, while COVID was the catalyst, my downfall began long before. If I’m being honest with myself, I deserved what came my way.

Even if the impetus was unforeseen, like all things done at the Big Four, the selection process was incredibly structured. The firm didn’t part with 50% or even 25% of their workforce. I was on the left-hand side of the bell curve. I fitted right in with the auto-generated list of lower-tier professionals to terminate. Given the circumstances, I would’ve fired me too. And yet…

It wasn’t always like this. In high school, I scored a 36 out of 36 on the college placement exam. I graduated from a prestigious undergraduate business school with just about the highest honours available. Several of my professors made it seem like my career success would be a given. But it turns out that academic success does not transpose so neatly into professional success.

It’s worth revisiting the university business structure at this point. To keep the lights on, private universities in America charge students hundreds of thousands of dollars. They also rely on alumni remembering their university days fondly enough to donate years later. These schools, therefore, have a strong incentive to keep their students happy and satisfied. Put another way, students are consumers. They pay money and expect an experience that’s ‘worth it’.

Much of my achievement has taken place within this quasi-consumerist framework. The institutions and people I knew were typically on my side, helping and rooting for me to succeed, conspiring alongside me. So I learned to work with understanding and patient stakeholders. When it took me longer to read than my sixth-grade peers, I was given extra time on my exams, which, astoundingly, lasted through the end of university. If I had too much on my plate during finals, I could almost assume one professor would allow me to turn in a term paper late. And even my summers spent in professional environments manufactured a sense that the intern had special privileges and status. Rules tended to feel more like guidelines. Accommodations were boundless.

Older people often tell my generation (I am 24) that we feel an undue sense of entitlement – we expect much more than we deserve. I have to admit I was a very fortunate child. My parents worked tirelessly to provide me and my brothers with all the opportunities they’d never had – private education from kindergarten to the age of 18, carefree summers, a debt-free college experience. If my laptop or phone broke, I knew I’d have a replacement soon enough. My family didn’t go on lavish vacations, but I struggle to remember a time when I didn’t get something I really wanted.

At the same time, though, I do not feel wholly responsible for the charges held against me. In fact, those who complain about the young are themselves at least partly culpable. Children and adolescents react to what they see, absorbing and digesting what’s around them. And if ‘the culture’ is responsible for cultivating this sense of entitlement, who made that culture? I’m not sure of the answer, but if you let children eat candy, they’ll do it till they’re sick.

I don’t mean to offshore responsibility with this logic. I could spend time dissecting who’s to blame and why, or harping on what I would’ve done differently. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Shifting the blame doesn’t shift the reality. Part of growing up is owning what’s yours. I thought I already knew this from books of ancient wisdom and modern psychology, which said essentially the same thing. For example, in Jewish culture, once you become Bar Mitvah’ed, and thus a man (at the respectable age of 13), you’re accountable for all your deeds, good and bad. Victor Frankle, a Holocaust survivor with all the reason to resent and crumble to his environment, credits his survival to the

…the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

More recently, J.K. Rowling counseled

There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.

My ten months at the Big Four was a proper lesson in accountability – making me confront and internalize my failings.

When I started at my firm, I discovered immediately that a boss wasn’t the same kind of authority figure as my parents or professors. Bosses are not necessarily invested in your personal success or happiness. Moreover, I was receiving money, and others had their expectations of me. All my naive assumptions were flipped on their head. My belief in myself and benevolent cultural, even cosmic, forces was shaken to the root. I’m not sure all those carefree summers had prepared me properly.

I bumped up against my project manager almost immediately. Our personalities clashed head-on, and unlike many of the people I had known, he was unwilling to accommodate himself to me. I sought consensus and hoped to know my new colleagues on a personal level. He had more of a ‘Get Shit Done’ philosophy. When I asked about his weekends, he’d answer in a breath, “It was good,” then smile in a way that said this-is-the-end-of-this-conversation. In one feedback session over a firm-sponsored trendy coffee, he told me I wasn’t “hungry enough.” My other advocates and mentors scoffed when I unpacked the feedback with them. What the hell, they asked, does that even mean?

I did what was asked of me. I got my work done. I dropped the ball once in a while, but not markedly more than the other First Years. And I knew I was capable of persistent, strenuous effort. Maybe my mentors were right – he was speaking in vague terms because the subject of the feedback was subjective. We simply didn’t get along. But even if I couldn’t follow the exact calculus, in a way I understood my manager was picking up on something more profound than working styles. Eventually, I’d come to understand what he meant.

The first reason had to do with entitlement and expectations. Through recruiting pitches and conversations, I had developed a rather glamorous picture of consulting, and my reality simply didn’t match. For the entire, albeit short, duration of my employment, I was working on a long-term, internal project. That meant while my peers were flying around the country, rotating through different industries and teams, solving real-world business problems for Fortune 500 companies, I was maintaining internal programming for the Big Four. Furthermore, the “cross-functional” aspect of my project meant my superiors tended to be auditors or financial advisors instead of consultants. Almost none of the things I had expected to find in consulting were present. I was disappointed, unhappy, and unmotivated. I didn’t want to work myself into the ground on something I hadn’t signed up for.

So I tried to get out. I spent a lot of energy and brainpower ruminating on the shortcomings of my project and wondering how to remove myself. I dabbled in corporate politics. I even entertained an attempt to ‘fail out’ of the project (1). I thought I was being responsible – taking ownership of my situation, changing my environment. In hindsight, I see all this mental energy would have been better aimed at helping my project, succeeding where I was. I was wrong to expect my situation to adapt to my strengths and preferences, or to believe the onus was on the firm to find me better opportunities.

The second reason for my apparent lack of hunger had to do with why I entered consulting in the first place. For the easily compiled laundry list of gripes, I am extremely grateful for my childhood. I cherished the Jewish education I received from my private school, and I loved that my mom was always around to pick me up from the bus stop. I grew up with an air of love and support. When thinking about myself as an adult, I consistently return to these standards. To raise a happy, successful Jewish family, I must ensure there’s a yard on which to play and sound finances, including a near-bottomless education fund. Because I’m a man, tradition dictates financial responsibility falls mostly on me. Although my girlfriend says she cares about having a career of her own, the communal indoctrination of Man as The Provider lives deep in my psyche, kept alive by anxiety and responsibility.

Business schools espouse and reinforce similar values. From what felt like the first days of our first year, students were already preparing themselves to secure prestigious, high-paying corporate jobs. In many schools, students have an end-of-term practice, calculating precisely what scores they need on the final exam to secure an A in the class. My business school peers, meanwhile, would congregate to project the financial returns of various career trajectories. For a college student concerned about paying his bills as a 45-year-old, I found a strange satisfaction in the ritual. However, watching my talented friends filter into the same handful of jobs raised concerns. These were young adults who would succeed in anything they put their minds to. I had trouble believing half of my graduating class was so interested in investment banking.

When I got to the Big Four, I found myself doubting my motivations and decisions. I still felt acute pressure to ascend to the upper-middle class. If I wanted to raise a family like that of my childhood, the Big Four was certainly the place for me. On the other hand, I kept wondering why I felt the urgency to enter corporate life. I didn’t grow up dreaming of having a career in consulting, and could see enough of the industry to know it wouldn’t really stir my passions. Perhaps, I started to think, having a contented father was more important to a happy family life than money. While my childhood had been glorious, thanks to my parents’ self-sacrifice, maybe there were other possibilities. And yet, it’s possible – even probable – I wouldn’t be enamored of any job, so I might as well choose one with a large salary. Maybe I shouldn’t risk everything on account of a post-college existential crisis. Consumed with such doubts, I found it hard to exert myself to my true potential. I wasn’t “hungry” because I wasn’t fully bought in.

As I continued to ponder my manager’s feedback, I started to see myself more objectively. I developed a new attitude based on a simple fact – my project wouldn’t last forever. Even if this particular project, or this job for that matter, was not how I wanted to spend my energy, it was where I was. When I moved on to whatever was next, I’d be taking something with me. The demanding and unsympathetic nature of the corporate world had shocked me, but I had begun to realise the very discontinuity and discomfort could offer life-lessons richer than any business skill. But if I wanted to learn these lessons, I would need to exert earnest effort – a feat near-impossible while keeping a tally of what’s ‘fair’. Perhaps, as clichéd as it sounded, if I worked hard, was persistent, and stayed humble, things might even themselves out.

My performance slowly improved. I ended conversations by asking how else I could help, kept assignments and timelines organized for my team, and volunteered to do grunt work for my managers. I took notes and formatted documents. I drafted emails and double-checked instructions. But I’d left it too late. When my firm decided to terminate employees en masse, they didn’t look at my last month of work. That fell outside the firm’s fiscal year-end, and therefore outside their evaluation parameters. Truthfully, even with my new attitude I still had a long way to go. Nevertheless, it’s unfortunate; I would have loved to get an honest second chance, a tabula rasa. But that’s not the way things work.

My current challenge is parsing through my experience. Our culture often speaks of ‘resilience’ after a disrupting or shocking incident, but the way it is commonly described is misleading, if not altogether wrong. You tend to hear metaphors like you get hit and you have to pick yourself right back up, or when you fall off the horse you have to get back on. These suggest the incident from which you must recover happens in an instant. Sure, with proper traumatic experiences there might be a focal point of resilience. But there are many other categories that demand a different type of resilience.

I experienced a slow, steady mental rewiring. I willingly submitted, even conspired, in my own downfall. Over the course of ten months, I came to accept the hierarchical truth that I was replaceable – a nobody at the bottom of the food chain. In trying to play my corporate-assigned role and listen, I forgot what my voice sounded like. I forgot my drives, my passions, and my capabilities. I let the Big Four prey and when it was done, I found a neglected self. Even so, I’m resisting the urge to hit the reset button. Although I’m left with a larger sense of self-doubt and a greater risk-aversion, I also feel more grateful for – and less entitled to – the good in my life. My Big Four experience, though leaving psychological turmoil, has stimulated tremendous growth that I would dare trade-in. So I’ll continue to sit with my pain to (hopefully) make sense of my experiences.

From where I stand now, I see glimmers of hope. I remember that I’m smart and capable. I tell myself I don’t need to have my 25-year plan mapped out. I don’t need to hold myself to a preset standard of success, which is bound to cause stress and restrict some of life’s excitement. With good principles and the right amount of luck, I trust I’ll figure something out. It will take time for me to come to terms with my deflation, and rebuild confidence. But I know this confidence will be built on things more real and stable. Besides, all over the world, COVID has disrupted countless lives and forced millions to rethink all kinds of assumptions. I’m just one of many. This is the hand I was dealt. I might as well try to play with it.

Author’s Note

  1. In the back of my mind was a story Malcom Gladwell told of himself where he once purposely flew into the wrong Carolina to avoid the work he didn’t like. His editor told him to cover a story in XYZ town. But there was an XYZ town in both North and South Carolina. Instead of clarifying, like a normal person, he got on a plane to the wrong town, guessing (rightly) his editor would never book him on a similar project