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The Civil Servant

“If all that has of late been said against the Civil Service be true, it must be in a parlous state. We hardly know which have treated it worst, its friends or its enemies; that is, if we may venture to consider that it has friends. Its enemies are numerous enough. We meet them in the columns of every newspaper. We hear their sarcasms in every railway carriage. They publish pamphlets. They utter their bitter denunciations in street-corners and open market-places. They are loud and wrathful in season and out of season. They are of all classes; the great landed magnate inveighs against the civil service; the independent member of Parliament, who doesn’t, perhaps, get all that he wants, talks of the miserable creatures of a miserable Government; the prosperous tradesmen sneers at the government official, as a dishonest, stupid drone; and even the young lady, who fails to receive her book of beauty, or her monthly fashions in due course of post, learns by heart half a column of abuse from a newspaper, and quotes it eloquently whenever the unhappy Government is spoken of. Then comes the popular novelist, and, with his sledgehammer, gives it the last blow, and devotes every mother’s son in the public offices to lasting ignominy and vile disgrace.

“So speak the enemies of the Civil Service; and of the number must be reckoned apparently the whole British public. Its friends, therefore, must be found within itself. And how do they speak, when called on to say a word on the subject? How is the Civil Service spoken of by men behind the scenes; who are themselves in authority therein; who are considered specially qualified to give opinion on the matter, and who, it will be thought, are not likely to foul their own nest unnecessarily? Let us hear what such men say. In the first place, it is for the unambitious, the indolent and the incapable that the sweets of the Civil Service are desired. Those who are unfit for active exertions are placed in the Civil Service, where by attending with moderate regularity to routine duties, they are preserved against the ordinary consequences of old age. The Civil Service is a kind of hospital, in which the parents of sickly sons seek for employment for their puny offspring.” 

Anthony Trollope, The Three Clerks, Chapter XXVII – The Civil Service, pp. 308-9

Way back in 2002 (when the world was far more innocent) the United Nations designated June 23 as the day to honour and celebrate public service. The Government of Canada also recognizes the contribution of civil servants, although it began the practise earlier (in 1992) and now designates the entire 3rd week of June to mark the occasion. I remember those annual events well. 

By and large, the public takes the contribution of public servants for granted. The last couple of years, however, have been different. On top of the pandemic, we have witnessed several events of extreme weather, especially here on the West Coast. On all occasions, many frontline workers leapt into action, nursing the ill, rescuing those at risk, minimizing the threats from floods and/or fire and providing a host of other essential services.

The sacrifice and dedication of so many individuals – nurses, doctors, paramedics, cleaners, food service workers, police, soldiers, firemen (and women), security services, etc. – has never been so crucial to society. They have kept us safe; they have kept us well; they have kept us alive. In sum, apart from a world at war, public service has never been so important.

I began my career as a writer of fantasy novels in 2006, the year I began writing The Ravenstones series. Although I’d finished the first draft of all seven books by 2012, it took until the summer of 2020 to edit, improve and refine them before I was sufficiently satisfied with the quality to release the first two in the series. Three more have been released since then. Two more are on their way, with the series wrapped up within the year.

Before I became a full-time writer, I had another career – as a civil (sometimes known as a public) servant. That one lasted from 1967 to 2005. I joined, first, the Canadian Armed Forces, and then the federal public service, working in several central agencies and line departments, serving outside the country and within, including three different provinces and capitals.

The decision to embark on a career of service was probably not surprising, since both my father and grandfather had spent their careers with the Canadian Army, through three Canadian military campaigns and one peacekeeping exercise in Africa. It was in my blood, so to speak, and the natural choice for a profession.

I consider serving the citizens of one’s place of birth to be one of the most honourable professions imaginable. I joined out of a sense of duty. Growing up, I felt it a privilege to be living in this fine country, and for that privilege, I owed something in return. Even in high school I’d concluded that my debt to Canada was best repaid through this fashion.

Readers of these posts (some of whom are even former colleagues) will know that every post has a literary connection. This one is no exception. I don’t know many book series that focus on the ins and outs of government life, involving both high politics and the higher echelons of the bureaucracy. C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers comes first to my mind: the title of the ninth book in the series, Corridors of Power, has become a household phrase on its own.

My copy: New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972

Another writer digging into this same world but in another century is Anthony Trollope, one of my very favourite novelists. Popular and successful in the mid-1800’s, he’s less well known now (being eclipsed by both Charles Dickens and Jane Austen). Most famous then and since are his Barsetshire and Palliser novels, the former about the foibles of county life and Anglican church politics in Victorian England, the latter about the world of high society, Parliamentary ambition, “love and intrigue, social incidents and a dash of sport”. Both series (of six books each) contain terrific social commentary, memorable character sketches and wonderful names (only Dickens could have matched the name chosen for the scurrilous journalist, Quintus Slide).

There’s much more to be said in praise of Trollope, and one day I might produce another post on his books. But for this post, one thing stands out for me: Trollope was not just a fabulous writer, he was also a public servant. From 1834 – 69, Trollope worked for the Post Office, in England and in Ireland. He wrote early each morning before breakfast, and, at a pace of 1000 words a day (some say 3000 words), managed to produce 18 novels before retiring and 19 more afterwards (47 in all), plus many articles and books of nonfiction. That’s what I call dedication and a work ethic. 

A few years back, England celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth and the Guardian newspaper asked several noted authors to choose their favourite amongst his many works. Most picked a book from either of the two celebrated series noted above. No one picked The Three Clerks, (one of his earlier works, published in 1858; my version is a Folio Society edition of 1992, one I inherited from my mother when she downsized and gave up her library).

From this book, I chose the excerpt which opened this post, which deals with the public’s view of the civil service. Anyone who’s worked for the government will understand where Trollope is coming from and can well imagine that he writes from his own bitter experience. Indeed, the story’s protagonist, a lowly clerk who wishes to pursue a career as a novelist, is seen as combining the two very opposite ends of Trollope’s own life in the British Post Office. 

Much of the book is filled with “gentle, even affectionate” satire (p. xii), and critics at the time considered it one of his best novels, even an improvement on the Barsetshire series (one of which had been published the year before).

I trust my readers will get the intended humour.

Cover Photo by Naveen Kumar on Unsplash