Perhaps it all depends what people think wealth is?
For most of my life I’ve been presented with the idea, more or less as a matter of fact, that ‘being wealthy’ means having pots of money, and a big house and a fast car and maybe a trophy wife and a couple of Rembrandts hanging on the walls of the house too.
But personally I’ve never been much attracted to such ‘wealth’. And I don’t envy rich, wealthy people either. I was aged about 27 years when, one day, I realised that what I really wanted above all was time: free time, idle time, the kind of time you get on Sundays or during holidays, the kind of time in which you can do what you want rather than what somebody else wants you to do.
As a consequence, I’ve never been a rich man. I’ve never owned a big house. I’ve never had a fast car. I’ve never had a wife, never mind a trophy wife. And there are no Rembrandts hanging on my walls. But I’ve always had enough money to live on. And, most importantly of all, these days I have lots and lots of idle time.
One result of which is that it’s no trouble for me to write a blog post almost every day. It’s easy for me.
And because I’ve had so much free time since I moved from Devon, I’ve done what I always do when I have lots of free time: I entertain ideas. And the main one this past year has been the idea that when cells grow and divide, they maintain a constant ratio of surface area to volume. It’s a very mathematical idea. Somehow or other, all my ideas seem to be mathematical, even though I don’t think I’m much of a mathematician.
And at the moment I’m thinking a lot about the 400 completed ISIS survey questionnaires in a database on my computer, and having ideas about that too. In fact, the whole ISIS survey project is something I could only have done because I had the idle time to do it.
If anything, I have too many ideas. I was looking at a list of them of them last week, wondering when I could ever find time for all of them.
So although all my time is idle time, I’m actually very busy. I’m very seldom doing nothing. In fact, I’m not sure I know how to do nothing. Maybe that’s what yoga and meditation is all about.
The nearest I ever got to doing nothing was when I was doing what I was describing last night, and sitting by a river with a beer and a few cigarettes just watching the reflections in the water, the shadows of the trees, the sparkle of sunlight on the ripples. Which is why I think that going to a pub and sitting with a pint of beer and a cigarette is pretty near the zenith of human experience. And that’s one reason why I’m so outraged at smoking bans that have destroyed, or at least badly degraded, that sublime and simple experience.
But then, that’s what I think wealth is. Yet I’m pretty sure that antismokers don’t think any such thing. The antismoking Dr W, in whose house I once lived, never allowed himself any idle time at all. As soon as he got home from work, he’d head out into the garden to dig the vegetable patch, or work on something that needed mending. I never saw him sit and watch TV, or read a newspaper, or even read a book. He worked from dawn to dusk, every day. He didn’t seem to see any value in idle time, in free time, in doing nothing.
And maybe all antismokers are like that, and when they pass a pub full of people drinking and smoking and talking, they just see people wasting their time doing nothing when they could be doing something useful and productive. They hate idleness. And I love idleness.
After all, they often claim that smoking bans ‘improve productivity’, and once you stop people wasting their time at work smoking cigarettes, they’ll do much more useful, productive work. They seem to think that wealth is money, and gold, and big houses, and fast cars, and trophy wives, and Rembrandts hanging on the wall. And yet, it’s only in their idle time that anyone, however rich they may be, can actually enjoy these things. For what value do they have if they are never enjoyed?
I once saw a TV documentary about a couple who worked an 80-hour week. They lived in a big house with a large garden and tennis courts and swimming pool, but they were never shown strolling in the garden, or playing tennis in the tennis court, or swimming in the pool. For them, it seemed that merely owning these things was sufficient. For they insisted that “we would be unable to afford this standard of living if we worked fewer hours.” I thought that they were mad, and their standard of living was pitifully low. But perhaps their madness was the same madness of the antismokers, and the same madness of Dr W. Only they were at least harmless, and did not impose their values on everyone else – unlike Dr W, who worked tirelessly all his life to stop people sitting around idly in pubs, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.
It seems to me that, if you haven’t got the time to sit down beside your trophy wife in your palatial villa, and admire the Rembrandts on the wall, you may as well not have them. Perhaps that’s why these celebrity marriages so often end in divorce: they only get to see their trophy wives (or trophy husbands) for a few minutes each week, and the latter soon begin to feel neglected. And if it’s merely possession or ownership that matters, and not the actual enjoyment of these possessions, then they may as well be imaginary possessions.
Like my castles in Spain. I own several. You didn’t know that, did you? I seldom mention them to anyone, lest it should provoke envy. And they all have swimming pools and tennis courts, and sweeping, landscaped gardens. And about 100 rooms in each castle, and an expansive dining chamber with a huge trompe l’œil Velázquez painted on the ceiling. Or maybe El Greco. And each one has a stable with 100 Arabic white horses, and carriages to go with them. And I have a pretty mistress living in each one, with a retinue of servants around her. But , well, y’know how it is,… I simply never find the time to visit them. In fact, I’ve never visited them at all. But I know they’re there, and should I ever manage to drag myself away from the computer screen in my tiny little flat, they’ll be ready and waiting, and the butler will come running out to greet me as I park my battered little Toyota next to the pergola beside the ornamental lake at the end of the mile-long drive, and my pretty mistress will wave to me from a window in one of the castle’s many soaring towers, and he will bow and say:
‘Señor must be hungry and thirsty. May I offer him this glass of 1830 vintage champagne and a brace of vintage roast quail – codornices viejos – blanched in cider and honey and pepper?’
And I will pat all my pockets, and reply, ‘No, wait. Dammit, it looks like I left my roll-ups in Don Eduardo’s cantina a few towns back.’
And with that, I will turn the little Toyota round, and drive all the way back down the mile-long drive, and out the ornate, gilded gates again.