Travelling on the Tube in London, I overheard a conversation between two schoolboys, aged 15 or 16. “What would you buy if you won the lottery?” asked one, a bright-eyed, dark-haired boy. “I’d buy a really big house – and some cars,” replied his more placid-looking ginger-haired friend. “Just like everybody else.”
The boys were polite and well-spoken; for all I know, they were boarders at one of the better houses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I was both fascinated and shocked by their exchange but I suppose I shouldn’t have been. After all, like Jane Austen, as WH Auden reminds us in his “Letter to Lord Byron”, they were merely revealing “the economic basis of society”.
But when I went home and discussed with my partner Ching Ling what the boys had said, we agreed on one thing: that at their age, our aspirations and ambitions were wildly different from those of the ginger-haired boy.
The first interesting point of difference came early on in the question asked by the dark-haired boy (call him Harry). He asked “what would you buy?” rather than “what would you do?” Not many of my aspirations at the age of 16, I can honestly say, had to do with buying rather than doing.
When I won an obscure divinity prize at school, I bought a new, or rather slightly less old, set of second-hand golf clubs and a cello bow. Those acquisitions seemed no small beer to me: there was no end to what I might do with them (the golf clubs served me faithfully for 25 years).
I might have had limited aspirations to buy things, but when it came to doing things my ambitions were unbounded, if somewhat vague. I wanted to act, to play music, to write, to love (somewhat in the manner of Dr Zhivago). Both Ching Ling and I, at that age, wanted to travel, to see more of the world.
But the really startling point of difference came with the answer of the ginger-haired boy (call him Ron). Why would a 16-year-old boy want to buy “a really big house”?
I had no interest in buying any kind of house – let alone a “really big” one – until well into my 30s. I was only persuaded into buying a small London flat in my late 20s by a perspicacious, street-wise girlfriend who saw, first, that this might be the only time in my life when I was holding down “a proper job”, and, second, that it would prove a good investment (I suppose it did, though maybe in assessing the performance of investments you should consider what a Californian friend calls the “return on life” as much as the monetary return).
Well beyond my teens, I was vehemently opposed to property ownership. The British obsession with owning, buying and selling houses seemed to me the root of all evil – that is, the root of a system that valued property more than people. It was a negative root in another way: a way of rooting people to the spot, making them immobile. When I was Ron’s age I wanted to be mobile, to be on the move.
When I inherited a small sum of money from a relative on my 21st birthday, I did not, like my more sensible sister, immediately put down a deposit on a flat. I set off for Barcelona with a large suitcase containing all the worldly goods I would need for the next nine months (the most important and the heaviest being a portable Adler typewriter). Living in a rented room, with a tiny patio garden overlooked by the pineapple pinnacles of Gaudí’s Sagrada Família church, I had never been happier in my life.
I suppose you could say that Ron’s aspirations were much more “realistic” than mine: that is to say, much more in tune with the mainstream mythology of contemporary culture, as celebrated in endless TV programmes and magazines such as OK! and Hello! But here I would disagree. I actually think Ron’s aspirations were far less realistic than mine, far less in tune with what a young person might actually desire. The giveaway was the seemingly innocuous phrase “some cars”.
I can understand a young person wanting to own a car; owning my first car as a graduate student, after relying on my parents’ ferrying for so long, gave me a great feeling of independence. I even flirted with the idea of buying a sports car until I worked out the insurance premium. But “some cars”? This seems tantamount to the aspiration to own a garage.
Sitting in the Tube carriage somewhere underneath London’s West End, I could bite my tongue no longer. In a lull in the boys’ conversation, I threw in a comment: “Don’t you think your aspirations are, well, just a bit middle-aged?” Of course, the irony was not lost on me. Harry laughed: “I suppose I might buy a room in an underwater hotel,” he ventured. But Ron had the last word: “You could buy the whole hotel.”
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