My fellow guest's clarion tones made everyone stop talking to see what I would say. Suddenly I was transported back to childhood when people seriously asked my BBC producer father how to mend their black and white TVs. "Personally I just pick mine up and drop it." he would reply. Yet in this more exacting age, I was not let off so lightly, and muttered Bob Worcester 's old line that perception was reality, and so if we feel poorer, then we are.
Last week, two stories caught my eye. In a British Heart Foundation report, more than half the workers surveyed took less than 30 minutes for lunch, while one third of women respondents had no lunch hour at all. The conclusion was that the long hours in the workplace were making us stressed, burned-out and fat. Very enriching. I then saw a paragraph about a well known City stockbroker who had committed suicide in Spain because of financial difficulties. He was 55. His Square Mile cronies were amazed, 'he just loved life' said one. Neither story surprised me, but merely enforced my perception that somehow we are becoming very poor indeed.
Somehow when that first fierce spring sun arrives, this tension between perception and reality becomes more strained. Last Saturday in my local high street, business was booming as Mother's Day traffic queued nose to tail ground and drivers fought to park like Londoners. It was like being back in one of those rich residential south-east hell-holes like Esher or Harpenden. where the M25 spews out hundreds of cars per hour. A further symbol of my town's socalled economic progress was a sign near the station announcing yet another Walker Homes development with an even naffer sounding name than the last estate they knocked up. Our quality of life is being eroded by all this progress, is killing off our golden goose of a town many locals claim, making us all feel poorer. I feel myself turning into a nimby. I buy a local paper and find that the first few pages are filled with planning battles against developments in every town in the county. Interestingly I note that the words luxury and development seem synonymous these days, even though it usually means providing what most of us would expect in the closing years of the millennium, such as a fitted kitchen. So we have more, while feeling we have less. It is too easy to say that 'fings ain't wot they used to be', because in many ways the vast majority of us have never had it so good. It is how we feel that matters. Read the obituary columns and you can only be struck by what assets older people had the opportunity to build up and value. Octogenarian career soldiers die leaving country properties which now would need a City fortune to afford. Middle class parents can often no longer provide the quality of life they enjoyed as children, which as they must now work twice as hard apparently without a lunch hour, is a bitter pill indeed. I discuss this with a retired Mayfair picture dealer in his seventies, "well if you were around in the sixties you could get the Monte Carlo apartment for cash and the Roller. Life was fun." Nowadays I wonder how many dealers trying to flog pictures with the droit de suite hanging over them could even buy a flat in the East Neuk for cash?
And this is perhaps one key reason why our apparent wealth and economic progress does not make us feel rich. The banks fund our life style where our equity investments fall short and in conquence we are disorientated by this unreal money, it is funny money, a figment of electronic information. Would we feel richer I wonder if we were paid in cash in an envelope. The only time I have ever been paid a wage packet of crisp fivers, it felt like a fortune.
Interestingly, there are some small signs that as the Dow peaks, the worm is finally turning and we are beginning to put a price upon our feeling of poverty. More amazing than last week's assorted fortunes of the markets and the European Commission was the line the Daily Mail, of all papers, took to news that the Queen Mother has out-Fergied Coutts with a ?4m, overdraft. "Pampered, privileged and such an affront to decency!" thundered La Lee Potter and the tumbrels rumbled in Middle England. Yes, the Royals have taken us for mugs, for far too long! Last week too, opinion polls suggested that the SNP is right and most Scottish voters would prefer to pay a little more tax for good public services. It seems it is New Labour which is off-message. I think of English friends down south having to fork out thousands for private health care on top of everything else and feel that the value of public services makes us all feel rich, in a way that the constant fighting to accrue assets does not.
Would winning the lottery make us feel rich? Possibly, until the following week when someone won a rollover. No, we look over our shoulders at others' possessions at our peril and instead must find other items to put on our personal balance sheet.
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