Tag Archives: Woody Allen

All about the money

So it’s done. After months – no, years – of procrastination, I’ve made the phone call and fixed an appointment for the end of next week. I’d expected to feel relief as another long-outstanding job is ticked off the list, but instead I’m anticipating my meeting with the financial adviser with about as much enthusiasm as I would a visit from a Rentokil operative or a Macmillan nurse.

My reluctance to think about money is rooted in my childhood. My father was a worrier. He earned an adequate but relatively modest salary as a teacher, and I grew up with the constant parental refrain of ‘We can’t afford it.’ Family outings were sometimes ruined by his anxiety about the cost: on one occasion, he drove from our house in Manchester to Alton Towers theme park in Staffordshire, only to balk at the price of a ticket, turn around at the entrance and head back home, stopping briefly at a lay-by outside Leek for a digestive biscuit and a flask of greasy tea. It’s been liberating to distance myself from that. While I have vetoed some requests from my own children (an Xbox, a mobile phone), I have rarely done so on the ground of cost.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed the unedifying spectacle of certain acquaintances – all of them highly paid professionals – taking on extra locum and freelance work in order to feed their pension pots and service their buy-to-let mortgages, while relying on friends and grandparents to look after their children at short notice. If that sounds judgmental, it’s because I am judging. These are the same people who never have change to cover the taxi fare into town, and who plead poverty in restaurants, sucking all the joy out of life. They make me want to chuck money around, to splurge it on the Kobe beef and a bottle of the best Bordeaux, just to show them up for their meanness.

Until recently, the need to make provision for my retirement seemed entirely theoretical. No-one on my dad’s side of the family makes it beyond their sixties: why save for a future that seems unlikely to materialise? I’m assisted by my hypochondria: the fact that I interpret every twinge as multiple sclerosis and every freckle as a malignant melanoma means that I don’t expect to survive for long enough to draw my paltry private pension. Living with me is like being subjected to an endless re-run of the brain tumour scene in Hannah and Her Sisters. It must be exhausting.

But what if I don’t die early? I’m becoming increasingly aware of the need to address the dire financial situation in which I’m likely to find myself if, against all the odds, I reach old age. And I know what the financial adviser is going to tell me: it’s time to grow up. When I try to picture our meeting, I see a dramatisation of Eric Berne’s book Games People Play. Our conversation will run along the lines of the mind-game known as ‘Why don’t you – yes but’, in which character A makes a series of well-intentioned and sensible suggestions, only to be met with a string of objections from character B:

A: Set aside some savings every month.

B: I would sooner spend my spare cash on eating out, red wine, smelly cheese from the farmers’ market and supervised sporting activities for the children that knacker them out and absolve me of any obligation to engage meaningfully with them, thereby freeing up more spare time for me to carouse.

A: Pay more money into your pension.

B: I am inherently suspicious of pension fund managers, who already relieve me of a large portion of my monthly income, appropriate a hefty percentage for sitting around on their arses, and cannot tell me what – if anything – I will get at the end of it.

A: Review your tax liability.

B: Taxes pay for schools, the NHS, state benefits and social housing. They are a good thing. People should pay more taxes and do it with joy in their hearts; they shouldn’t seek to exploit barely legal loopholes in order to minimise their liability.

A: Get married.

B: After twenty years’ cohabitation and two children, this is a ridiculous suggestion. Neither of us is capable of the sincerity or emotional engagement required to meet each other’s gaze and declare ‘I do’ – and, besides, I’m secretly afraid that a wedding would upset the increasingly fragile equilibrium of our dysfunctional partnership. It would simply be a means of taking advantage of various tax breaks (as to which, see above).

A: Make a will.

B: Yes, but that would entail naming guardians for the children, a matter about which we have repeatedly failed to reach agreement. Most of our friends are inherently unsuitable. In any case, who would thrill at the prospect of taking in one boy who keeps a stash of dried bogeys on his bedside cabinet, and another who insists that every car journey is accompanied by Justin Bieber’s Sorry on an endless loop?

So I think it’s fair to say that my meeting with the financial adviser isn’t likely to go well. It taps into too many anxieties and prejudices. I know I should be planning for my future and yet I feel resistant; I don’t want to become the sort of person who concerns herself with hoarding money at the expense of fun and friendship. Besides, the need to save for a time when I may be frail and unable to work reminds me of my own mortality, and I’d rather not contemplate that. I can only prepare myself for the appointment by calling to mind Woody Allen’s line: ‘Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.’

On happiness

A friend of mine recently commented that most of the women she knows don’t seem very happy. Despite being married with children, comfortably off and in good health, they moan constantly to her about their husbands, offspring, houses and jobs. My friend is a positive person who just gets on with life and she doesn’t understand why these women complain all the time.

I do. There’s a lot of fun to be had from moaning – not to mention whingeing, ranting and bitching. Nothing drags me down more than relentless cheerfulness; to quote Aldous Huxley, there’s something curiously boring about somebody else’s happiness. Indeed, I’d argue that the very fortunate have a moral duty to gripe from time to time, if only to remind the rest of us that they, too, have their problems.

In any case, it’s no great revelation that the pursuit of happiness often ends in dissatisfaction, especially when it involves the accumulation of material wealth. Many of my old neighbours have moved away from our terraced street to large detached houses, only to find that they’ve lost something intangible in the process. They chased what they thought they ought to want – sweeping lawns, off-street parking and electronic gates. It turns out that the things they left behind – front doors that open directly on to the pavement, postage-stamp back gardens and the proximity of a busy high street – foster a sense of community that’s lacking in the tree-lined avenues further out of town.

I’m bemused that happiness is something we wish for our children. ‘I just want you to be happy,’ we say, using this as justification for buying them an endless supply of consumer goods and ferrying them around to sports clubs and friends’ houses in their spare time. When I contemplate my sons’ futures, I can think of so many things that would come higher up my wish-list than happiness. What about kindness, consideration, reflectiveness or thoughtfulness? Don’t these qualities make a far greater contribution to the common good?

Our modern obsession with taking our emotional temperature every five minutes hasn’t served us well. When it comes to encouraging this corrosive self-scrutiny, the psychoanalysis industry has a lot to answer for, with its therapy-for-therapists model that resembles pyramid-selling. The point, surely, is that happiness is elusive. You’re occasionally aware of it at the periphery of your vision, like a faint constellation in the night sky, but as soon as you try to examine it, it slips out of focus.

So, instead of happiness, I’ll settle for contentment. The things that make me content might look a bit like a lowbrow version of Woody Allen’s rumination in the closing scenes of Manhattan on things that make life worth living: a long list beginning with Groucho Marx and ending with his lover’s face.

My own list would be a random assortment of food and drink, songs, smells, places and people: a blueprint of a life. It would include cheese, chocolate, oysters and red wine (but not all at the same time); the scent of furniture polish, cut grass and freshly ground coffee (ditto); the music of Bobby Womack and Leonard Cohen; the memory of my parents dancing to December 1963 (Oh, What a Night) by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons; the Liverpool waterfront on an autumn evening; the tiny village we visited in south-west France, long before we had children, where swarms of pipistrelle bats fed on insects under the streetlight; my first sighting of the New York city skyline on a bus from JFK airport; and sitting on a windswept beach in Pembrokeshire watching my sons play football with their father and grandfather.

Naturally, none of this prevents me from having a good moan from time to time. Still, I have to admit that, in comparison, happiness seems like such an irrelevant, frothy little emotion.