Tuesday 6 July 2010

What if I had become Victor Meldrew?

The “what if” game is the historian’s equivalent of “truth or dare”. What if the Salic law preventing female succession to German thrones had not applied in 1837, and Victoria had become Queen of Hanover as well as Great Britain? Would the First World War have been avoided?

More frivolously, and fictionally, what if Victor Meldrew had never married? Just how grumpy would he have been by the time he reached 70? My lovely young wife, as she likes to style herself, constantly reminds me that she has rescued me from a solitary old age in which I would no doubt have made Victor look like an advertisement for drug-induced jollity.

What if I had not opened that fateful email on March 31, 2008, in which she responded on behalf of an improbably offline friend to my website’s spoof advertisement for a wife, girlfriend or carer? Or what if I had simply deleted it, as I almost certainly would have done if she had not mentioned that she worked for a company whose chief executive happened to be a friend of mine, making it easy to check that she was a real human being and not some evil internet fraudster?

All these thoughts ran through my head on Saturday as we celebrated our son Charlie’s first birthday with his family and friends in Northumberland: his second major party and his fourth in all, setting a record likely to be challenged only by our own dear Queen. Admittedly I had taken the precaution of confining the children to a largely art-, antique- and book-free conservatory, but even so several people remarked on my preternatural calmness, as I sat there sipping Cava and nursing the head wound caused by three-year-old Nathaniel’s over-enthusiastic throw of a surprisingly sharp-edged dog toy.

I have certainly become a great deal more relaxed in the last couple of years. Perhaps because, like a man caught in an avalanche, I have stopped trying to grab something solid and simply resigned myself to my fate.

Yet, ironically, the unplanned developments in my private life have also closed off the option of the relaxing retirement I had planned for myself when I turned 50, after the predictable failure of an over-ambitious attempt to retire to the country and write books at the ripe old age of 32. Having spent several years systematically shaking off my loyal and long-suffering clients, I have been forced to spend the last 18 months trying to re-ingratiate myself with them and to broaden my range of contacts and capabilities.

No easy task in the present economic climate, with the added handicaps of my age, looks and gloomy persona. Who would appoint Victor Meldrew as a PR adviser when he could have a bubbly blonde with more up-to-date professional knowledge and infinitely greater charm, not to mention a wardrobe full of designer short skirts and Jimmy Choos?

Even so, my efforts have not been entirely unsuccessful. Except that I realised last week that I have made the classic self-employed mistake of squandering my income and failing to set anything aside for the tax bill that will arrive in January. So, like someone on an ever-accelerating treadmill, I must now try to earn yet more to pay the tax, thus preparing the ground for an even bigger bill in 2012.

What if I had had a proper career instead of drifting along in pursuit of the easiest option, always carefully dodging out of any job just before a large bonus or other serious windfall was about to land in my lap? It’s a question I ponder regularly, as I contemplate working until 80 or death, but I only have to look at the curly-headed one-year-old playing happily with his cousins to know that I would not really wish it any other way.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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