Money. That's what I want. Or is it?

ARE YOU sure about money? I mean, do you understand money, do you think about it and take it into account and know where you stand? I don't mean knowing how much you have in the bank or in your pocket (and, by the way, men: you should never know how much you have in your pocket, and certainly never ever count it out each night into neat piles on top of your chest of drawers). I mean, do you know how you feel about money?

Until the other day, I thought I did. I thought that I really, deep-down, believed money to be somehow vaporous, volatile, fine for a moment like the fleeting citrus heart of eau-de-Cologne, but needing to be captured and fixed by conversion into good things: a soft tweed coat, a box of cigars, airline tickets, books, food, perfumes, wine, debauchery.

But ... here is the scene. An expensive - a ludicrously expensive - restaurant in the twee, vile heart of England's Home Counties. Outside, a hot afternoon, a small Norman church shimmering in the heat, inviting bombs and desecration; small expensive houses sheltering people called Basil and Marjorie, people who were once in Pressburger and Powell movies, the smell of chintz and Glade and complacency. Inside, me and some other people, including an amusing man who does much the same sort of thing as I do, though on a marginally larger scale.

The amusing man is paying for lunch, which is a good thing; this, and the monstrously wonderful food (in which barnyard oddities like silage, wattles and udder are mixed and transformed), the decent bottle of St Emilion, the good company and the proximity of the amusing man's alluring girlfriend, rose-scented and slender as sherbet, conspire to reduce me to beaming and universal benevolence.

Until the amusing man mentions money. He doesn't mention money straight away, but leads in with stinkbomb delicacy by announcing that he has just been offered a writing job which I have coveted for years. He tells me how flattered he was to be asked, how much fun it would be, and, as I weep inwardly with envy (for the job) and shame (for its not having been offered to me), how he is not going to accept it.

I start up in my seat, choking on an expensive delicacy - a cobweb, a dewlap, a piece of rumen, I cannot be sure - and gaze at him as though he is insane. How can he turn it down? It would be exciting, it would be life-enhancing, it would be the making of him.

He is turning it down because of the money. The money is not enough. He tells me how much this not-enough money would be.

It is more than I imagined possible. It is enough money to mean an end to worry; enough money to allow one to sleep at night, to go on holiday, to pay the tax bill, to buy a sofa. It is a lovely amount of money; it is the monetary equivalent of the lunch we are eating, lush and enchanting and full of rare flavours and odd, delightful effects.

But that is not how it strikes me. For the first time ever, I think: "I wish somebody thought me worth that amount of money."

It is a truly vile moment: the money-thing coming into focus after decades of insouciant stupidity. It is like an irruption of violence, the onset of mortality, the end of illusion. Suddenly I see money as a thing in itself, not a staging- post on the road to elsewhere. This money he has been offered - and which he can afford to turn down - is only incidentally to do with silk shirts and first editions and no debts and peace of mind. This money is primarily about esteem; and he is held in over 16 times as much esteem as me.

Last week I sat in the Academy Club while a wonderful man called Roja Dove - Professeur des Parfums at Guerlain - waved little blotter-strips under my nose and demonstrated the line of development from Crepe-de-Chine through to Aramis, and gave me a pot of concrete de jasmine de Grasse to smell (intensely floral, narcotic, with a disturbing animal note of indole, and my fingers still smelt of it three days later, just from holding the pot) and showed me the true effect of the aldehyde on Chanel No 5, and I went home smelling of rose de Mai and vetiver and oak-moss and labdanum and opoponax, not to mention also being hopelessly in love with Mr Dove, and thought to myself: this is about as good as life can get, how many people ever get to smell the true absolute of tuberose?, I am a lucky man. And then I thought, how many people ever get to ride in the cockpit of Concorde from London to Washington and on down to Miami? To be shown a 25,000-year-old rock-painting in the wilds of outback Australia which learned types have been fruitlessly searching for for years? To watch a heart-transplant, race a powerboat, take part in a pornographic movie, ride with the NYPD, help build a computer game, direct an opera, conduct an orchestra, build a website, sit in a studio telling people what to think, hang out with some of the most interesting people on the planet, do what I want? And I thought: I am not merely a lucky man; I am an unimaginably lucky man.

But now the gilt has been stripped off my lily. Now I am an undervalued man, a faller-by-the-wayside, one who has been weighed in the money-balance and been found wanting. I am of no substance, without property, a creeping thing upon the belly of the earth, a worm and no man. I will not be able to hold up my head in the Groucho Club, and I shall have to throw away my lovely clothes and adopt faded rags and a slouch, shave badly, whine, avoid eye-contact and remould my outward appearance to reflect my inward disgrace. I have, in short, failed, and there's an end of it.

All the same ... all the same, try as I might, money doesn't smell that good; whereas if I close my eyes and inhale I can still detect jasmine hanging in the air like a ghost of good fortune. Maybe I don't care, not really; maybe I'll just put on my softest suit and my bluest shirt, a drop of Apres l'Ondee on my wrist and out into the streets to show myself to the damned people. After all, I may have no money, but I still have my pride. !