And now for the scientific survey. Just how greedy are YOU? (Please answer the following questions, scoring 1 for yes and 0 for no):
1. Do you envy me winning thirty-seven million?
2. Would you like to win the National Lottery?
3. Would you care for a backdated pay rise?
4. How about somewhere nice to live?
5. A new car?
6. Fancy a nice long expenses-paid holiday?
7. Are you irritated when you read of some captain of industry doubling his salary?
8. Did Princess Di's seventeen million annoy you?
9. But were you also delighted her old man had a divvy-up?
10. Have you already planned your letter to Santa this year?
If you scored 7-10 on the Grand Index, you are a human being. Much less than seven, you're probably lying. And there's the rub. Greed is in all of us, all the time, held in check - more or less - by the restraints of politeness and common sense. It lurks dangerously like dry rot or some dormant disease, waiting for the right conditions to burst forth and wreak cheerful havoc. Even the saintly, whom you might hesitate to call greedy, can become driven by their greed for saintliness. Greed for media attention drives film stars, politicians and the more insecure royals to gruesome lengths.
Before you pen that begging letter, it might please you to know that my thirty seven million were won on a pinball machine, one of those miracles of modern engineering whose ringing bells and flashing lights electronically imitate the guzzlings and shlurpings of rampant human greed. Sadly these mocking creatures are banned by the Gaming Act from paying out winnings so all I actually gained for my wizardry were 12 free goes. They soon went. You don't, alas, have to hate me. Most of you will pity my pathetic addiction. Would-be pinball wizards on the other hand may now be gnashing their teeth.
Although we are only too well aware when we ourselves are being greedy, greed is something most readily detected - and condemned - in other people. Whenever you hear anyone being accused of greed, another type of sensor goes into action. This one does not buzz and burp, it listens carefully. The person talking is invariably revealing far more about themselves than about the third party of whom they speak. This is because we all tend to accuse others of greed in regard to the very things we ourselves crave. My friend Paddy has seven dogs. My husband, who doesn't especially like dogs, merely thinks she is mad to keep so many. All that walking and feeding, and for what? I, who have only two and would love dozens, think Paddy more than a little greedy. Why should one person have seven dogs when I'm only allowed two? It's not fair.
Concealing our greed is one of those things they smack into us as children. Like looking right, left and right again before you cross the road. Or saying "thank you" to hideous aunts for gifts you don't need or want. By all means be greedy - you're human, dear, and can't help it - but do try and hide it! You'll never get what you want in life if you make it quite so obvious how badly you want it. Look at Michael Heseltine.
Blatant greed can sometimes be endearing. When my Airedale eats a whole bag of incautiously guarded Winalot and then begs for the chocolate out of my pocket, I can only respect his essential doggy greediness (unless he then happens to be sick on the incautiously guarded Wilton). We all like to see animals tucking in. Feeding the birdies tuppence a bag or throwing mouldy bread at ducks on the pond gives us pleasure. Feeding animals at the zoo is a national pastime - to the despair of zoo keepers who like to keep their charges on a healthy regime. When, however, humans succumb to uncontrollable greed, we feel uneasy. Our position of superiority in the animal kingdom is called into question, a position that is pretty questionable anyway. Human guzzling and shlurpings disturb because they remind us how close we are to the natural world where, instead of poverty and bankruptcy and similar ignominies, the losers are picked off and eaten, often while still alive.
When I was a child I was frequently accused of being greedy - greediness in those days being entirely to do with food. My chief memory of being a child, however, was of being hungry, and being told how expensive I was to feed. My joy at having a baby sister was drastically tempered when the brick of Walls Vanilla suddenly had to be divided into six and not five. And realising that my smaller slice would be my lot thereafter. My parents were both schoolteachers and money was always tight. We were instructed to eat plenty of school lunch, because all we had when we got home was a slice of Mother's Pride with jam. I used to eat far more school lunch than anyone else. I remember shovelling mouthfuls of muck into my mouth, because I was ravenous - and then being laughed at by the other girls not just for being greedy, but for eating the slop at all. On the other hand, I can also remember my delight when free milk was stopped. Every evening my father used to arrive home and open his briefcase to disgorge those nasty little third-pint bottles. Then one day a certain Minister for Education snatched the stuff away and all over the country schoolteachers found themselves obliged to place an order with the Express Dairy. Fresh milk was so delicious by contrast to the rancid leftovers I'd known before, I couldn't drink enough of it. Do you realise how much milk costs? my father would rant, and I would feel fat, expensive and de trop.
It makes me angry now to think how as a child I was made to feel greedy for displays of normal appetite. I was far from fat. I craved chocolate and sweet things and sometimes in adult life I have found myself buying the stuff (which I no longer like), and then wishing I could send it back through time to my younger hungry self. You don't have to be a psychologist to see that what I was greedy for as a child was only partially to do with food. No infant ever leaves my house without its cheeks bulging and its pockets crammed with sticky edibles. If only the greed of later years were so easily assuaged.
When the National Lottery started in November 1994, it felt like a personal tragedy. All prophets want their prophecies to come true, but preferably after they've been published. I had already been working on my latest novel for a couple of years and still had a fair bit to write. The novel takes place in a town once famous for its lottery, which had to be stopped because of all the trouble it had caused. Riots, murder, that kind of thing. When I started work on the book I had two subjects I wanted to write about: a will and a lottery. Both involve large sums of money bringing out the greed in people. Being greedy, I combined them both. By setting the will in a town that had held a lottery, the trouble caused by the will echoes the mayhem of the lottery in the past.
Greed is a novelist's dream. It strips away the polish and the veneer to expose the rough wood of the character underneath. What is funny in fiction is not nearly so funny when it happens around you, involving people you know, or think you know. Within months of starting the book, my grandmother died leaving a perfectly straightforward will. I had just written the chapter introducing the executor when my grandmother's executor telephoned. Above my desk was written "CORRUPTION - as the body corrupts into the soil, the will starts to corrupt the people left behind." Over the coming months, I watched my family battling over grandmother's bric-a-brac. Never were cracked willow patterned plates and worn antimacassars so hotly disputed. Far from being funny, it became very petty and depressing. Of course, it wasn't the china or antimacassars that were really being fought over. Wills go into the fissures that already exist in families, breaking them open into great gaping unmendable cracks.
The sad thing is that just about everyone I have discussed wills with has come up with a horrendous story about a will in their family. For the sake of future generations I would like to see inheritance laws changed. Isn't it bad enough that we get stuck with our parents' genes without having to inherit their rubbish as well? Surely a person's goods should be buried or burnt with them. Any money they didn't have time to spend could go towards paying off the national debt. It would cause far less bother in the long run. As for the National Lottery, the large sums of money on offer obviously don't bring happiness. People would get just as excited if interesting prizes were given instead. Like taking tea with the Queen Mum or having their crummy holiday video shown on prime TV. I have no wish to win the Lottery (and have never bought a ticket) but I often dream of winning one of those fabled competitions where you have two minutes to fill your shopping trolley with anything you fancy. The starting pistol sounds and I'm off like a whippet up and down the aisles, grabbing this, seizing that. Then I skid on a broken bottle of sauce - I should have known it was a dream, I never wear high heels. I crash down, upturning my trolley and all the booty rolls everywhere. A bell sounds, my two minutes is up. The assistants crowd about, picking up the goodies and returning them to the shelves. My alarm is going off and it's time to get up.
Ah well, at least "what I would do if I won the Lottery" has now ousted "what house prices are doing" as the national topic of conversation. What a boring people we have become. As for the Anglo-Saxons from whom we inherited greed - I find it tragic that plans to celebrate this coming millennium all seem to revolve around an orgy of spending - throwing vast sums of money at vast unimaginative projects where the main beneficiaries will be the consultant and others with their snouten in ye trof. Surely it doesn't have to be this way.
In an attempt to do something to counter the tide of greed that threatens to swamp us, I have my own pet project for the millennium, the Ubiquitous Monkey Puzzle Tree Ynitiative (UMPTY for short). Monkey puzzle trees are wonderful and always make me grin. There aren't nearly enough of them about.
To celebrate my 40th birthday in two weeks' time, I am sending all my friends a monkey puzzle seed together with planting instructions I obtained from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. By the year 2000 these trees will be large enough to plant outdoors. I urge everybody to do the same. After all, who cares what your house is or isn't worth if there's a monkey puzzle tree in the front garden to make you smile?
Apart from being a pinball wizard and monkey puzzle enthusiast, Charlotte Cory is the author of 'The Guest', a novel of greed, corruption and lottery mania in a fictitious English town, published this week by Faber and Faber.Reuse content