Alex James: The Great Escape

Everything's better with huge piles
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Neighbours are different things in the country. They live further away for a start. In London, until I met the neighbours, I thought I had the nicest house in the world, an ex-cheese factory. It was pretty marvellous. I bought it from a man who wrote musicals. The cleaner, who'd been there through many years of showbusiness, showed us pictures of parties with huge flower arrangements and crystal and Barbara Windsor smiling on the stairs. I couldn't believe the life I was living in this enchanted, blessed spot. The dear old lady was soon poached by number 25 next door, the people with the processed cheese empire. It was always a good street for cheese.

Now, two years of builders into living in the country, and the house is nearly done. The Aga's on, broadband, all the rest of it. I was feeling like I was doing pretty well for myself all over again. Then on Sunday I went for lunch with an old friendly face who has a pile up the road. What a house! Oh, I just want it more than mine. It's a big old Gothic castle with the huge dry-stone wall and sculptures in the garden. I think I saw a cathedral from one of the upper windows of the main house. Lunch was long and lovely, a pork joint with vegetables from the garden, perfect buttery sprouts, boiled beetroots with a squirt of lemon, shredded raw cabbage with vinegar.

You can really relax in a castle. You feel safe. There was another guy there, and he has an even bigger house. In fact, I think he might have a whole country somewhere or other. He knew about roofs. It was so nice to get my building problems into perspective, and to talk to people who know about roofs. In London, rich people know nothing about roofs. They avoid them. In the country, the richer you get, the more you have to know about them.

Big houses, we agreed, are very practical in many ways. One of great things about a huge pile is that whatever you put in, it looks fantastic. A vast reception hall looks amazing even if all it's got is a sofa that came off a skip and a bare light bulb dangling from some remote ceiling. You can waste so much money on sofas, light fittings and making things look tidy. I came home wanting a much bigger house.

Very successful people are by far the worst for keeping up with the Joneses. They don't want to just keep up, they want to overtake and destroy the Joneses and rub their noses in it. Beating the Joneses is the name of the game. The Hamptons, where you get sent for being very rich and fabulous and American, is the very worst place for it. Everything there is a currency, and the idea is to have more currency than anyone else. Cooler friends, hipper art, better tree collection. It's a massive scramble to be the best. And it's quite a good game.

Second best, like it says, is almost as good as best. In fact it's the real best, I've discovered, but not in that game. When I was in Monaco for the Grand Prix there was more wealth on display than I've ever seen anywhere. It was fantastic. There were so many huge boats in the harbour. They were ships, really, with helicopters on the back, that kind of thing. All the Formula One drivers and supermodels and rock stars and Wimbledon champions were on the biggest one. Everybody was on that one vast, floating palace.

The guy with the second biggest boat - it was definitely the second nicest boat I've ever seen - he had no friends. Nobody wanted to go on his boat, in fact he was on the big boat, too. Who'd want to live next door to people like that? I love my neighbours.