Charles Ingram, the Millionaire cheat, has declared that upon discharge from his job with the Royal Engineers, he is willing to become a farm hand. Well I bet he is. What more dramatic yet magnificently humbling season in hell could possibly be concocted than a simple stint as a son of the soil? Major Ingram, pater to a filly called Portia, had plotted to siphon his bamboozled winnings from Who Wants to be a Millionaire? into a family pile and a Balearic holiday pad. Instead, he faces relocation to a caravan in Stickshire where his rent will be earned by shovelling dung.
Note that the media-friendly Major does not mention employment as a fast food server, petrol pump assistant or lollipop man. It's always the rural that gets 'em. The great tradition of middle-class slumming-it consists of running organic b&bs in the Scilly Isles, husbanding smallholdings, and even crofting, for God's sake. Clearly, there's something perversely glamorous about downshifting so far that you're knee-deep in mud. While we women would never want to drop out and abandon the kids, or the shoe-shopping opportunities, life as a labourer is a prime male fantasy, a merry marriage of martyrdom and muscles. Look at George Orwell, who became a plongeur (a washer-upper to you and me) in Paris. Think John Clare, peasant poet and pastoral hero, or the Marxist theorist Gramsci in his prison cell. Then there's Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano, who chose, Thoreau-style, to rough it in a rude shack off the west coast of Canada. How tragic, how noble, how sexy, lads.
Tilling the land might sound like a feasible option to the TV cheat, all Gabriel Oak meets Jack Kerouac with Countryside Alliance larks thrown in, but as someone who grew up in the middle of Dartmoor, I can assure him that sloshing through rain-sodden goose poo with only a silo and a lone Friesian for company is not the idyll it may sound. In fact, Jean de Florette-ing is the last thing I would do were I sacked from my word processor. What would I choose? Well, if I couldn't be an actress, TV presenter, photographer, or any other form of licensed show-off, I'd rather get a 16-year-old tart's job in Top Shop, ghost-write porn by the yard, or become a central London postal worker, than mash beet and polish Massey Fergusons for some sadistic farmer whose vowels I couldn't understand.
This feeds into a career-and-lifestyle dilemma that has begun to bother me on a daily basis. Would I rather sell my soul and trouser a million squid – either by nicking it off Chris Tarrant or working 60-hour weeks in the City – or live a North London boho existence of vague slackery and arty intent, while grumbling about my lack of Caribbean holidays and non-sale Whistles clothes? Clearly I opt for the latter, but the choice becomes less and less simple. I recently moved to the rat-run border of a posh 'hood: the front of the flat boasts views of road rage, drug deals and endless shouting for someone called Kyle. The back looks out on leafy tumblings and oversized Victorian lovelinesses inhabited by famous literary agents, their bestselling husbands, and skiing nannies. Gnash.
Part of the problem is that I grew up to the Dartmoor manor born, a lentil-eating spoilt girl subject to few rules in a place where vast granite piles set in oozy acreage were 10 a penny, and one's ponies were virtually free – you just lassoed a wild one and rode it bareback. It's taken me all these years to realise that if you want the equivalent in London, you have to know about IT or tracker funds or medical negligence law rather than Victorian literature and celebrity trivia. Suddenly, it doesn't seem quite so funny to be a dedicated scribbling type who's unlikely ever to own a house half the size of one of our moorland outbuildings. Increasingly pissed off that most of my friends with proper jobs are turning into rich bastards, I'm forced to wonder if I've made the right choice here.
Just how much would I do to earn unseemly amounts? Quite a lot, as long as it didn't mean working somewhere normal. Though I think the TV cheat might find squirting phosphates less fun than talking to tabloids, his original, more mercenary impulse is entirely understandable. We might all occasionally fantasise about becoming a Highland midwife or a dawn-treading roadsweeper, but at heart we mostly just want to be stinking rich. I for one would like it all ways – I'm willing to be a farm hand, as long as it's the Lottery-winning urban kind who harvests daffodils on Hampstead Heath on blue-skied Easter Sundays. Anything, anything, to keep me from the silage.