Jonathan Meades: The death of a chancer

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Life, according to the poet Frost (that's Sir David, not Robert) is something called "a theme of opportunity". Not, perhaps the most elegant epithet, and one that might have been lifted from a self-help book written by a motivational guru – but I understand the idea. At least, I understood it once. But, as the years pass, opportunities diminish and resignation sets in. I'm never going to get that HGV licence nor am I going to become an alpinist. There's a fair chance that I won't see the White House, the Black Hills, the Blue Mosque, the Red Sea. And it doesn't really bother me. It should, perhaps, but there you are – aspirations wane. Or, rather, they change in a way that one could not have foreseen.

The protagonist of my new novel, The Fowler Family Business (Fourth Estate), is a man of straitened aspirations whom I set up to knock down, gleefully. He has never wanted anything beyond a quiet life following in his father's footsteps, taking over the titular business, aping his parents' mores, never moving from the area of sylvan, hilly south-east London where he grew up – a part of London he proudly regards as essentially provincial. At the time I was finishing the book, a year ago, I had a call to tell me that an old friend had died. He was a roaring boy who had brought colour (and danger) to my provincial adolescence. He had peaked early. He crashed cars, he fought, he charmed. Had he lucked out, I guess he might have become a "character" in the mould of Oliver Reed or Keith Floyd. As it was he died a broken chancer in a south coast bedsit. There but for the grace, I thought.

Four of us got on a train at Waterloo to see him buried on the inhospitable downs near the rather grand house where his parents had lived, a house he had robbed of its wine cellar during one of the many periods when he was persona non grata. After the funeral we went to the village pub and spent the afternoon recounting tales of Johnny's pranks, raising toasts to the delightful young man he once had been – and rather embarrassedly ignoring the rheumy-eyed figure of despair that he had turned into: a sort of collective denial beset us.

There was something else going on, too, a sort of dislocation between those of us who had moved away and those who had stayed, several of them taking over family businesses – a hotel, a farm, a garage. These guys, whom I had been at school with and mostly hadn't seen for 20 years or more, would surely turn out to be champions of complacency like my character Henry Fowler, little Englanders with curtailed horizons, locked into the past, inhabitants of a foreign country divided from us metropolitans by a common language. I couldn't have been more wrong.

If anyone was complacent it was me for having indulged in such condescending expectation. They might have retained their topographical roots but they had created themselves in their own fashions; they too had escaped. And I realised that provincial life is very different to how it was in our parents' era when the aspiration to social mobility was a non-starter. I found myself rather envying my old friends. Many had an evident talent for happiness. They were at ease with themselves.

That day of grief, laughter and confounded prejudice was curiously affecting. It's going too far to suggest it was humbling, but it was certainly a lesson about the predominance of individuality and the torpid arrogance of stereotyping. I began to wonder if it wasn't those of us who had migrated to the big city who were actually the more conformist. Casting off our provincial pasts was perhaps a necessary rite of early adulthood. We furiously persuade ourselves that our aspirations and ambitions can only be realised if we put physical distance between us and our former selves. We travel a long way only to arrive at our point of departure.

I had never believed that I'd consider going back, and I don't think I shall. But it is a possibility. The anti-provincial posture, which began as a necessary affectation and then grew, as affectations will, into a cardinal point of my mindset, is under threat. Till a year ago I'd have scorned the very notion of longing for a lost home as a sort of weakness. But a chink has appeared. The unthinkable has been thought.