Written on the occasion of the author's 55th birthday. What if you woke up one morning and realised that everything you believed in was wrong? If it suddenly became clear that you'd lived your life under a massive misapprehension?
Yes, you've worked like hell for 30 years and done everything you were told to do, and rather more besides. Then someone tweaks the slats on your venetian blind and a dazzling view floods in from the outside, the other side. The world is entirely different from what you'd assumed! Then you make two noises in quick succession: 1) Ahhh! followed by 2) Arrgghhhh!
At my stage of life it happens all the time. It's a difficult age.
Fifteen-year-olds think life is hard, and no doubt they're right. The struggle continues, but failure doesn't matter because you can always start again. And then between the ages of 45 and 55 you achieve the equilibrium of your prime. You have the experience to know what to do and enough energy to do it. And just when you should be able to drift into the deep, deep peace of a later middle age, this happens.
It's not that everything is turned upside down – nothing so orderly. It all goes into the vortex of a tornado where you're just getting used to the dizziness and you get hit by a cow.
Going to church doesn't help; rather the reverse. Is there any chance you're one of the few, the very few, struggling up the winding path? In short: no.
I've been to Evensong occasionally and find it very discomforting. The demands are superhuman.
"Love thy neighbour as thyself." Tried that recently? Whosoever says to his brother "thou fool" is in danger of hellfire. Telling my brother "thou fool" is specifically written into my sketch contract. Give away everything you have to the poor and take up a cross? And do it lovingly?
If that's necessary we're all in very serious trouble.
But let's not stay with religion.
You gave your life over working for ever nicer houses. But why do we want that £3m Georgian rectory? A theory on the structure of desire says something very undermining: We are programmed to want what other people want. So it's not the beautiful proportions, not the light-filled interior: it's because we think everyone else wants it. But if we believe that suddenly, surely we suddenly don't want the rectory any more?
The ambitious young man who took Madame Bovary seriously may have understood love to be more important than money; he finds himself immiserated in a bedsit with the health visitor refusing to visit. He who worked on the premise that money was more important finds himself without friends. Only allies, colleagues and co-workers.
Stay with the person you married and ache for what you must have missed.
Spend your life in pursuit of passion and find yourself alone.
Maybe music didn't mean anything after all. Maybe it was all just a game for the over-educated. Was there any point to poetry? Should one have lived in the bourgeois, military-industrial complex when there were wells to be dug in Africa? All that money we spent on brandy, soft sheets and fancy biscuits – shouldn't we have opened orphanages with it?
Or is the basis of civilisation slavery, as it was in Athens?
Was I being daring and dashing, or was it just showing off?
Can't we have another go? Can't we go again?
Porn in the eye of the beholder
Notes for the always lively debate on whether images are erotic or pornographic, occasioned by the Barbican's "Sex in Art" exhibition. Pornography depicts what prostitutes do. Erotic is what courtesans do. In the latter case, payment is less obviously made, but is just as inevitable .
In erotic art there is a more equal emotional transaction between the participants. In pornography, the woman (if it's that sort of porn) is relating to the camera. A love film has the actors engrossed in each other. The porn star is acting for the person who's paying (the viewer). Thus, porn can't engage the viewers' sympathies.
I'm available as an expert witness, for court appearances, weddings, bar mitzvahs, on the usual terms.
* No, no, no, don't mention the polls. We can't say the polls had anything to do with it. That sounds political. It doesn't sound honest. We need to sound more honest. Say no election now because you want to implement your vision. That sounds honest.
Go to the England match? You need to be more English it's true, but people think you're trying to be English too much. That's not English. And England might win. Yes, you have to smile if England win. A happy smile. It's sort of a big smile that fades slowly. And what if they lose? No, you can't smile then. It's bad if England lose. Write it down: England lose – bad.
Here's your speech to announce the result of the EU negotiations. It's a triumph. That's all we know so far. We need to work on your trustworthy smile. Actually, let's think about not smiling. It makes you look unhappy.