Terence Blacker: Could Tony's future lie in gardening?

The best, most interesting people are those who have been through a personal earthquake
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The Independent Online

You may be on holiday, the perfect opportunity to look at the big picture. Alternatively, you are working, tetchily aware that all over the globe people are out having more fun than you are. Either way, August is a good month to do some serious thinking about the future.

It was almost certainly while lolling by a swimming pool in Tuscany that Tony Blair reached the decision about his future that has been so studiously leaked over the past few days. Basta! he had thought to himself. When, having done his stint for party, country, the human race itself, handed the keys of office into the clammy, eager grip of Gordon Brown, he would not only resign as leader but cut loose from politics altogether and resign his seat as an MP.

Reaching this momentous conclusion, he will have been helped by examples offered by the Conservative Party, which over recent years has conducted a sort of masterclass of dos and don'ts for ex-leaders.

Least likely to appeal to Blair is the Duncan Smith option. It is all very well to appear now and then on the back benches and address the House on some topic about which you feel strongly but, as that sweet and hopeless man has proved, matters of conscience only matter while you matter. With every appearance among anonymous MPs, an ex-leader's legacy dwindles (not that this has been a problem in Duncan Smith's case). The impression of being ordinary and humble, an asset when in power, quickly becomes a liability.

The muddled, semi-detached status of the Major option is hardly more appealing. While a few nice little directorships might be useful, the idea of only being invited on the Today programme when no one is available would soon become irksome. No sensible person in his late prime wants to play the part of a lesser, insignificant version of the person he was a few years back.

Edward Heath offered another alternative, removing himself from the scene while bolshily observing from the sidelines, contributing huffy comments when they would do most damage to people with the real power. An ageing Blair could play that part as well as any other but it would not suit his sunny, informal character. Nor would the role of great panjandrum in international politics favoured by his former colleague, Lord Kinnock in Brussels.

There is no contest as to which political leader has made the best job of retirement. By treating his moment of power as no more than a brief, faintly amusing dream from the past, William Hague has re-invented himself, appearing to be happier, even wittier, than he once was, while shedding the unattractive nerdishness which adhered to him as Tory leader. He has decided that he will be a writer, not always a recipe for contentment, and these days appears, beaming, at all the right media parties. Now and then, he chirpily does a comic turn on semi-satirical TV shows such as Have I Got News For You?

The moral, for Tony Blair and perhaps for many others, is that the best way to kick some life into your middle years is to think radically, and to experience some kind of personal earthquake. For some, the great change is forced upon them by divorce or heartbreak. A few, like the novelist John Cheever, make a startling, belated discovery about their sexual orientation. For the rest, the regeneration has to be done through a process of professional self-sabotage.

It is here that boys and girls from a younger generation can contribute. The trend among people in their twenties is now towards something called "life-shopping". Rather than settling down to the beginnings of a career and a relationship soon after they leave university, they prefer to graze in different pastures, sampling what is on offer before eventually discovering what they have been put on this earth to do. The traditional concept of life as a railway track stretching, straight and boring, into the decades ahead of them has been abandoned. Life-shoppers actually want to go off the rails, at least for a while.

Of course, they are right. The best, most interesting people are those who have been through a personal earthquake or who have derailed themselves at regular intervals. It takes incomparably more energy and nerve to start again in middle life but that, it could be argued, is as important a moment to go life-shopping as your twenties.

Personally, I hope Tony Blair escapes public life altogether. After he has written the obligatory memoirs, done the usual book tour, cashed in with the inevitable lectures, it would be sensible to move away from the world of the easy soundbite to a place where history is not forever at his shoulder.

The easy option would be to return to the bar, but that is the place of his past and, more seriously, of his wife. There are other, more radical and exciting alternatives. This week, it was announced that there is a grave shortage of dynamic people entering the gardening profession. Could Tony's future lie in pleaching, pruning and compost management? It is time for him to follow his own famous advice, and to think the unthinkable.