In one of those conversations that happens sometimes over a glass or two, someone mentioned winning the lottery as the solution to all our ills – I think a hundred million was the amount suggested. When I said I would rather not, John said ‘I bet you’d settle for a hundred thousand, though.’ The chatter drifted to the price of happiness and someone, I forgot exactly who, put forward the view that a lottery win would make a happy person happier, whilst nothing would render an unhappy person happy. I wonder.
It’s not just that money doesn’t necessarily make us feel better. Often it seems to have the opposite effect. The documentary ‘Amy’ is a powerful and painful depiction of the destructive potential of fame and fortune, a potential replicated with awful predictability and regularity in politics, the media, the arts: only look at today’s headlines. We like to imagine we’d handle sudden wealth with better grace, but our record as a society doesn’t bode well. By comparison with many parts of the world we have an embarrassment of riches, but we don’t appear able to manage it for the good of the whole. A bit like a glutton feeding his face at the expense of the rest of his body, we keep on stuffing the goodies into the mouths of those who have already consumed more than enough, whilst the rest go hungry. And are getting hungrier.
Nothing new here: ‘The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer’ Shelley wrote in 1821. But the gap between rich and poor is widening still. This has become so self-evident it’s not even a debatable point any longer. At home, government policies push home disadvantage: spending cuts announced in the latest budget make minority ethnic Britons ‘twice as likely’ to lose out as their white compatriots, leaving a potential four million worse off, according to the Runnymede Trust. Worldwide, a similar story: in ‘How to think about Islamic State’, Pankaj Mishra traces the rise in the number of young people, especially in the ‘youthful societies’ of Africa and Asia, ‘condemned to the anteroom of the modern world, an expanded Calais in its squalor and hopelessness’. Entrepreneurs are the new heroes but the march of capital and the scrabble for profit make reaching for success a demoralising experience for many. Plus ça change? A hundred and fifty years ago, says Mishra, Dostoevsky observed in Paris that liberté was only for the millionaire.
In the pursuit of wealth and happiness, we are prepared to sacrifice much, trashing the world to get what we feel we deserve. We put our mouth where our money is and measure our success in terms of what we have, or have earned. As if ‘earning’ it, made it ours. ‘The angels weep to see the ruin of the Earth,’ God tells us in the new adaptation of ‘Everyman’, the medieval morality play, currently running at the National Theatre. In a devastating reminder that Death robs us of all we hold dear, Carol Ann Duffy's Everyman sees his entire cast of friends and family reduced to a kind of moving clothes rail of plastic bags of shopping. Or is bags of rubbish? In the end they amount to the same thing. In ‘Mrs Midas’, Duffy demonstrates the futility of our worship of the material: the ‘woman who married the fool/who wished for gold’ makes her husband sit ‘on the other side of the room and keep his hands to himself’ and eventually sends him to live on his own in a caravan in the woods. ‘Do you know about gold?’ she says. ‘It feeds no one… slakes no thirst’.
Not everyone subscribes to the profit motive, of course. Last week I was lucky enough to grab a place in part of a two-day Introduction to Dance for Parkinson’s at Leicester’s de Montfort University, led by David Leventhal from the Mark Morris Dance for PD group in Brooklyn, dance specialists Sophia Hulbert and Aimee Smith based in Bournemouth, and representatives from English National Ballet and Dance for Parkinson’s UK. As you will know, this wasn’t my first encounter with the Parkinson’s dance network, but it was inspiring to meet a range of dancers and teachers from across the world and to experience and learn about different approaches, as well as to see Ceri Higgins’ thought-provoking film Parkinson Dances. In some ways the demonstration class in which I was able to take part covered now familiar ground for me. Still, exciting to be part of a West Side Story sequence of Sharks versus Jets (we were Sharks) led by David Leventhal. I got through the whole thing without feeling tearful – until David mentioned the word ‘community’ just before the end, and I had to look at the ceiling for a few moments.
My other regular dance experience sometimes feels like a guilty pleasure, something along the lines of fiddling while Rome burns, perhaps. Our tea dance on Sunday, a hundred dancers moving in synchronicity in the beautiful Centre at St Pauls, looked and felt glamorous – ‘sumptuous’ was one visitor’s verdict – an event for the privileged. But while Cambridge Tango aspires to the highest standards of dancing, it also manages to operate as a community, providing support and encouragement for dancers who, like myself, need this. And its organisers are certainly not in it for the money, so we owe a huge debt to those who work away tirelessly to provide us with an alternative to wet summer afternoons, Sunday shopping or evenings trawling the city’s pubs, and help us towards a few hours of – well, yes – happiness.
So, £100,000? Well, it would go some way to alleviating my anxieties about Cambridge’s extortionate rents but I know I’m already one of the very fortunate ones.
'Amy', directed by Asif Kapadia, is on general release
'Mrs Midas' appeared in The World's Wife by Carol Ann Duffy (Picador: 1999)
Cambridge Tango runs regular classes, workshops and events in various venues in Cambridge www.camtango.com