Between the ages of seven and ten, I loved to collect things. I collected postage stamps and cigarette cards like many children do, but some of my tastes verged on the absurd. I had, for example, a thing for ceramic owls and must have collected at least fifty different ones.
I collected jokey car decals. I’d fix them to the window, my bedroom becoming a shade gloomier with every trip to Kwik Fit. A particular decal pictured neat stacks of pound coins and the words, “Trainee Millionaire”.
From the psychic signals picked up from adults, I knew that money was important. The way my dad would try to preserve it and the way my mum tried to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Money never struck me as an end in itself but it was clearly a key to living well. You needed money to buy food and bicycles and cabinets for your ceramic owls.
Perhaps it was the signals from adult society or perhaps it was my existing tendency towards eccentric levels of accumulation, but the concept of a trainee millionaire was appealing to me. I understood that the decal should belong to a driver who was cynical about his financial prospects, but it was also totemic to this young man in his owl-crammed bedroom. I liked the idea of striving toward a million pounds.
If it were easy to extract a pound coin from someone (simply by asking “may I have a pound?”) then all you’d have to do to become a millionaire is to repeat the action one million times. The solution was purely mechanical. To become a millionaire, you must first become a kinetic sculpture capable of performing the same rotation one million times.
So I set out to become a child millionaire.
“Do you think we’ve ever had a million pounds?” I asked my mother one morning as she was cutting the battlements into my toast, a carbohydrate I’d apparently only eat if it were trimmed into the shape of castles.
“No,” she said, “I do not think we have.”
“Even if you count every penny that our family has ever seen? Even if we include all of our school lunch money and spare change inside the sofa and all those ten-pees we wasted in the machines on Blackpool pier?”
“No,” she said, “A million pounds is a lot of money.”
“Have you ever met anyone who had a million pounds?”
“Oh yes,” she said, “Barney was a millionaire”.
Barney was my mother’s boyfriend from before she met and married my dad and gave birth to an eccentric son and a cootie-infested daughter.
“How did he become a millionaire?”
“His father had a factory, which was worth a lot of money and he left it to Barney when he died. Barney runs the factory now and it continues to make him rich.”
This didn’t sound good to me. My dad was a part-time tour guide at the Black Country Living Museum. If he died, would I have to show tourists around the Newcomen steam engine every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday? This didn’t sound like a fast way to millions. I’d never be able to fill a skyscraper with coins and swim around in it like Scrooge McDuck.
“Barney was also very frugal,” said mum.
This was true. Dad once told me that Barney had extracted a two-pence piece from a nightclub urinal. He willingly soiled his fingertips with the wee of drunk men so that he could add two pennies to his piggy bank, which must have been the size of Westminster Abbey. I loved this story partly because it was grotesque but also because it confirmed my idea that riches could be achieved through repetitive accumulation.
It was around this time that I saw the movie version of Richie Rich in which Macaulay Culkin plays the top-hat-wearing boy libertarian. In the movie, Richie had his own branch of McDonald’s in his garden. He was its only customer. This struck me as profoundly alienating and wasteful. It seemed that my brand of speculation had been established. I learned that I was more like Barney than Richie Rich. I was a pint-sized Puritan.
“Can I have a pound?” I asked my dad, who was in the mid-stages of building a scale model of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the original of which had been designed and constructed by his boyfriend Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
“What for?” he asked.
I told him my plan. He sighed and told me it was time for a chat about how money worked.
Kablingy had, in his opinion, to be worked for. Just like Isambard Kingdom Brunel might work hard to build a bridge or a tunnel or even an aqueduct. An aqueduct was a bridge that carried water, and they didn’t just fall out of the clear blue sky without hard work.
I wasn’t entirely averse to work, I told him. The problem, however, was that I was eight and had no marketable skill that was worth even one pound let alone a million. I also had an addiction to acquiring decals and first-day covers and ceramic owls, which potentially left me in the hole. My first pound would almost certainly be squandered in celebratory owl acquisition.
“Hmm,” he said, “I see the problem. You know, Isambard Kingdom Brunel began by working for his father. Why don’t you work for me and I’ll pay you. I’ll pay you a pound today if you sweep the driveway.”
Elated, I ran downstairs, took a sweeping brush from the garden shed and started work.
It didn’t take long for my sister to appear to ask just what the sweet shit I was doing.
“I’m flying a helicopter!” I said with glee. This was the standard answer in our family when confronted with the question “what are you doing?”.
“No you’re not,” said Katy, “You’re sweeping the driveway and I want to know why.”
“It’s so I can save up for helicopter lessons,” I said, prancing elegantly in the minefield twixt sarcasm and fact.
“NO IT ISN’T,” she screamed in caps-lock. “TELL ME WHY YOU’RE DOING IT OR I’LL GET THE CHICKEN POO.”
The chicken poo was a hard black rubber ball that lived with the other toys in the garden shed.
It was different to the other balls — cricket balls, footballs — and as such garnered our scorn. I think it was probably an industrial thing salvaged by my dad from the inside of a water tank or an x-ray machine. It didn’t bounce very well and you couldn’t do much with it. It, a ball, was our enemy. Katy and I were also enemies but I now realise that only she had worked out that one’s enemy’s enemy can be one’s friend. Damn.
“Oh all right,” I said crumpling in the face of the chicken poo threat, “Dad’s paying me a pound to sweep the drive.”
“Do you think he’d pay me a pound if I also swept the drive?”
“Probably,” I shrugged, and before long she too had retrieved a broom from the shed and started sweeping.
Job done, we reported for our wages. “You got your little sister to help?” said Dad, “That is very enterprising”.
He pressed fifty pence into each of our outstretched palms.
“What’s this?” I raged. It was half of what I’d been promised and I was furious. He explained that I’d have to pay my employees. I protested. I was angry. I didn’t want to learn lessons. I wanted the first pound in my trainee millionaire project.
In protest, I gave my sister my share of the day’s wages. “Katy might as well have a whole pound,” I said, “Fifty pence is worth flip all to either of us.”
I stomped out.
This didn’t end the trainee millionaire project. There were several more frustrating incidents in which I was taught a lesson about money. One day, for example, I read in an encyclopaedia that the average human being lives for just 25,000 days. You’d have to convince forty people to part with a pound each day if you were to win your millionth pound upon your deathbed.
I wasn’t sure I had that kind of patience.
If you wanted to be a millionaire at fifty, you’d have to convince fifty-five people a day to give you a pound. If you wanted to retire at twenty-five, you’d need to convince 110 people. You’d also have expenses. You’d have to double that number of people if you wanted to eat. And then my dad told me about the 40% tax bracket for high earners, so I’d have to almost double that figure yet again. We’re up to 183 conversations a day now. You’d be better off showing people around a Newcomen steam engine at the Black Country Living Museum three days a week.
As with so many piano lessons, I went off the idea in the end.