Ever since the start of the year, I’ve been obsessed by two questions, and I keep finding myself asking them everywhere I go. At New Year, a friend asked, “Who, at your school or university, seemed most likely to succeed? And who ended up being the most successful?” I knew the first answer immediately. My most dazzling university contemporary was taller, funnier, more charming, richer and grander than almost everyone else.
He ended up killing himself at 33. And what about the ones who’ve made it now? What were they like back then? They were nice, reliable and cleverish, but nothing special. The rich bankers and QCs I know now were from what you might call the upper-middle intellectual class. At Westminster School, some were Queen’s Scholars; some got Firsts at Oxford. But the really clever ones from my youth – the upper intellectual class; the top scholars; the ones with the top Firsts – were too clever for the modern world.
When I meet them now, they remain highly intelligent but they’re not in the public eye. Some are university dons. The top scholar at Westminster a few years above me is a house-husband. Nothing wrong in that, of course. But his tightly-strung intellectual wiring meant that he was never really suited to the world of work.
So what are the youthful characteristics that determine success or failure in later life? You can’t predict these things precisely, but some patterns do develop. The cliché of the super-explosive firework that fizzles out super quickly rings true. That’s what happened to my late friend, who was in a way killed by the flames he’d sparked off himself. His success at university – when money, girls, popularity and fame came to him with no effort – left him in no fit state for the dreariness of working life.
As the rest of us found jobs as bankers, lawyers or – in my case, after failed careers as a banker and a lawyer – as journalists, his firework remained suspended in mid-air. He never did find anything that suited his planet-sized brain. He had enough money not to work, and to top that brain up with booze and pharmaceuticals. These conspired with another dangerous toxin – unemployment – to kill him.
The same cautionary tale runs through Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited in the form of another gilded Oxford undergrad, Lord Sebastian Flyte. So grand, so rich, so good-looking; and with the brand of fatal English charm that Anthony Blanche brilliantly dissects at dinner with Charles Ryder: “Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, Charles, it has killed you.”
When Waugh was writing Brideshead in 1944, he wrote to Coote Lygon, whose family – and family home, Madresfield Court in Worcestershire – inspired Brideshead Castle. He said: “I am writing a very beautiful book, to bring tears, about very rich, beautiful, high-born people who live in palaces and have no troubles except what they make themselves and those are mainly the demons, sex and drink.”
How often those demons have thrown my contemporaries down the path to failure and ignominy. Life’s winners are the Steady Eddies. Not the complete puritans – like all extremists, they confine themselves to little pockets, trapped outside the main flow of life in the river’s eddies and whirlpools.
My most wildly ambitious contemporaries also belong to a kind of extremists’ group. They ended up okay, as senior professionals, but never as senior as they’d have liked. Their ruthless careerism made them unlikeable and uncollegiate – too often bouncing from job to job, because their innate dissatisfaction never allowed them to take root in one spot for long enough.
They are the Widmerpools of this world – the brilliant creation of the Anthony Powell in A Dance to the Music of Time. In his 12-volume sequence of novels, Powell takes his schoolboy contemporaries through Eton, Oxford and the war, and studies how the Fates play with their childhood characteristics.
Kenneth Widmerpool the obsessive young careerist, grows up to become an MP and peer before dropping out to join a sinister cult. Charles Stringham, the schoolboy romantic closest in character to m dazzling contemporary, never prospers, turns to drink and dies in the war. Nick Jenkins – the writer narrator of the book, based on Powell himself – keeps a step back from the dance of life, observing with detached irony how human life develops.
Powell is too subtle to lay out tips on how to get success and avoid failure. But there is a sense that too much of anything – ambition, drink, sex – leads to downfall.
In other words, the key to success can be found in the Greek inscription in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: ‘Nothing in excess’.