Although I was brought up with the mantra ‘it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man’, I didn’t really believe it. The richest men in our rural landscape tended to be car dealers who didn’t spark the romantic imagination. All the same, the message must have lodged in my unconscious, because the day came when I fell in love with a millionaire. Not that you would know it. I married the kind of Englishman who hides his light under a bushel along with any sign of worldly wealth. His wardrobe consists of his grandfather’s smoking jacket, an overcoat that Sybille Bedford once asked me to drop off for her at the Red Cross shop, a pair of Bally shoes that Robert Carrier left behind when he left England. He has tweeds that belonged to the cousin who bought Wyken in 1920, and drives an unreliable Freelander with a book value of £250. In fact, I wouldn’t know I was married to a millionaire if I didn’t read Farmers Guardian each week, nervously tracking the price of farmland. You probably know where this is heading: farmland has never been higher (£4,000 per acre), and we are only millionaires if we sell the farm. In the Deep South, this is called ‘land poor’ lots of land and no money in the bank.
Still, ‘millionaire’ makes me think of novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, crocodile shoes and fur coats with initials sewn in silk thread in an italic script. I never believed that it would become so ordinary. To para-phrase W. H. Auden, now even a hat rack can be a millionaire, all he needs is a three-room flat in London. Now, if the great Gatsby wants to be so rich it makes Daisy cry or make The Sunday Times Rich List, he has to be a billionaire, as in Russian oligarchs; as in the Bank of England bailing out Northern Rock to the tune of billions; as in £9.3 billion and rising for the London Olympics. When ‘billion’ began to become common currency, it triggered one of those linguistic issues that can lead to delirium. In America, a billion is 1,000 million and it’s written 1,000,000,000. In Britain, a billion is a million million, written 1,000,000,000,000. But in a moment straight out of Bremner, Bird and Fortune, the British Government decided the Special Relationship was doomed if we couldn’t agree on the Billion Thing. Britain promptly dropped three 0s.
Which has probably saved everyone a lot of money. For instance, the Bank of England has bailed out Northern Rock to the tune of £23 billion so far, which is £730 for every taxpayer in the UK. There are 6.6 billion people in the world. That’s about £3.38 for every person on earth. I always prided myself on my numerical illiteracy until I heard that, after the Paddington rail crash, John Prescott was asked how much a new braking system would cost. ‘A million. A billion. I don’t care,’ he replied. This shocked Andrew Dilnot, the fiscally passionate Pro Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, who thought Mr Prescott should care because ‘a million seconds is 11 days. A billion seconds is 32 years’.
I admit I find my new numeracy quite exciting. I twitch when I hear a barrel of oil costs $100, but I take comfort that the price of wheat has gone up 100% in the past two years (from £60 to £120?£130 a ton). We aim to average four tons or 140 bushels per acre, and this year, I’m planting a variety called Einstein. Just think: a billion hours ago, our ancestors were living in the Stone Age, advising their daughters to fall in love with a rich man.