Shane Watson on Lenvy, the new social disease
Before the summer, a lot of us had assumed we were cured of Lifestyle Envy, a condition that is shaming and shallow, not to mention in direct contravention of the Tenth Commandment.
The past few months have put paid to that delusion. There was that family holiday with the Whatsits and their charming children, who all sail, including the six-year-old; a dinner in the company of the very well-off couple who decided (he decided) she should give up work (he always has a crisp white shirt and tanned forearms); the spectre of your neighbours’ closed-up empty house (they’re at their place in Spain); and your other neighbours’ decorative garden with the mini lanterns lit up like the set of Mamma Mia! at night – and right now it doesn’t feel like the Lenvy is under control.
It won’t end with the holiday season, either. You will still have to see your friends in the country who swim in their pond before breakfast, and the ones who have a gypsy caravan office/whatever at the bottom of the garden, and the ones who bought a vineyard near Bordeaux and now live the Jean de Florette existence in a château with shuttered floor-to-ceiling windows (more of which later).
Once your antennae are pricked, practically anything can trigger a full-blown attack of the Lenvies: a small child answering the door, freshly scrubbed and ready for bed (Other People’s Children Envy); a home-grown tomato in a salad (Garden Envy); a brushed-steel worktop (Kitchen Envy); a Friday lunchtime conversation with someone who has just been for a dip in the sea before heading off to their painting class (Work/Life Balance Envy). You would hope that Lifestyle Envy was peculiar to a few sad individuals, but it has a habit of starting with something small and innocuous (let’s get a coffee-maker like the Gibsons!), and then snowballing to the point where you are looking up properties on Zoopla in their village in Somerset. It all seems possible.
Five years ago, Lenvy was containable and predictable. Every so often you hung out with people who had more money and better taste than you, and afterwards you would drive home in silence – you poleaxed by their extension, him silently wondering how different life might have been had he married someone who was a masseuse and a trained Leiths cook. But that basic, manageable, They have better stuff Than Us Envy has been swept away by the sheer variety of lifestyle options (and multiplying reasons to feel aggrieved with your lot). Now you can envy people for their cosy, all-the-kids-still-at-home domestic set-up and (in the same week) for their freed-up empty nest. On Monday, you long to be your friend who makes jam at her Aga and goes to sleep listening to the sound of sheep. On Tuesday you want to be your other friend, the single judge, who kicks ass in court and then throws parties in her one-bedroom, inner-city flat. These days it’s quite common to covet other people’s lifestyles, even if they are completely unrealistic and even if, given the option, we probably wouldn’t trade. It’s a sort of fantasy release, with a base note of competitive self-torture. It’s not just my problem, is all I’m saying.
Other people’s houses
Nobody is immune to House Envy. No one over 40, anyway. And it knows no limits, because there is no longer one ideal house. One day you are in the hairdresser’s drooling over a magazine featuring Dominic West’s wife’s Irish stately (on the market, by the way), the next you’re snooping around your friend’s post-divorce flat and inwardly raging that you haven’t got the gift of clever (as in “She’s been So Clever with the layout”).
The gift of clever is the killer. You can head off the envy if you can say to yourself, “We could all do that with a Beckham budget and Rose Uniacke on speed dial,” but not if it’s all down to fabulous taste, resourcefulness and elbow grease. There are specific trigger areas.
I know someone whose husband now says, before they go round to an unfamiliar house, “Please don’t get Kitchen Envy.” (It used to be, “Please don’t drink too much.” Kitchen Envy is now considered more damaging to a marriage.) I can go for months being perfectly happy with my kitchen and then a glimpse of a polished-cement worktop can result in months of weighing up the pros and cons of “knocking through”. Other classic Lenvy debates are: whether to upsize to somewhere no one else wants to live, in order to be able to get out of bed on both sides; whether to move to the country; and whether to spend a fortune getting the chimney fixed so you can have an open fire at Christmas.
Estate agents will focus on square footage, off-street parking, proximity to the station. Er, reality check. One question only: how big are the windows? Not so long ago it was all about wooden floors. Now it’s all about how big the windows are. Are they french windows big? Are they south-facing? Do they have wooden shutters? Because if they have shutters, we don’t give a stuff about the short lease and the fact that it’s over a Wetherspoon’s.
Shelves – the thickness thereof, the floatiness, the arrangement of – are a huge source of envy. Shelf-arranging, along with picture-hanging, is a big part of the gift of clever and can’t really be learnt, apparently. Books won’t do it any more. You need strategically placed objects, small sculptures, propped paintings … It’s a nightmare.
Some key phrases that will ratchet up House Envy: “I paid £10 for the set on eBay.”
“It’s Ikea!” “Those? Reclaimed tiles I found in the back of a shop in France.” “Honestly, once you’ve got it sanded down, the rest is easy. Painted it myself last night.” And, of course, “We bought it back in the early Nineties, plus the keys to the private square, for £200,000.”
Other people’s children
Coveting other people’s children is wrong, but however much you love your own, you can’t help noticing their potential to enhance, or detract, from your lifestyle plan. Here are some of the thoughts you have when in the presence of other people’s Lenvy-provoking children: why aren’t ours desperate to get in the sea? Would ours have made a cake for fun and then shared it? Why won’t ours try the baby octopus/join in the game of volleyball/volunteer to go to the shop for milk/talk to the adults in a sunny, engaging manner?
Oh look, their children are reading To Kill a Mockingbird/Some Other Classic, while ours are watching Made in Chelsea. Correction, half-watching MIC while playing Clash of Clans. There doesn’t seem to be any use of the word d***head at all. Why aren’t ours concerned about recycling? Are they less engaged/kind because we haven’t got a dog? Theirs are so responsible with the dog. Do ours give the change back, immediately, like that? Why can’t they play even one musical instrument? Who let them give up piano, anyway? How will they ever be successful if they won’t play Scrabble, and have difficulty describing which A levels they are taking? How come their eight-year-old can make a sandwich and ours can’t identify the bread knife? They’re so polite! Or are they a bit fake? At least ours aren’t fake …
This is typical Other People’s Children Envy, with a strong undercurrent of Other People’s Parenting Styles Envy and a bit of Other People’s Partner Envy thrown in.
Other people’s marriages
Who hasn’t watched other people’s marriages in action and thought, what if? To be more specific, what if he were the sole breadwinner, and I was chiefly occupied with shelf-organising, handwriting thank-you cards and watering the geranium pots. Inside every working woman (unless Scandinavian or youngish) is the dormant seed of a kept woman. Obviously, we would hate it – loathe it – but Lenvy is not rational, so sometimes we do imagine ourselves drifting off to a mid-morning Pilates class, picking up paint charts, popping into Zara, just in case there’s been a new delivery. Apparently, the equivalent Lenvy for men is the wife who can get everything done without collapsing sobbing and all her buttons bursting off simultaneously; the effortlessly capable career woman who earns a lot, keeps a chilled beer glass in the freezer and always has silky hair.
Other Lenvy-inducing things (for women): men who can take over and cook, including the shopping, including Christmas dinner. Never mind the Hemsley sisters and those lifestyle cookbooks Prue Leith has been complaining about – the one that tipped us over the edge was Stanley Tucci’s; a man who seriously knows what he’s doing in the kitchen is the ultimate lifestyle accessory. Men who have a basic knowledge of gardening (a man who grows his own runner beans is the 2015 equivalent of Gabriel Oak). Men who can throw parties (ie, lush everyone up, keep an eye on the sausages and do the clearing-up).
The top Lenvy-inducing holiday is a demonstration of your social skills and style. It’s fluid, involves endless turnover of guests, long, self-catered lunches and dinners and picturesque surroundings. You score envy points for 1) how many people pass through, 2) the mix of generations, including glamorous occasional visitors, 4) knowing the area/community ties, 5) inventive cooking, and 6) some kind of adventure.
Holiday Envy is a bit like House Envy; in the end, what counts is resourcefulness and flair. The fact that your friends found this bargain villa and the cleanest beach and the best fish market, and all their children’s friends came, and they got involved in the local village talent contest, and didn’t flinch at catering for 20 – these are the facts that keep you awake at night when you’re doing three nights, just the five of you, in Portmeirion.
This one is a killer, because what are you going to do? Switch careers, downsize, emigrate to Thailand? But there are people managing to have lives as well as work, because sometimes when you ring them in the middle of the day they are out riding, or just about to sing in a choir, or rushing to get to their ballet class followed by an exhibition. The only consolation is that these people appear to be busier than you and just as stressed. Nonetheless, we envy them, because we’re pretty sure that we would get the balance spot on if someone gave us the same chance.
Other people’s work/life balance can make you quite bitter (she doesn’t even have any children at home; if I lived by the sea I would swim every morning before breakfast, etc, etc). It’s one of the more unappealing ones.
Lifestyle envy triggers
A man with good knife skills
Very big windows
Very big bathrooms with armchairs
Flowers, from the garden
Vegetables, from the garden
A freshwater pool
A table tennis table
A steam room
Making food from scratch (eg, pesto)
Effortless catering for enormous numbers
Proper larders and laundry rooms
Easygoing, life-enhancing relations
Easygoing, life-enhancing friends
Easygoing, life-enhancing pets
20th-century family portraits
Big dogs, especially lurchers. They suggest that you have plenty of space and time and certainly not a nine-to-five desk job. Those dogs need walking