In The Wolf of Wall Street, there’s a poignant shot towards the end in which we see an FBI agent going home on the subway. This law enforcement officer — Agent Patrick Denham — will eventually bring about the downfall of Jordan Belfort, the film’s main character, and the fact that he uses public transport is supposed to be evidence of his integrity. He’s an honest, hard-working tax-payer who plays by the rules.
I’m not quite sure how it happened, but in the past 25 years I’ve gone from being an international party boy to a kind of FBI agent. Admittedly, I’ve never plumbed the depths of debauchery that Jordan Belfort does in the film. Even in my New York heyday, I was more of a Mouse of Madison Avenue than a Wolf of Wall Street. But I aspired to be that guy. I dreamed about being whisked from party to party in a white limousine with a blonde on each arm — ‘cuff-links’, as Frank Sinatra used to say. A sort of Wasp Puff Daddy.
As readers of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People will know, my New York career fell somewhat short of that goal. But at times I came perilously close. For instance, I accompanied Iron Maiden on the Brazilian leg of their world tour and ended up on stage in Rio belting out the chorus to ‘Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter’. Then there was that moment on the set of the Hollywood version of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People when the producer motioned to a group of models who were working on the film and said, ‘Take your pick, Toby. They’re all dying to meet you.’
So today, when I find myself sitting on the Underground heading towards East Acton, I flatter myself that I’ve chosen to be a member of the suburban petit bourgeoisie. In my headier moments, I compare myself to Mr Incredible — a man with amazing powers trying to pass as an ordinary citizen because superheroes have gone out of fashion. My freeloading skills are so formidable that I could pick up the phone and, within hours, be heading off to St Barts in some billionaire’s private jet. But I choose not to because I’ve become a sensible, moral person. I’ve exorcised the temptation to join the 1 per cent and volunteered to join the 99 per cent.
The reason I’m italicising words like ‘chosen’ and ‘volunteered’ is not because I think that, in reality, I’m on the tube because I can’t afford to take a taxi. I mean, that’s definitely one of the reasons, but it’s not the whole story. There’s a deeper reason, which is that I’ve lost that Churchillian belief in my own destiny. I used to think I was a Nietzschean superman and it was only a matter of time before I took my rightful place up there on Mount Olympus with the Jordan Belforts of this world. Now I think of myself as just another mortal. I haven’t lost the desire to be supping wine with the gods; I’ve lost the will to bring it about — what Nietzsche called the will to power.
Which isn’t to say there’s no moral element to it. Nietzsche was scathing about Christian morality and thought it was only for ‘little people’ who embraced it out of weakness and fear. But that’s mostly bollocks. As you get older, you become more measured, more human, and the desire to turn into some outsized egotistical monster is tempered by your pleasure in mundane things such as gardening and football. People like Jordan Belfort begin to disgust you, and not just because you want what they have and feeling morally superior to them is the only way to console yourself. There’s also something genuinely disgusting about not holding up your end of the social contract.
What’s prompted this reflection? Last week, an old friend who works for Fifa offered me free tickets to all of England’s opening games in the World Cup. Not so long ago, I would have immediately started blagging flights and hotel rooms and been on my way to Rio for the second time in my life. But God help me, I’ve promised my youngest son, who’s football mad, that we can watch the games together. So I’m not going. I’ve become the FBI agent, choosing to be a good family man instead of the Wolf of Wall Street. I feel good about that and bad about it at the same time. I feel old.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.