x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Feeling blasé about the lottery? Not the British treasury

One of my favourite stories is about the businessman who goes home after hearing he's suddenly become rich.

One of my favourite stories is about the businessman who goes home after hearing he's suddenly become rich. "Put your best fur coat on," he announces to his startled wife, "I've won $50,000 on the lottery." "Are you taking me out to celebrate?" she replies breathlessly. "No, I'm leaving you and I'm switching the heating off," he replies. If this gag doesn't go down quite as well in the small market town of Cirencester as other parts of the UK, that's only because it no longer has the power to shock. Far from representing a life-changing sum for the residents of this sleepy Wiltshire community, $50,000 (Dh183,650) would barely qualify as loose change down the back of the sofa.

Having already been the locale for several previous lottery winners, the town confirmed its status as a millionaire's hot spot this week when a couple woke to find they'd scooped the small matter of £56 million (about Dh318 million) on the Euromillions lottery. As well as making them the most popular neighbours in Britain, the repairman Nigel Page and his partner Justine Laycock found themselves pitchforked up to 980th place in the Sunday Times Rich List, alongside the heiress Elizabeth Tompkins and just ahead of the movie star Sir Michael Caine.

When they told Ms Laycock's daughter Georgia of the colossal sum that was now hers to inherit, her typically teenage reply also propelled her into another top 100: individuals displaying the most laid back response to world shattering events. Her one-word reaction - "Whatever -" - puts her in front of the actor Jim Broadbent upon receiving his first Academy Award ("stone the crows") and just behind the astronaut John Swigert's chillingly concise warning to Mission Control during the disastrous Apollo 13 mission: "Houston, we've had a problem here."

By any standard, the happy couple's new-found fortune is staggering. They can now buy 174 more houses like the one they already own, and even if they leave the sum to moulder in an average savings account they stand to earn more than $60,000 dollars a week in interest. Official photographs of the smiling couple behind a giant dummy cheque, sipping bubbly and looking fondly into each other eyes, were splashed all over the newspapers. They looked deliriously happy. Or did they? Mr Page certainly appeared so, but was there just a hint of anxiety in his partner's expression? It transpired that although the couple are in a stable relationship, they are both divorcees who have yet to tie the knot.

Thus the winning ticket, and the resultant cheque is Mr Page's alone: a small crumb of schadenfreude for the rest of us to suck on as we contemplate both her nervous smile and our own tottering finances. In any case, lottery history is littered with examples of individuals whose spectacular good fortune led ultimately to misery and despair (or so we can try and persuade ourselves). The UK's most famous winner, the Yorkshire housewife and bon viveur Viv Nicholson, ended her days in penury after spending herself into oblivion.

And even if Mr Page and Ms Laycock prosper, they may still find it difficult to preserve their reputation. The comedian Max Miller used to complain how he was always expected to pay for everyone within a 50-foot radius each time he stepped into a restaurant. Last week one of my most famous acquaintances, a leading Hollywood film director who must remain nameless (if only because I'm still hoping he'll give me a job one day), lamented in similar vein.

"However many times I put my hand in the pocket, I can guarantee the one time I don't there'll be someone ready to grumble about my mean-spiritedness," he complained to me over coffee. As if to prove the point, he then had to borrow a tenner off me for the taxi fare home after discovering he'd come out without any cash. Quod erat demonstrandum. Hopefully, the fact that Mr Page and Ms Laycock celebrated their windfall with a sandwich and a cup of tea rather than a bath of ass's milk suggests they'll handle their riches with both wisdom and sagacity; traits they'll need in similar quantities now that the world is beating at their door.

In fact rumour has it that Prime Minister Brown will be calling them this very week. Not, I suspect, to offer his congratulations, but to ask if he can borrow a few quid to help shore up the treasury. Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London