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London - Whether you wish you’d taken that plum job, or wonder wistfully if you should have married your childhood sweetheart, a new survey has revealed we’re all filled with regrets. According to a study by the British Heart Foundation, we spend, on average, two hours a week thinking about our bad decisions. We asked a selection of top writers to tell us what they wished they’d done? differently?…
Being such an utterly selfish little brat
Our attic is stuffed to the rafters with things I wish I had not done 40-something years ago.
Proust, greatest of all novelists, wrote: ‘There is scarcely a single action we perform in our youth which we would not later give anything to undo.’ That is true in trumps for me. My wife says I am pretty selfish now, but as a child and adolescent I was manically so - yet still could not understand why so few people liked me.
My mother complained that when I went for my first day at school, aged five, I pushed through the door ahead of the headmaster and his wife.
As a greedy schoolboy, I systematically emptied the larder at home without a thought for what everybody else would eat. I dread to think what would have happened had I been around in the days of wartime rationing.
On an exercise with the Parachute Regiment in Cyprus, aged 17, we were all parched, water bottles empty. I bribed a little Turkish boy to refill mine, and mine alone, at a brief halt, then was amazed that the rest of the platoon did not speak to me for a week.
When I first took out girls, it never occurred to me to ask them what they might like to do. I merely marched them behind me into the wilderness, sometimes literally. A very pretty actress never spoke to me again after I took her for a surprise weekend camping in the Welsh mountains. (She was wearing a white trouser suit, too.)
I have often thought of writing a circular letter of apology to all the girls I took out before I was about 35, including the mother of my children.
It took me 40 years to learn that at dinner parties, one is more likely to achieve a social triumph by saying to a neighbour, ‘Tell me about you’ than by delivering an hour-long monologue about me.
Most ambitious people are also pretty selfish. But I realise now that I could have enjoyed much more happiness in the first 30 years of my life, and achieved greater harmony with the rest of the human race, had I thought a lot less about me, and just a tad more about them.
Squandering a fortune on others
I have a million regrets. I should have been more assertive and confident as a magazine editor, fought to get my own way, do what I thought was right. I should never have got married. I should never have moved from London to the countryside.
I should never have had my breasts cut off at the age of 29. Or plucked my eyebrows. Or embarked on a lifetime of thinking about food. Or spent £1,000 on a pair of spiked Louboutins that I can’t walk in.
But my biggest regret - the one that ultimately felled me, ruined what is left of my so-called life - is that I have always been far too generous. It is like a disease.
I know why I’m generous, of course. My team of therapists say it is to buy other people’s love, to compensate for my lack of self worth. But knowing does not change the past.
I wish I had not taken my husband on a £26,000 holiday, bought him a VW Golf, a comfy chair for his office (£4,000 from Nicole Farhi Home), a Helmut Lang sweater, a buttery leather Burberry blazer.
I wish I hadn’t given away every one of the 20-odd handbags I received one Christmas to my staff, to make them like me. I wish I hadn’t bought a friend a Mulberry tote now she has blanked me from her life.
I wish I hadn’t given another friend a petrol-blue Alaia skirt now I know she calls me unspeakable names. I wish I hadn’t given my ex gay best friend a Murano vase costing £200, now I know he ‘loathes’ me.
I wish I hadn’t spent a lifetime showering baby gifts on a woman who then screamed at me, when the gifts dried up: ‘You are going to leave your house to a CATS’ HOME, not to MY SON!’
I wish I hadn’t invited a woman to live with me, showered her with Burberry shoes, a bag, hotel rooms, a laptop, an iPad, a cottage, for Christ’s sake, in return for nothing.
You see, you cannot buy love: you can only buy greed and resentment when those things stop. I once asked a friend why she was being so vile to me, given that I had taken her to Bath to stay in a Georgian hotel.
‘But that was only a weekend!’ she spat.
I have learned from my mistakes. I no longer shower people with gifts (mainly because I cannot afford to). I now only shower love and presents upon my animals, because they are truly grateful.
I know I cannot turn back time, and I don’t want to waste any more time doing sums in my head - probably for several hours at a time, mostly in the middle of the night - counting all the money I would now have if only I had never tried to buy affection and acceptance.
Not making more of my youthful beauty
I am not a regretful person. In fact, I am quite puritanical about not wasting time regretting what might have been.
Do I wish I had studied harder at university? Not remotely. I had a ball! Did it matter than I lost touch with friends from school? No, I knew someone else would one day organise a reunion.
There isn’t even a boyfriend I sigh over who ‘got away’. If he didn’t want to be with me, I certainly wouldn’t want to be with him.
Que sera, sera is my philosophy. Whatever (and whoever) will be.
The one regret I do have, however, is that when I was young, I didn’t realise that nature was - however briefly - on my side. Or to echo the words of the late, great Nora Ephron: ‘Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was 26.’
Not only did I not even own a bikini - the upshot of my agonising over people noticing an invisible appendix scar I had - I spent the whole of my 20s in baggy trousers, unstructured jackets and brogues.
I thought I was channelling the kooky style of Annie Hall, but in reality I looked more like a (male) extra from Miami Vice. Or possibly - given that I also permed my long glossy straight hair into a frizzy curls - a Wham! tribute act.
So now, every time I struggle to do up a pair of ‘mommy jeans’, I regret that, when I could, I didn’t wear them tucked into thigh-length boots, and so tight they looked sprayed on.
Above all, I regret that when, at 5ft 9in, I weighed a supermodel-ish 8st 10lb, I actually worried that I was fat - and dressed accordingly.
These regrets occupy at least 45 minutes of every week (possibly more, as they flit across my mind whenever I dress or undress, go shopping, or hand over a fortune to restore my now short and thinning hair to an approximation of its original colour), but I think they serve as useful reminders of the passing of time.
Now, when I try on a skirt that might just be too short for someone of my age and size, I don’t put it back on the rail. Instead, I think: ‘Mutton? Who cares?’ And I go for it.
I may not be as young as I was, but I’m younger today than I ever will be in the future - so I may as well enjoy it while I can!
Refusing to emigrate with my parents
I was 11 years old. I’d just passed the 11-plus - the exam which would open the doors to Barnsley Girls’ High School, my goal for as long as I could remember. I was looking forward to a trip to town to buy the longed-for grey-and-red uniform when a telegram arrived. (We didn’t have a phone.)
The telegram was from Dad. He’d just finished a short contract as an electrical engineer in South India. The firm wanted him to sign up for two more years, to be spent in Calcutta. He would accept only if Mom would agree to join him.
My first question, of course, was: ‘And what about me?’ It didn’t seem to have occurred to Mom, who was in a whirlwind of excitement at the prospect of flying across the world to be reunited with the love of her life.
‘You’ll come, too, of course. You’ll spend holidays with us, and go to boarding school in Darjeeling. The company arranges everything.’ And this from the woman who’d always been critical of the parent who sent a child to board. Nevertheless, she was dismissive of my reminder, simply saying: ‘Needs must!’
I dug my heels in. Grandma offered care and accommodation. I saw my mother off at Manchester airport and began my senior school career at BGHS.
I don’t regret the privilege of a rigorous Northern grammar school education, but I do regret the decision to stay behind.
The two-year separation damaged my relationship with my mother. It was a rupture which tore us both apart.
And what kind of stubborn idiot turns down a chance to have a parental home in the most salubrious suburbs of Calcutta, with a bevy of help in and around the house and an education in the foothills of the Himalayas?
I did. I lost a stunning opportunity. I could have joined the High School in the third year, with invaluable experience behind me.
India is on my Bucket List. I must see what I missed before I die.
Missing Abba’s first UK concert
A bust of Napoleon was flashed above the stage. A blonde bombshell called Agnetha was wearing a blue cap and pantaloons, Frida a cowboy shirt and vertiginous platform heels.
Benny was on an upright piano, Bjorn was playing a Star Wars guitar. I was glued to the television set for my first glimpse of Abba, who were storming to success in the 1974 Eurovision song contest in Brighton.
The love affair had started …
As a teenager, Abba posters filled my bedroom wall. I saved money from my job in the local greengrocer’s to buy their records.
Then, in 1977, it was announced that they were coming to England to play two shows at the Royal Albert Hall. There was a stampede for tickets - they could have filled the Albert Hall 580 times over.
I never got one. I was devastated.
Travelling from my family home in Swindon to London to try to catch a glimpse of the band on tour was another disappointment. Abba-mania was in full swing.
I hardly saw a thing as the streets were thronged with thousands of other young screaming fans. By the time the band broke up in 1982, Abba rivalled Volvo as Sweden’s most successful export - but I’d still failed to see them perform live.
But then, in 1999, Mamma Mia! - the musical based on the songs of Abba - opened to rave reviews on the London stage. I was hooked all over again.
I went to the fifth anniversary performance in the presence of Prince Charles and Camilla. I hardly noticed them when I learnt I was in the presence of none other than Frida herself, who strode through the auditorium as the curtain was about to go up.
At the after-show party, I bustled past the amply girthed Benny and Bjorn to be ushered into the presence of Frida. She kissed me on the cheek! But where are photographers when you need them?
We talked for five minutes, and she was delighted that my favourite Abba song is The Day Before You Came. It was the last song they recorded.
If there’s ever an Abba reunion, I’m going to be there. Trust me.
Selling the family home I loved
I still desperately wish we hadn’t sold our lovely family home in 2008. There’s nothing worse than that feeling of yearning to turn the clock back, but knowing there’s nothing you can do to reverse a situation, no matter how much you might want to.
I still sometimes dream I’m there, moving from room to room - only to wake and realise that another family lives there now, and I’ll probably never see the inside of the house again.
So why did we sell? The truth is that our mortgage had rocketed - we were on interest-only payments - and, being an Edwardian house, everywhere we turned money needed spending.
We’d already, stupidly, used much of the equity in the house to cope with spiralling debt and general cost of living, and we were facing a property crash and recession. We had a good offer from buyers and it was a case of ‘now or never’.
Looking back, I can see we panicked about money and this clouded our feelings about the house. Quite simply, we didn’t give the decision enough thought.
This was the home we had moved into in 2002 and renovated from the top floor landing right down to the utility room. Every lick of paint, every choice over wall colour, flooring, kitchen and bathroom design had been lovingly made by us.
The house had more than just our stamp on it. Everything within those four walls was our vision for the future. I remember moving in, six months’ pregnant with our third child, and not being able to envision ever living anywhere else.
I wish, when we agreed to sell, that I had given more consideration to the happy memories we’d created there. Bringing Monty, my newborn boy, home from the hospital; all the birthday parties I did for the children in the bright yellow kitchen; the breathtaking wisteria that bloomed every May like a canopy across the veranda.
I suppose if we had bought another family home and moved on, it would be different. But we are still living in a rented house, waiting for the day when we can afford to buy again and make our dream of a forever family home come true.
My biggest regret is that I never realised what I had until it was too late. And for that I’ll always be deeply sorry. - Daily Mail