Curtailment of ambition is the only cure for our modern neurosis. As Oliver James pointed out in his book Britain on the Couch, the prosperous Britain of today is a country demonstrably more unhappy than the Britain of the austere and war-straitened 1940s, because everybody thinks they should have more than they've got. A similar theme is pursued by Alain de Botton in his current book, Status Anxiety. The expansion of opportunity in society, he points out, means that everybody compares themselves with everybody else. The net result is mass jealousy, and when Tony Blair says that every school-leaver should go to university, I see only that jealousy being magnified. I picture thousands of people who, having read media studies, are in a permanent state of bitter incredulity at not having turned into Janet Street-Porter.
My father has little worldly ambition, and the only high aspiration he ever expressed on my behalf was that I might become a professional golfer. "It's a healthy life," he'd say, "because you're always outdoors; you travel, and the money is out of this world."
But one day, just as I was slicing another ball from the first fairway of our golf club into the adjacent bog, the greenkeeper came trundling towards us, grinning broadly in his little customised gold buggy that bristled with pitchforks, scythes, secateurs and so on. "You know, Andrew," said my dad, "you could do a lot worse than become a greenkeeper on a golf course. You'll be on nodding terms with people who earn money that's out of this world, you'll get to see some really good golf played, and it's a job that would be well within you, intellectually."
The greenkeeper scenario haunted me as I entered the sixth form and began my competitive life.
I revised for my A-levels in the evenings at a desk in York reference library. My main rival also worked there. After a few days of swotting, he began to turn up with two card-index files, which he would regularly consult. He must be revising much more systematically than I am, I fretted. I tried to pace myself to him. I would only take a break when he took one . . . but he never did take one. Sometimes I would sidle past his desk and look at his work. His copy of King Lear - one of our set texts - was full of handwritten notes, footnotes, and little arrows showing how one passage related to another, and I blanched at the sight. There was more writing in there by him than there was by Shakespeare.
Later, as I began my career as a writer, I experienced a similar unease when I realised that only one of my fellow freelancers was not fiercely ambitious. I began to use this unusually relaxed character - the only person who's ever spontaneously referred to me as "a big-name writer" - as a kind of counsellor.
About five years ago, for instance, when I was hung-up about not being a television reviewer, a profession seemingly pursued by absolutely everyone else I knew, he said: "Andrew, you don't want to be a television reviewer. Most television is depressing rubbish . . . and then you have to be funny about it. And besides, you never watch television." I liked hearing this, but secretly thought: "You're only saying that because you want to be a television reviewer, and you're trying to remove some of the competition."
At 42, I am finally beginning to relinquish some of my ambitions. If only other people would do the same. When I was in my early teens I'd often go on a mass bike ride with a gang of mates. At the start, the shout would go up: "No racing today!" from those with the cheaper and more rickety bikes, and there would be friendly nods of agreement from all sides.
But then some sleek bastard on a ten-speed racer would start to inch ahead...