Charles Nevin: The key to happiness in the modern world

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The Independent Online

It's conventional, I know, for commentators to convey a sense of certainty. Sadly, this is not my way. In fact, I often remind myself of John Le Carré's Smiley, and his wife's withering judgement: "Life's a great puzzle to you, George, isn't it?" But Smiley could cope with double and triple agents. I'm confused by Patricia Hewitt. And the Football Association. And Sudoku. And why you now have to pay up to £100,000 for a beach hut. This reshuffle hasn't helped, either.

My high bafflement of the week, though, was that eight out of 10 Britons think the Government's main aim should be to make them happy, according to a BBC poll for its new series The Happiness Formula. The Government? Make them happy? Is it happy? And don't these people realise what they might be letting themselves in for? At the very least a presumption of gloom if you're not smiling, leading to an automatic Asbo followed by deportation to Sweden. Sorry, I see that the Swedes are happier than we are, even though 36 per cent of us are, apparently, "very happy".

Which is remarkable, but not as remarkable as our bliss rating in 1957: 52 per cent. In the Fifties! The Dull Decade, The Time of Torpor, The Epoch of Ennui that was blown away by the heady, breathy, sexy Sixties?

What was going on? Can it be that all the familiar stuff about respect and deference is right, and that people do like to know their place? Certainly, that other report last week, by the Future Foundation, showed our famous old class system in all sorts of trouble, with, for example, almost a third of bank managers considering themselves working class. It was not for this that Captain Mainwaring held Walmington-on-Sea.

Unstinting on your behalf, I have been researching 1957 in an attempt to uncover the secret of that felix annus. It did not take long to throw up a very obvious candidate: this was the very year when Harold Macmillan informed everyone that they'd never had it so good. They must have believed him. If only it had been that simple for Patricia Hewitt.

Was it because Macmillan was a toff? Well, he was also the grandson of a crofter, which doesn't help the place-knowing theory. (Interestingly, but still confusingly, the survey of attitudes to class today showed a "universal dislike" for the upper classes. I thought we adored our eccentric and charming aristocracy. And it's hardly gratitude for all those safari parks and gift shops. Has the Marquis of Bath laboured in vain?)

I delved on. Beach huts were unquestionably cheaper, but Sudoku hadn't been invented, although 1957 did see the introduction of both the Frisbee and the Pina Colada.

The answer, though, I think, is revealed in the world of entertainment. Do not, please, think "Celebrity" a recent phenomenon. This was the year that saw the arrival on our television screens of Pinky and Perky. And Armand and Michaela Dennis. But the big one was unquestionably an hour-long entertainment spectacular starring ... George Formby!

Ah, yes, the uke, the toothy grin. That's what we need, a top cheeky chappie. Comedy today is very clever, often excruciatingly so, but it's not about bringing happiness. With one glorious exception, whose very theme tune it is. That's right: Doddy! Come on, Tony, finish the job properly, give him that Tessa Jowell's job and let's have some real tatifilariousness!

Global elder news round-up

You will have your own views on Keith Richards and the coconut tree, and about Patricia Rashbrook, the expectant 63-year-old, but it at least makes a change from all that stuff about young people. Inspired, I bring you some more significant elder news.

First, mothers will be encouraged by the armed robber in Sao Paolo who rang his mum on his mobile when it went wrong. Next, in India, Gayadhar Parida, 83, has spent the last 50 years up a tree after a row with his wife, while in Malaysia, Wook Kundor, 104, has married for the 21st time. She says she hopes this one lasts.

Splendid. Last word, though, to our senior diva Joan Collins, who, asked about the 32-year age difference with her husband, Percy, said: "If he dies, he dies."

* Excellent news for transport enthusiasts and anyone who reveres the island ingenuity that has already brought you the mini-roundabout and the cones hotline: narrower motorway lanes to ease congestion.

It's only a proposal so far, but work could get started in Yorkshire by 2010. Encouraged, I shall be submitting to the Highways Agency my finest jam-busting wheezes:

1. Narrower cars. 2. Slightly wider cars with a lot of clearance. 3. Taller cars with decks taking one passenger each. 4. Drivers with surnames beginning with letters from A to L should start journeys on even minutes, eg 8.10, 8.16, etc, while M to Z should wait for odd minutes.

5. Alternatively, the Department for Transport could make radio announcements: "Drivers with the letter 'R' in their surname can start ... NOW!"

6. Every other car goes round the roundabout twice. 7. Tax relief on unicycles. 8. More men should ask for directions. 9. Armed 4x4s. 10. Better television programmes. Thank you.