How are you? A journalist I knew always replied, with alarm: “Why? What have you heard?” But I ask only because happiness and contentment seem much discussed presently, and not always with happiness and contentment.
Britain, for example, has come in at number 13 out of 110 in an international comparison of a nation’s wealth and wellbeing, using measures such as education and health care. This has been considered a poor show, but I thought it pretty good, working on the principle that if you aren’t worried, you haven’t been paying attention to George Osborne’s skin tone.
Besides, these measures show how happy and content you should be, and worrying why you’re not when you should be has always been a cause of more of it among the English middle classes and other people who can afford such thoughts, like Wayne Rooney and Simon Hughes. And you must have noticed that it is impossible to order yourself to be happy and content. That’s why there are so many quotations insisting you can: vide the fabled Aesop: “Be content with your lot; one cannot be first in everything”. He was better on the animal stuff.
Still, the latest from the National Archives did reveal a fascinating list of keys to happiness, at least in the 1970s, from a Treasury adviser, Peter Cropper, anxious to temper a familiar Conservative doctrine of benevolent suffering: “There is no hint...of the end goal of it all – joy, wealth, national power, two acres and a cow, a second car in every garage, interesting jobs, leisure, comfortable trains, channel tunnels, atomic power stations, gleaming new coal mines, everyone a bathroom, patios for all, etc, etc …”
Splendid. Patios for All! Why didn’t that catch on as a slogan? Well, some unfortunate associations, bodies often underneath them, for example; no readily definable class of patio owner; foreign word, too. By the way, did you know that the last government discovered that there are over 800,000 conservatories in England, with the most in Wiltshire? Patio seems to have run into a category difficulty: when, for example, is a patio a terrace? ( I can solve that familiar wobbly patio problem, though: drill 5-6mm holes in the joints and then squirt an expanding foam filler into them.)
But even firm patios don’t make everyone happy. It does seem to vary. In the excellent (read on) National Trust publication, Simple Pleasures, for example, Sebastian Faulks prefers parsing about in Latin, French and English, while Valerie Grove likes picking up litter. I myself chose Lancashire. J B Priestley, Yorkshireman, once picked on, inter alia, reading in bed about foul weather and waking to smell bacon. David Finkle, of Chelmsford, on the other hand, has just carved 102 pumpkins in an hour, unsurprisingly a world record.
I must also pass on two more relevant pieces of information: if dreaming makes you happy, Dr Robin Hendy, a food scientist, recommends, naturally, cheese, but also strawberries, raspberries and tartare sauce; and in 2004, archaeologists in Fife admitted that the stone slabs they thought were evidence of early Viking settlements were the remains of a patio built in 1939.
Olivers will never be as much fun as Jacks
As it happens, my happiness has been hampered by the news that Oliver is now the most popular first name for baby boys. I have nothing against the name in itself, although it has been carried by few men of note, and by fewer of those who bring the fun and feist that brighten life. Cromwell? That prig Twist? Oliver Hardy would be an exception, but he was a little too fond of golf. No, I am glum because I have written a book all about people called Jack: it wasn’t doing very well when it was about Britain’s most popular name; how well will it do now it’s about Britain’s second most popular name? Exactly. But I will take Aesopian consolation in some of the fine Jacks I came across, including Jack Vahey, the drunken butcher who somehow joined the Charge of the Light Brigade, and Jack Parsons, rocket scientist and occultist who blew himself up mysteriously and has a crater named after him on, naturally, the dark side of the moon. Here’s to every second most popular man of you.
Complaints, I note, about offensive language in public life (see Johnson B, reckless Balkanite comparator, and Harman H, insulter of Danny Alexander, member of our only two unprotected minorities, Gingers and Northerners). The worst of it for me is the lack of style. Ginger rodent! Try this from the great Sheridan, playwright and politician: “I said the Honourable Member is a liar it is true and I am sorry for it. The Honourable Member may place the punctuation where he pleases”. Or this, of Eamon De Valera: “A laugh in mourning”. That was from another great Irishman, a surgeon, cyclist, writer, archer and aviator by the name of, I am compelled to concede, Oliver St John Gogarty. Or, Harriet, go for it properly. Try Paul Keating on John Howard, his successor as Australian PM: “The little dessicated coconut”. G’day.