D J Taylor: Sarah has something to smile about...

...but what about the rest of us? The PM's 'happy' index may struggle if even a good bottle of wine doesn't guarantee nirvana
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The Independent Online

The David Cameron-inspired notion of a "happiness index" moved a step further this week with the publication of the Office of National Statistics' initial survey in which 34,000 people were asked which aspects of their lives might be included.

The £2m project was unveiled last year by the Prime Minister – who has declared himself an optimist – in the hope that the index could be quoted alongside more conventional yardsticks of gross domestic product and longevity as a measure of "national progress".

Leaving aside the question of what is meant by that, what were the findings? For children, apparently, happiness consists of eating breakfast and celebrating Christmas. Young adults obtain their consolation from, well I never, clothes, music and fast food. Older people are keener on community spirit. Lurking behind these surface pleasures are one or two longer-term guarantors of satisfaction. According to Jill Matheson, a statistician: "People of all ages highlighted the importance of family, friends, health, financial security, equality and fairness in determining well-being."

Valuable as this exercise no doubt is, you can't help thinking that it ignores one or two fundamentals. For a start, it has nothing to say about spiritual belief, which a fair percentage of us would probably regard as their procedural lodestar. Neither does it examine the principle by which most human behaviour is ultimately sustained: the idea, long canvassed by novelists, of the personal myth.

Most of us, observation insists, are less concerned with what happens to us than with what we think happens to us, and the public face through which these imaginings are presented. In other words, what sometimes looks like a charm-free or actively disagreeable existence can be borne if our personal mythology is in place and we can conceive of ourselves in terms that make the experience worthwhile. I fear the latest index will have to be more finely calibrated if it is to make the kind of impact the PM has in mind.

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It was a bad week for the countryside after the Government's unveiling of an unparalleled overhaul of planning laws. The draft National Policy Planning Framework cuts planning policy from a 1,000-page document to a scant 52 pages, promising "a presumption in favour of sustainable development". The National Trust, among other organisations registering their disquiet, notes that the plans would strip away procedures and regulations that date back to the Attlee administration and make it easier for developers to build on greenfield sites.

The really annoying thing about this scheme is the horribly disingenuous air that attends it. If a minister were to stand up in parliament and cheerfully admit that he wanted to concrete over the greenbelt as a way of promoting economic growth, then at least the environmental lobby would know where it stood. As it is, assaults on the planning laws are always sold to the public on the basis of "speeding up" the antiquated arrangements of 1945.

If there were any doubt as to which particular interest group these innovations are intended to benefit, it was briskly dispelled by a segment of Tuesday night's BBC News at Ten. This featured a developer who welcomed the idea and could be seen eyeing up the unspoilt Midlands waterway that he plans to turn into a marina, much like a fox outside a chicken coop. Given that the consequences of most developments are pretty much irrevocable – it is notoriously difficult, after all, to turn a car park back into a field – you might think that the more labyrinthine the planning process the better.

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There were agitated noises in the literary world after the news that the Telegraph Media Group has been ordered to pay £65,000 to Dr Sarah Thornton, who had claimed for libel and malicious falsehood after a particularly bracing review of her Seven Days in the Art World brought to readers of the Daily Telegraph by Lynn Barber. The paper has announced that it intends to appeal the decision. Meanwhile, one or two literary bloggers have wondered if this doesn't herald "the end of reviewing".

Experience – bitter, personal experience – suggests that the reputation-desecrating book review has myriad categories. There are the chaps one was at college with. There are the score-settlers, such as the distinguished academic who rang a literary editor the day after his darling work had been monstered to demand first go at his traducer's next book. Then there are the reviewers who make insult part of the persona they offer to the world. The late Auberon Waugh was actually a very nice man. As the literary agent Pat Kavanagh once remarked, it was just that something came over him when he saw a blank sheet of paper.

Then there are those mysterious notices – agitated, personal, inescapable – that convey to the reviewee the fact that he has offended the reviewer in some elemental way that has nothing to do with the book he happens to have written. You doubt that Ms Barber's embarrassment (which seems to have been the result of sheer inaccuracy) will signal the end of reviewing. But it might mean a little less spite.

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Even an optimist of the Cameron school will have shaken his or her head over the story of Christian Vanneque, the former sommelier who not only paid £75,000 for a bottle of 1811 Chateau d'Yquem (inset left), but actually intends to drink it. All the evidence, alas, suggests that Mr Vanneque is in for a serious disappointment, given that what is touted as the very best nearly always, on inspection, ends up on a slightly lower rung.

In the Eighties, Sir Kingsley Amis was offered lunch at a restaurant of his choice by Charles Moore, then the young, incoming editor of The Spectator. Installed at a table at the Connaught, and given the wine-list, Amis was told he could order whatever he liked. He chose a £106 bottle of claret. It was, he reported to friends, OK but by no means the best he'd ever had.

In the spirit of humble emulation, I once adopted the Amis approach in a hotel in West Sussex and called for a glass of brandy that cost £12. It passed muster, but no more. At least Mr Vanneque, empty bottle cast into the recycling, can console himself with the fact that he has proved a moral point. My sympathies are with the young man in the Oscar Wilde story who had had so much of the good wine that he wanted to see what the bad wine tasted like.

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