Thursday, 21 March 2013

Oh England, My England

Before this clip turns me into a quivering mass of nostalgic jelly I must remind myself that it is an advertisement for tea. But what an advertisement for tea it is! 
"Calm down, bruised and battered soul," it comforts, "there is always routine and pretty things and tea." "England hasn't changed so much. Your life hasn't changed so much. Establish the rhythms and rules you draw comfort from and all will be well, all manner of things will be well."

And that, gentle reader, is definitely a way to happiness. And, it is a particularly English way to happiness. The ability to re-establish something of yourself, your rhythms and routines, when life has given you a jolly good pummelling. However, I don't think this is something you can do quickly and easily if you have been through the mill. Something which is nigh on impossible if life has been pummelling you since birth. Which is why I'm feeling a little jaded about UN's International day of Happiness. 

Now, this is a bit of a political turn around for me. I've been a long term fan of NEF and they were one of the first think tanks to posit the idea that a country should be judged by the well-being, or happiness, of its citizens rather than the GDP.  However, the happiness movement is wrong. If you take a look at Action for Happiness's  Ten Keys To Happier Living you will see that their suggestions are practical, sensible and workable for those of us who may be feeling a little social angst (or in other words the slightly over stretched middle classes) but entirely impractical for those people who really need a good dose of happiness. Namely, the people who have no idea what happiness, or contentment, really is. The underclass. We in Britain have a massive underclass. A simmering group of young people who no nothing of the very excellent ten keys to happiness, nothing of work, nothing of education, nothing of good nutrition and health, nothing of healthy relationships. There is no place of safety to retreat to and no rhythms and routines to draw comfort from.  The poor in this country are poor in every conceivable way. 

The trouble with the happiness movement is the word "happiness." Despite the fact that altruism is key to the movement "happiness" is not an altruistic word. It is a personal word. I have no doubt that the happiests are very altruistic people and deeply concerned with the well-being of others. I do not doubt it and I admire them. But if I asked one of the 14 year old kids I used to teach if they were happy they would say, "yes." Particularly if they have new shoes, some dope and an older boy/man to pay "attention" to them.  They would say they were happy if they had got to batter someone before they were battered themselves. One or two of them would say they were happy if they had a place to sleep. Happiness is a subjective word.  And you know some of these "happy" kids because they live on the rough estate in your town.

The thing is, hell is other people.  Many unhappy people can track their unhappiness down the anti-social actions of others. Whether it is the personal - a manipulative, or bullying, friend or family member acting selfishly. Or political, - a few bankers in the USA selling sub-prime mortgages to the very poor knowing that whilst they would earn millions, economies could fail and jobs will be lost. The reason why the "happiness" level of UK citizens has plummeted over the past thirty years is because we think we have the right to personal happiness. I'm sure the bullying friend feels that they have the right to manipulate because they have the right to be happy...the bankers felt that the millions would make them happy. When one of the lads I used to teach went on a bit of a mugging spree, he felt pretty happy. However the old ladies he stole from were very miserable and desperate.

The bottom line is that you and I and Oprah Winfrey have no right to happiness. Happiness is the fluctuating reward we receive when we have behaved like good citizens, but this reward is at the mercy of others and can be snatched away from us by those who grasp and grab and misbehave because they have been taught by an uncaring world that they can do whatever they like if it makes them happy. That is why the semantics of the happiness movement needs to change. If we are going to be a happier country we need to be good citizens. We need to be taught how to be good citizens, we need to be taught how to be good friends, neighbours, employers, employees, husbands, wives, children.  The happiness movement tells us we should be these things, but we need to be taught, quite explicitly, how to be these things. The happiness movement needs to be the citizenship movement because without good citizenship hell will continue to be other people - when other people could so easily be heaven. 

I'll leave you with an Edwardian poem about citizenship from E. Nesbitt's The Story of the Amulet.

I must not steal and I must learn,
Nothing is mine that I do not earn.
I must try in work and play
To make things beautiful every day.
I must be kind to everyone,
And never let cruel things be done.
I must be brave, and I must try
When I am hurt never to cry
And always laugh as much as I can,
And be glad that I'm going to be a man
To work for my living and help the rest
And never do less than my very best.


Lucy said...

I teared up. I remember working with children from the "under class" and sitting reading to them a beautiful story "Something is going to Happen" that is so cosy, about a family peacefully waking up in a calm and orderly way, with the mama going to bake muffins and the story was so warm and wonderful. These kids typically ate a breakfast of crisps or lollies en route to school if they were lucky enough to get money - if not the were given some white toast with marg in breakfast club. They loved that story. It was beyond their idea of real life which was a chaos of squalor. I don't think most politicians understand the "under class" because they don't live among them or come from that section of society so they ignore or patronise. So sad. LOVE the advert too!

dappled days said...

Well said. A brilliant read as always. I was a child of the underclass and autistic to boot, so I know how cruel that world can be. Thankfully though this was many years ago before the uprise of gangs with knives. I fear for all the vulnerable young and old in the city where I used to live. Thankfully (again) I am now esconsed in a happy hovel in green countryside among an old-fashioned community that care for each other and do things together.
I do believe community is the key to happiness (and I'm an autist!)
Loved the E Nesbit verse.

Pom Pom said...

I had to order the book Lucy mentions!
What an enjoyable post. I know my eleven and twelve year old students love to talk about food. We wrote poems about family dishes and you wouldn't believe the odes to mashed potatoes and gravy!

I need my "elevenses" now. (I think you told me about this and is THAT how it is spelled?)

Anonymous said...

I love the video, and your whole post. I think of England a lot more often, and perhaps understand it better, now that I'm in Europe and most of the English-speakers I meet are British. Still, I think that the US has a big underclass problem, too. My mom, who taught elementary school, used to say that the problem with her poor kids doing their work was that there was no quiet place or routine to do it in.

I agree that domestic routines and thinking of others are practices that enhance contentment, no matter how challenged we are when we start out. Hard to say which comes first, really, the practices of contentment or the feelings. At the very least, I think the practices carve channels for the feelings. I've even heard that psychologists give depressed people self-care tasks to do because it's an important part of recovery.

Glad you're back--excellent post!