There’s a new self-help book out, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. The nub of the thesis appears to be as follows:
…saying positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror can make you feel worse and … visualizing the future can make you less likely to achieve it. And so what I wanted to do in this book was to explore what I ended up calling ‘the negative path to happiness,’ which involves instead turning toward uncertainty and insecurity, even pessimism, to try to find a different way that might be more durable and successful.
Isn’t a good part of this to be found in what is more traditionally known as British phlegmatism? I don’t know about happiness but it’s certainly had some success as an approach to the world, not least in winning a very large empire, two world wars, etc, etc. Most recently it did the trick with organizing an Olympic games. It’s not so much a ‘can’t-do’ attitude – more a ‘can-do but it will probably be rubbish so let’s not get too excited and actually prepare for the worst’ attitude.
I think this ingrained habit of thought is why most people are finding British politics so satisfying at the moment (the 15% turnout in the recent elections surely represented a clear demand for no change). Today’s politicians are all much-of-a-muchness with very little to offer; perhaps, at best, one might hope for a reasonably competent level of managerial oversight. This is as it should be. The brief periods of insane optimism many of us experienced under mid-period Thatcher and early-period Blair are almost forgotten. It’s now back to what we like best: a good, solid stretch of negativity and low expectations.
Outside a small circle of evangelical optimists, we all knew that messing around with Bible translations would come to an unsatisfactory end. The other day, an imperishable phrase from Ecclesiastes made a welcome appearance on the blog: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ (how’s that for the power of negative thought?). Out of curiosity I wondered what modern translations made of the same passage. Here’s the most egregious:
“Absolutely pointless!” says the spokesman. “Absolutely pointless! Everything is pointless.”
Sounds like a British civil servant in the early hours of a Euro-conference.
Thought-provoking question from the eldest (7) this week: how did people work before computers? I was initially stumped, being not quite old enough to have experienced that era and struggling to imagine what it would have been like. Was it a question of spending ages writing at a desk? Or was it a matter of continuously wandering round having conversations with people? One thing I do recall about my early working life is talking for long periods on the phone (hair dryer handset attached to a curly cable) – strangely, more so than nowadays even though I’m almost never without my mobile.
As well as work being different, a great many memoirs suggest that people did a lot less of it before things became so technological, at least in most white-collar jobs. There was certainly more time to go down the pub. Various biographies featuring Fleet Street provide corroboration, as do recollections like this amusing one of life as an ad man in the ’80s.
I’m about halfway through Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie’s memoir of being a hunted man. It’s fascinating, not least because of the insight one gets into how Special Branch works.
As for the author, he comes across as in possession of reasonable principles and a great deal of courage and fortitude. Those critics who blamed him for bringing the rage of Muslim fanatics onto himself look even worse now – post-9/11 – than they did at the time. And the decision not to prosecute Kalim Siddiqui – a rabble-rousing, glove puppet of the Ayatollahs, referred to by Rushdie throughout as a ‘garden gnome’ – really feels as if it’s from another time. I doubt he’d get away with it now, especially if he were on twitter (this may be for the better or it may be for the worse).
Anyhow, despite Minerva’s owl having flapped off a while ago now, some people never learn. I shall leave you with a clip of a sound pasting given to an incorrigibly thick-skulled pol on this topic. I recall it being something of an internet sensation so you may have already seen it. But it’s worth catching again, involving as it does some Hitch/Bozzer tag-team slams – a dream duo for full-on intellectual wrestling.
By the way, I never got through Midnight’s Children, despite trying twice.