In pursuit of happiness part 2

I’ve just finished reading David Nicholls’ ‘One Day’ which I liked a lot. It didn’t look quite as good on the tube as, say, Satre or Proust, but it did look a lot more believable. It’s full of humour, pathos, emotion and class-related awkwardness. I really liked the book, and it was about as British as ‘Friends’ is American. I think that the ‘cleverness’ of the format (catching up with the main protagonists on the same day over a twenty year period) is actually a bit limiting, and I don’t think that this gimick is necessary, but I can’t remember the last time that I read a book quite so quickly, and felt as though I knew (and cared about) the characters quite so much. It’s a bit disappointing that the book has to be turned into a film; the film serves little purpose, save to pander to those with little or no imagination. If the characters are as you imagined, it’s just like reading the book again, and if they’re nothing like you imagined, well that’s just irritating.

It’s the characters in any book or film that make it stand out. Getting you to care about these fictional people is a large part of the battle. The characters in ‘One Day’ were drawn in 3D, and when they weren’t, that was clearly deliberate, almost as a way of making the key characters stand out. One of the reasons that I dislike soaps so much is that every character exists completely in 2D, and displays such a limited range of emotions at any one time as to represent nothing but cariacature. ‘One Day’ is about life, chance, fate, friendship and love, and despite the condensing of a year into a day in every chapter, it’s clear that all of these occur in parallel, not in series.

One of the overriding thoughts I had upon finishing the book was about how unhappy the characters seemed for much of the time, and how surface happiness often masked some kind of inner turmoil. I’m sure this isn’t what I was supposed to be left with, but there you go: lots of money or too little money, hectic social life or no social life, relationship or single life, unrealised ambition or unfulfilling present: it didn’t seem to matter which stage we were at, there was always something gnawing away at our heroes, making sure that true happiness remained just out of reach. And maybe this is true to life; maybe we can’t ever be 100% blissfully happy at any one time; there’s always things going that worry us, things that could be better, and even if it were possible to attain a state of happy nirvana, wouldn’t that just make us all too aware that we were at the top of the mountain, with only one way to go?

I actually find this thought that unobtainable (complete) happiness rather comforting, and it does take the pressure off somewhat. If it’s never possible to be 100% happy, it should never be possible to be 100% sad: they’re just opposite sides of the same coin, and there’s no one without the other. No matter how rough things get, you can always grab hold of lots of happy thoughts, of things that are going well, just like golden tickets (I’m thinking more Crystal Dome than Wonka here). Each day should be a nice mix of sad and happy thoughts, of moments of elation and moments of despair (ok, maybe that’s a bit strong for every day, but you get the idea). It’s these extremes of emotion that remind us that we’re human, that remind us that we’re alive. No-one wants to hang around the person who’s a perpetual misery, whose glass is always half-empty, but there’s a reason why the word ‘grinning’ is often followed by the word ‘idiot’, and anyone who claims to be happy all the time maybe just hasn’t got a particularly well developed sense of emotion.

So go forth, rejoice and be happy. Or sad. Just try and make sure they exist in approximately equal measure.

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In pursuit of happiness part 1

I’m currently experiencing the first few days of ‘nothing’ that comes with an ‘all or nothing’ job. The ‘all’ is term time, and the ‘nothing’ is the holidays. This is a job like no other; I reckon that I probably work the same number of hours per year as someone in a comparable Monday to Friday job, and I’m certainly not trying to suggest (as many teachers would) that I work any harder over the course of an average year. However, I cram my working year into about 35 weeks, as opposed to the 48 that is the norm. This isn’t necessarily better or worse, it’s just different. I have lots more days off, some that I cherish, others that bore me rigid. It’s irritating that in order to attend a wedding on a saturday, I need someone to cover my lessons for me; when I go on holiday, it’s always expensive flight time. On the flip side, I spent yesterday afternoon in Chelsea barracks, looking enviously at art that I’ll never be able to afford and drinking free Ruinart champagne. My official next day of work is 1st September, so there are definitely perks too.

I’m always amazed at how many teachers spend term-time weeks wishing their life away, raising eyebrows in the common room towards the end of term as they wearily state ‘just ten more days’, as if the job they do is some kind of pergutaory before the joy of long holidays stretch out before you, brimming with exciting possibility. These are often the same people that when you speak with them at awkward staff drinks at the start of the next academic year (very probably the only time you’ll talk that year) describe their summer activities as having been spent ‘just pottering about’.

It’s a difficult balance to strike. Most ‘normal’ people work very hard from Monday to Friday, and are delighted at the arrival of the weekend – Friday night drinks, saturday lie-in with Adam and Joe, sport in the afternoon, Ant or Dec in the evening. Sunday papers, late gastropub lunch with friends, sunday night work panic; it’s got a nice sense of familiarity. This doesn’t happen in my world. It’s seven day a week boarding School life, then acres of holiday time. Monday is the same as Friday is the same as Sunday, in the holidays as well as at work. At work, my life is structured to the nth degree, and every minute tends to be planned out. The holidays hit, and my life-framework is pulled apart, and suddenly I have decisions to make. ‘The Wright stuff’ of Jeremy Kyle? It’s not a life-or-death one, but the very fact that either have become possibilities makes it imperative to get out of the house as often as possible.

But how does one turn from a frankly boring one-conversationed teacher to exciting holiday-type fun-seeker? It soon becomes patently obvious that most people don’t have the time for long lunches, and if they do, they have to go back to work at some point in the afternoon. Going on holiday is one thing, and being away from home (actually on holiday in the traditional sense) makes it easy to put work behind you. Reading is another pleasure that is curtailed for 35 weeks a year, and my rate of getting through books during term-time is embarrassingly low. I’m piling through ‘One Day’ at the moment, and that’s the part 2 of the happiness theme. County cricket (one place where it’s de rigeur to look like a lonely man) is another saviour of the summer.

One of the things that makes me feel that I’m in the right job is that I probably enjoy term-time as much as the holidays. If I were to live for the holidays, I’d consider that too much of my life (the work part) was being wished away. If I felt at a total loose end for 9 weeks every summer, that would be wholly depressing. Life’s full of specks of happiness, and I probably get as many of them during work periods. The fun rarely lasts so long, and is far less hedonistic, but it’s also the sneaky snatched nature of it that makes it such fun in the first place. Holiday fun can be far more more exuberant and showy, but when you’ve no contstraints of time or money, it’s always going to feel a little more hollow. Score draw all round I say; after all, Gatsby never seemed all that pleased by the time his ‘pulpless halves’ went out on a Monday morning….