Gary Day

May 5, 2006

Have you seen that TV programme called Grumpy Old Men ? If not, it consists of showbiz personalities griping about modern life. But what exactly have they got to complain about? They're all rich, they live in big houses, they spend half the year on holiday and the other half pontificating in front of cameras. And they probably have more sex than John Prescott, though he's catching up fast. My God, they are not even old. The eldest looks only about 50. Which is quite young, actually. Those whom age has truly withered forget everything the instant you tell them. Mind you, I suppose you could say the same about students. Montaigne was right. There is no claim so secure that it can't be overturned by a flick of Fortune's finger. He, of course, put it much better. The swine.

But back to these middle-aged celebrities. Why are they so disgruntled? Because they are not as famous as Jade Goody? Not at all. They hate being recognised. Or so some of them say. No, what upsets them are things such as the beep of mobile phones.

These grumpies really need to get a grip. There are far worse problems in the world than technological development. Look at men's belts for a start. Once upon a time they were easy to fasten, but now you have to go on a course to secure your strides. Don't designers realise their innovations could spell the end of the great British farce? The genre partly relies on chaps being able to get their trousers on and off quickly, which they can't do if they have to work out the exact relation between buckle and strap. Still, as long as John's working late and Charles is at the Home Office, the future looks good for farce. Surely that should bring a smile to the faces of those grumpy old men. No, you're right.

One of the characteristics of the English is that they are constitutionally miserable. That's why they need multiculturalism. To cheer them up. A benefit denied to that quintessence of Englishness, Dr Johnson, whose melancholy disposition blighted his life. His bleak view - that existence was more to be endured than enjoyed - inspired Samuel Beckett, who confessed to being obsessed by Johnson and even drafted a play about his relationship with Mrs Thrale, the wife of the great Cham's longtime friend and benefactor.

Their association was - how shall I say? - a little odd, even by the standards of the 18th century with its Hellfire Clubs and authors such as that "great Arbitress of Passion", Eliza Haywood. In one letter, the good Mrs Thrale writes darkly of not wanting to indulge the sage's desire for chains and padlocks. Whatever was going on did not stop Dictionary Johnson from being the most famous literary figure of his day. But literature seemed only to intensify his misery rather than alleviate it.

And that seems to be true for a good number of those who teach the subject.

The best efforts of the speakers at the recent English Association Centenary Conference were not enough to dispel the gloom that always seems to characterise celebrations in this country, as anyone who has ever been to a wedding will know. In exasperation, one panel member asked why members of the profession were always so miserable. The answer is that literature lovers probably spend more time than anyone comparing art's promise of fulfilment with life's constant frustrations. We dream in the depths but live in the shallows. Add to that the curse of our national malady and we really do have a problem.

But don't despair. Someone has decided to tackle the peculiar loyalty the English feel to unhappiness. Anthony Seldon, head of the private school Wellington College, has announced that happiness is going to be taught as part of the personal, social and health education lessons. No Tennyson on the curriculum there then. And if that weren't bad enough, the Government has declared that "there is a case for state intervention to boost life satisfaction".

If new Labour is truly serious about that, then it could always leave office before it does any more damage. But that's about as likely as finding a man who's happy before he's dead. As Godot's creator remarked, "The sum of tears is constant." Which is why our action is all about money. It may not bring happiness but it makes quality enhancement more bearable. And who knows? We may soon only have to teach students for two years instead of three. Life's not all bad. On the other hand, consider this. Tracey Temple said that she and big John had "regular sexual encounters with the door open in front of people". Now, there's a real cause for complaint. I'm all for transparency but that's carrying it a bit too far, don't you think?

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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