The Road to Happiness

A family of six goldfinches occupied one of our garden feeders for quite some time on Saturday. Whilst all are clearly goldfinches, the four juveniles lack the characteristic markings around their heads and have more a tawny back.

I think it’s true to say that goldfinches are now more commonly seen in our gardens and that can only be a good thing as far as I’m concerned. I think they’re irresistible.

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A colleague prefaced telling me about a forthcoming local charity book fair by saying “I’m not sure whether you will be interested in this, but…”

Of course I was interested! (And I think that she knew full well that I would be.)

She also offered, in case I couldn’t make it in person, to look out for any particular titles which I might want, if I provided a list. But half of the pleasure of second-hand books is in the browsing. Another friend was telling me recently that she will soon be switching over from books to Kindle, but then: no searching through tables piled high with fusty old books, one of which might be an unexpected gem. It’s nice to find a book which is on your wish-list: I picked up ‘The Road’ and ‘Wolf Hall’ for a song recently – but I had known that it was only a matter of time before that happened. If the book is something I’ve wanted to read for a while then the find becomes a little more exciting – I’ve just bought ‘The Snow Leopard’ for less than the postage on Amazon Marketplace would have been, for example. But the books which aren’t on my wish-list because I don’t know about them are the principle reason I will hope to get to that book fair next weekend.

Recent purchases of this type include ‘Fresh Woods’ by Ian Niall which I’ve posted about before, ‘Cockley Beck’ by John Pepper, which I’m very much looking forward to reading, and ‘Between Earth and Paradise’ by Mike Tomkies which I have just finished reading, and which I enjoyed immensely.

Another recent find was ‘Portraits from Memory’ by Bertrand Russell. I’ve read and liked some of his essays before, and I was recently lent ‘Logicomix’ which is about the search for certainty in mathematics and is absolutely fascinating. What a treat then to find some autobiographical material by Russell. Scanning down the contents, an essay entitled ‘The Road to Happiness’ sprang out as an appealing place to start.

This was partly because there was an article by Adam Phillips in the Guardian Review recently about ‘the happiness myth’. (You can read it here). It left me somewhat bemused and confused: what is the central argument – that the unbridled pursuit of pleasure is a bad thing? I imagine that thousands of Guardian reading, hell for leather, break-neck hedonists were moved to pause and consider whether they should change their ways over their early morning snifter of cocaine on that particular Saturday. The article was thought provoking and I particularly liked the quote, from Larkin’s ‘Born Yesterday’:

……a skilled,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
Catching of happiness…..

But I find that I am much more in sympathy with what Russell has to say. You can read the entire essay here, but the following passages from near the end of the essay struck me as particularly relevant to this blog:

It is the simple things that really matter. If a man delights in his wife and children, has success in work, and finds pleasure in the alternation of day and night, spring and autumn, he will be happy whatever his philosophy may be.

Man is an animal, and his happiness depends upon his physiology more than he likes to think. This is a humble conclusion, but I cannot make myself disbelieve it. Unhappy businessmen, I am convinced, would increase their happiness more by walking six miles  every day than by any conceivable change of philosophy. This, incidentally, was the opinion of Jefferson, who on this ground deplored the horse. Language would have failed him if he could have foreseen the motor-car.

Mike Tomkies – who’s observations on wildlife on a island of the west coast of Scotland has gripped me over the last week – was troubled terribly by loneliness in his simple remote home. I think that he might have picked up some good advice on striking a balance between work and play, seriousness and fun, if he had read Russell instead of Gavin Maxwell and Thoreau.

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The Road to Happiness