Tuesday, 20 January 2009

When Were You Happiest?

In recent years there has been a regular filler feature in the "lifestyle" supplements of even the quality papers which takes the form of a celebrity questionnaire. This was no doubt originally borrowed in a spirit of irony from the celebrity magazines but, as things do, it has developed a momentum of its own. If nothing else, I suppose, these invitations to self-exposure have given some insight into that worldview which divides the world into celebs and "civilians."

One of the usual questions is: "When were you happiest?" After in-depth, week-on-week research I have concluded that -- in whatever celebrity boot camp or induction session these people attend -- the current teaching is that the only acceptable answer is the evasive yet vaguely hip formula: Right here and right now.

Obviously (or presumably), the respondent doesn't literally mean "Right here, sitting with my agent, concocting suitable answers right now to this stupid questionnaire (how many papers did you say this was going in? Just The Guardian? But isn't that a communist paper?)" No, this is language borrowed from the celebrity therapy session, where evasion masquerades as enlightenment, and emotional cosmetic surgery is carried out not to cure but to cover up the needy, greedy tics and traits of people with that inexplicable, bottomless and insatiable hunger for Fame.

They may say "Why, my inquisitive friend, since you ask, I am happiest right here and right now!" but what they mean is:

a). I don't know what it would mean to be happy;
b). My therapist tells me that "living in the here and now" means I don't have to confront the issues and behaviours that have caused so much unhappiness for me and those around me;
c). I badly need you to believe that I'm a sussed person with an all-over emotional tan;

and also possibly

d). An honest answer to this question could mean expensive legal proceedings and possible imprisonment.

Anyway, that's my little civilian rant done with. What I really wanted to say was that, in the unlikely event I ever have to answer such a silly question, then I actually have quite a precise reply. Although I could name other occasions of greater happiness, I would still probably nominate: "Around 12:40 pm on my 17th birthday in 1971."

I was then in the lower sixth form of an ex-grammar school, recently turned comprehensive, but still drearily single-sex. At around 12:30 I was hanging around the sixth form common room. It was the usual noisy, hormonal lunchtime hubbub. However, gradually I became aware of a quietening, a tension, and then whispers of "Where's Mike? Where's Mike?"

I turned around, not a little apprehensively, only to see three familiar grinning girls, dressed in the uniform of the Girls' Grammar School and standing in a line, each holding a chocolate cupcake with a lit candle in it. It was my girlfriend, Jane, and her two best friends. They proceeded to sing "Happy Birthday" and then each gave me a birthday kiss, right in front of the astonished, envious, open-mouthed sixth form, before muttering a few words of explanation, and scampering off. It was a coup de théâtre that left me feeling, well, very happy.

I should explain. In an operation worthy of the SAS, these three girls had broken school rules by leaving the school premises, crossed from one side of town to the other on public transport, entered the grounds of an unfamiliar boys-only school, found the 6th form block, entered into its inner sanctum, found the lucky boy whose birthday it was, performed the ceremony described above, and then reversed all the previous steps without mishap, detection or detention. I'm not sure, being a typical 17-year old emotional klutz, whether I ever expressed an appropriate degree of gratitude to Jane, and Pat, and Anne, or even how far I believed I was worth all that trouble. But I'll never, ever forget that day.

Of course, unless you've been to a single-sex school, you won't understand the almost surreal hunger that can develop for the opposite sex. Indeed, there were times when simply seeing the word "girl" in print was mysteriously mood-altering. Sadly (and sometimes alarmingly), most pupils of single-sex schools enter the wider world with the mystery of gender still wrapped inside its enigmatic packaging, but I had discovered that I was one of those lucky boys who found girls easy to talk to, and delightful to befriend. Luckily for everyone concerned, I was too short and too ugly to over-exploit this facility but, in truth, I have usually found the company of most women preferable to that of most men.

But what was especially gratifying at around 12:40 on that birthday in 1971 was having this demonstrated unambiguously in front of all the tiresome rugby-playing jocks who had kicked the proverbial sand in my face for the previous five years. Hah!
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Recently, after my father's funeral, I was staying with my old friend Dave (who was present on that long-ago day), and we fell to discussing old times, as you do. When I mentioned Jane, a faraway look came into his eye. "Jane, she was quite something, wasn't she? I wonder whatever happened to her?" he mused.

Only good things, I hope. And -- for what it's worth after all this time -- Thank you for that wonderful birthday present.

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