Wednesday, 1 March 2017



I'm a big fan of people who reclaim, recycle and generally put old things to new use. (Pity someone can't do the same for me...) Top favourite this week is ON THE SQUARE, Unit A3, 17 Heron Road, Sydenham Business Park. It's tucked away and there aren't any signs up yet, but it's worth hunting for, believe me.

Where do I start? If you need a row of lovely old wooden bum-friendly chairs, a stuffed weasel or a boar's head (and who doesn't?) a pin-ball machine, a Persian carpet, a mirror, a painting, a billboard - or just a funky light fitting and some fabulous reclaimed furniture, then On The Square is the place to go.

I'm also a fan of a Danish psychologist called Svend Brinkmann. I heard him on Radio 4 talking about his new book 'Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze' and if I understood him correctly, he thinks the modern obsession with navel-gazing, right-to-happiness, find-your-inner-self stuff is a load of self-indulgent rubbish. Hooray for Svend! As far as I'm concerned, he's up there with Marcus Aurelius, another hero of mine, whose philosophy can be briefly summarised as 'Get a grip.'

Prof Brinkmann and Marcus Aurelius think you'll be happier if you look life firmly in the eye, accept that both you and it will never be perfect, and then do the best you can with what you've got. Knocking yourself out to achieve some perfect state of existence is a waste of time.

He's not in favour of too much empathy either, at least not when it clouds your judgement. My own youthful experience with my mother tells me he's right: all I had to do was look sad and wan (not every child can do pallor on demand - I was one of the lucky ones) and whisper, in a droopy little voice, 'I don't feel very well' and my poor mother would instantly begin to cluck. 'Oh dear! Why don't you jump back into bed and I'll ring the school.' Whereupon I would snuggle back down with the ten books I was hoping to read that week. I calculate I managed to miss at least 6 weeks out of every term for my entire school career.

There are some fabulous hypochondriacs and malingerers in fiction, incidentally. Jane Austen probably wins (Mr Woodhouse, Mary Musgrove - whose sore-throats are always so much worse than anybody's - and Lady Catherine de Bourgh's dismal daughter) but my personal best of the rest is the sublimely languid and health-obsessed Uncle Davey in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.

I can't say malingering did a lot for me academically: I ended up well-read and totally unfitted for any proper job. So I was tougher with my own children: hot honey and lemon, with a Disprin in dire emergency, but unless you had an actual broken leg, off to school you went. I admit I got it wrong once or twice (the child who was rushed to sick-bay with malaria is still inclined to bring it up) but by and large it worked.

So read Marcus Aurelius (Meditations - 167AD) and Svend Brinkmann, because real life is tough and getting tougher, and anyone who preaches common sense is worth reading. But if you take my advice, you'll give up self-help books and buy more novels instead; then when reality finally overwhelms you, at least you'll be able to lose yourself in someone else's world.

And if you were reading this last week, no, the ceiling didn't hold. There are builders overhead, grit underfoot, piled-up furniture looms through clouds of dust... and it's beginning to sleet. I think I'll go back to bed with a book.

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