Derren Brown (2016) Happy: Why more or less everything is fine.


I like Derren Brown which makes everything easier. As Billy Connolly said when people approach him they are usually smiling. Derren Brown doesn’t make me happy. You can only do that yourself and he’s not really sure that happiness exists, except as a transitory experience, a bi-product of something else. Derren Brown’s book reminds me f those chap-books heroines in nineteenth-century novels, written by Jane Austen, who were, for example, always scribbling in it remembrances such as   ‘Where our treasure is there will our hearts be also’.

I’m not knocking it. That’s what this blog is. Derren is a great debunker. I like that too. He’s got an inside track on how magic works and debunks mystics, especially charlatans that prey on the needy searching for answers that involve the afterlife. For Derren there’s no after life. The theme of his book is it’s this life we should concentrate on.

First up on the firing line are those selling the notion of positive thinking as a panacea for…well, just about everything positive. The negative stuff is your fault, for not being positive enough. If you’ve got cancer, it’s your fault for not being positive. As it progresses it’s your fault for not being positive enough. Derren isn’t saying positive thinking isn’t a good idea, but it’s not a cure, but a marketing strategy to hook the gullible and snake-oil for the most vulnerable and needy.  We don’t for example give a dog a tablet and tell it to think positively about it, or give a horse an injection and then complain that it no longer gallops as fast.

The problem as Derren (and economists) see it is our needs are limited our wants unlimited. The solution is asking why we want something, what story is being told to sell it? When we change ourselves we change the narratives of our lives.

Derren looks at the considered life. Stoicism and hedonism as propounded by the ancient Greek Epicureans. He flings in a bit of everything: Aristotle, Christianity, Renaissance and Marxism and stirs with a big spoon. (I’m going to look at that bit again, I’m always interested in Marxist dialectic because it sounds quite intellectual.)

The next major means of achieving happiness and redemption from the encumbrance of society was offered by the Marxists: work will set you free.  

(No it willnae, I hear myself saying).

To Marx, a bourgeois society alienates its working class from rewarding or creative labour.

(That’s more in line with my viewpoint. We all tell ourselves stories that resonate within us and seem true.)

Next up are the Stoic building blocks for a proper life. I can’t remember what they are, but they sounded to me like one of the steps in the AA handbook about powerlessness. To paraphrase, accepting the things you cannot change and having the wisdom to know the difference. You can get somebody (like Alexander the Great) to step out of the way so you can get the sunlight, but you can’t move the sun.

Derren rattles through more of life’s lessons, regarding being famous, being rich and being loved. As Meatloaf says 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. But Darren gives us the secret magic formula for success (which I’ve forgotten and will need to look up, again, but I’m happy too).

TALENT + ENERGY = SUCCESS

STYLE + ATTITUDE = BEING A STAR

Twinkle, twinkle I say, but Derren does allow for the Greek idea of FATE. This is shorthand for saying I don’t know. I often use it to bemoan my own fate. I’m often happy to do so.

The ending of the book is about death and happy endings. Funnily enough they’re not mutually exclusive. I recently came face to face with death. I like Derren’s take on all that positive thinking crap. He’s reiterating what I’ve often thought and written about. ‘How to Die Well’ is not often on the agenda. We ignore death until we cannot. His idea of ‘a good-enough death’ is lovely. He quotes Donald Winnicott:

I have extended the ‘good enough’ theory to most of my life and now my death. We are at times so obsessed or feel pressurised into ‘being the best at…the fastest at…the cleverest at…’ I genuinely worry about all this positive thinking/ life coaching!

…It is undoubtedly excellent to try to achieve one’s maximum potential, but that should be to please ourselves, not be judged by others, and for living a ‘good-enough’ life with its shares of wonders and disasters…

We’ve came to the end, as does Derren Brown, with a chapter And in the End. And Now. He’s perhaps gone too far, but hey, it’s entertaining and informative and I do like the guy.   

John Kennedy Toole (1980) A Confederacy of Dunces

john kennedy tooole.jpg

I got to page 35 of this book and gave up. The tale of Ignatius J. Reilly who has a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of humanity and his poor, put-upon mother whom he lives with, and is dependent on, could be described as farce. Anthony Burgess on the cover describes it as ‘A Fine Funny Novel. This is the kind of book one wants to keep quoting from.’ I don’t feel any great need to do that.

The story of how I and so many others came to be reading this book is more interesting to me than the book itself. Billy Connolly: Made in Scotland mentioned John Kennedy Toole and A Confederacy of Dunces as being the kind of book he loved. He’d he’d given it to one of his friends and he loved the fact he heard them laughing through the walls of his cabin (he was on a cruise, Billy Connolly is loaded, but he’s still one of us – kinda- Made in Scotland is his swansong).

Libraries across Scotland were swamped for requests for A Confederacy of Dunces. It jumped up the Amazon ratings like a Yeti coming out of cold storage.

The foreword by Walker Percy is the best part of the book. I’ll quote it rather than the book.

Perhaps the best way to introduce this novel –which on my third reading of it astounds me even more than the first – is to tell the first encounter with it. While I was teaching at Loyola in 1976 I began to get telephone calls from a lady unknown to me. What she proposed was preposterous. It was not that she had written a couple of chapters of a novel and wanted to go to my class. It was her son, who was dead had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel and she wanted me to read it. Why would I want to do that? I asked her. Because it’s a great novel, she said.

…somehow it came to pass that she stood in my office and handed me the hefty manuscript.

The rest is history, or her story, the story of John Kennedy Toole’s mother, whose persistence, like the mother or Ignatius J. Reilly,  paid off. Her son’s genius was recognised. Not by me, but people that matter. All readers matter, but some more than others.  There’s a lesson there for all us would-be novelists. Have a persistent mother and be friends with the god of luck and The Big Yin above.   Read on.

Billy Connolly: Made in Scotland, Part 1, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, director Mike Reily.

Billy Connolly: Made in Scotland, Part 1, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, director Mike Reily.

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bwzhy6/billy-connolly-made-in-scotland-series-1-episode-1

Billy Connolly is one of our most successful exports. A bit like Sean Connery, but with a beard and a lot more hair. Nobody comes away with the usual shite, oh, I can’t understand what he’s saying, he doesn’t speak proper English. Well, fuck off then. I must admit I wasn’t a fan. Obviously, being that age, I got what he meant by The Crucifixion, that LP which was meant to be, oh, so funny.

You know it’s one of those jokes when somebody tells you all about it, I think it was Summy and they’re laughing so much, you think it must be hilarious. Judas goes up to the cross and Jesus tells him to come closer and closer and the punchline is Jesus sticks the heid on him. Ho. Ho. So fucking what?

As Billy Connolly admits, you get guys telling you funny things like that all the time. Only now do I appreciate when I’m a grumpy old cunt do I appreciate what Billy Connolly was doing then and is doing now. He’s telling it like it is, or at least like it was. That’s your da, that’s my da, when they’re pissed. Here’s your daft auntie, singing at the Christmas party, a song without any words but lots of shoulders and tear-filled emotion. Billy Connelly gets it, which is initself a gift, but his genius is he translates it into Glasgowese. Don’t try and get above yerself or somebody will knock you down.

He was a welder in the shipyards, those men only spaces where everybody let rip and you had to shout to be heard. And everybody took the piss out of everybody else because that’s how you got through the day. Dour men would find their voice in that other men-only space of the boozer. And of course there was bigotry. I’m not a Billy, you’re a Tim.

Billy recalls calling an old guy in the yard a blue nose and being held down and his nose painted blue. That’s funny in a lot of ways. It couldn’t happen now? Keep parroting and peddling that line until you believe it.  Billy called bigotry ‘a hobby’. The best of men, became the worst of men, for a few hours and after a few drinks brought their life back to normal. We’re still here. Especially in the build-up and aftermath of an Old Firm game. We’re still here today. Billy Connelly tells it like it is. Long may he last. Truth will out.