‘A Scout smiles and whistles under all circumstances.’ So decreed Robert Baden Powell when he drafted rule number eight of his manual, Scouting For Boys. It contains nine Scouting rules – ‘A Scout is thrifty’ being the ninth – and, amongst those seven rules ranking higher than what I’m calling the ‘cheerful rule’, are: loyalty, obedience, courtesy, and trustworthiness. All of them tall orders, but there is something about maintaining a cheerful disposition that is particularly testing, hard to live up to, for even the most saintly.
I am someone who hums and whistles. It’s often interpreted as a sign of cheerfulness, and sometimes it is, but it can also be a signifier of other moods and dispositions: nervousness; impatience; loneliness; boredom; a soundtrack to thinking. Only when it is pointed out to me do I realise I am doing it; like the man who stopped me once on the street in York. “You’re singing in the rain. Christmas 1952, my parents took me to cinema to see it. I was 10 years old. I sat between them in the back row, just the three of us and it was one of the happiest days of my life.” We talked for a while, before walking on, brollys up, in opposite directions.
Last week I was going though security to get into the Scottish Parliament to see a photography exhibition with K. “I always feel like I’m getting on a flight when I go in here,” she said. It felt a lot more cheerful than an airport, though. Our bags and coats were on the same tray, the scanner bleeped and the tray was pulled to one side. With great courtesy, the security man asked if he could check coat pockets, then bags. “There is half an empire biscuit in my pocket,” K told him, “it might be that.” The burly security man, exuding cheerfulness, erupted in laughter, enjoying the idea of iced shortbread as a security threat. It was a small reminder to me that life does not have to be devoid of laughter – even when you are having your multi-tool temporarily confiscated.
All of this takes me to Father Roland Walls, who I wrote about some time ago. Theologian and hermit, in his later years he decamped to what he called his, ‘hen hut in the garden’ in the village of Roslin outside Edinburgh. The rules of his monastic life to me sound almost impossible but delightfully aspirational, things that I wish I could live out. Don’t take yourself too seriously, or seek social status or popularity. Don’t judge anyone, lie about them, gossip about them. Treat everyone the same and show every person hospitality. Speak up for those who have no voice of their own. And finally – laugh a lot. We all know those people who make us laugh; they probably laugh a lot themselves (maybe they were scouts when they were young). J. makes me laugh. I can’t wait to tell him that I met a real live jobbing comedian on Leith Walk the other day, distributing flyers for his show. I told him a joke, one re-cycled from J. It goes like this: A lady wants 200 bottles of milk to bathe in because it softens her skin. She leaves a note for the milkman with the unusual order. The milkman knocks on the door to clarify. He asks if she wants it pasteurized. She says, ‘No, just up to my neck.’
The man on the street laughed, it might have been out of pity, but it was laughter nonetheless.
‘Reasons to be Cheerful’, by Ian Dury
‘Summer, Buddy Holly, the working folly
Good golly Miss Molly and boats
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet
Jump back in the alley and nanny goats
18-wheeler Scammels, Domenecker camels
All other mammals plus equal votes
Seeing Piccadilly, Fanny Smith and Willy
Being rather silly, and porridge oats
A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it
You’re welcome, we can spare it – yellow socks
Too short to be haughty, too nutty to be naughty
Going on 40 – no electric shocks
The juice of the carrot, the smile of the parrot
A little drop of claret – anything that rocks
Elvis and Scotty, days when I ain’t spotty,
Sitting on the potty – curing smallpox.’