One of the things that lifted my mood during the week was listening to Surfer Girl by the Beach Boys. Let’s face it, even when the Beach Boys are singing something sad, they lift your mood in that poignant, feel-good, ‘oh how I yearn to wear a pair of pink pedal-pushers and feel the sand between my toes’ kind of way. When Surfer Girl came to an end (“do you love me, do you Surfer Girl?”), YouTube worked its algorhythmic magic and delivered me Johnny Mercer’s, Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive. At first, I had a little wiggle in my chair, then I gave it the full kitchen disco, singing along to words I only half knew:
“You’ve got to ac-centuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.
You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium’s
Liable to walk upon the scene.”
Those lyrics could be annoying, I get that, but somehow, they aren’t, and I’m not sure how they get away with it. After all, we all know that telling someone, ‘it could be worse’ when they are in an emotional sticky wicket is like throwing a chocolate Swiss roll to a drowning man. ‘It could be worse’ are four words you just never want to hear; completely unimaginative advice that takes you in the wrong direction for feeling better. When one finds oneself in a sorry state, I know it ought to make sense to compare one’s lot with someone worse off, but as sure as eggs is eggs, it never works. And besides, surely there is something distasteful about finding solace on the back of telling yourself that at least your problems aren’t as bad as his or hers. It’s not quite schadenfreude, but it’s getting there.
So back to Johnny Mercer, I’d put him on prescription for how not to despair. I think it is the bounce in his voice that does it, the giggle in the back of his throat. The way he emphasis the first beat of the line is like he’s pushing you up a hill or giving you a leg up a tree. Yes, I’d have Johnny on my team-happy any day.
Should have had him with me this week in Waterstones when a lady with a big fluffy black dog stopped on the stairs to let two passing children pet it. She blocked us all for a minute – perhaps not even that long – as in these days of pandemic there’s no squeezing past, but nobody cared, except for the man behind me, who mustn’t have had his morning shot of Johnny Mercer. At first, I didn’t know he was there, until (and this is true), I began to feel his tension pierce my back like shards of glass. All of a sudden, I was aware of him behind me, could feel age bubbling. I don’t think he sighed or anything, I just had a strong sensation of someone else’s impatience and exasperation filling the space. And then he blew. ‘Would you and that bloody dog either make a decision and go up or down instead of selfishly blocking the entire stair for everyone while you run a petting zoo.’ Mummy shooed the children on and lady with the fluffy dog got her teeth out. ‘What is wrong with you? You nasty killjoy spreading your misery everywhere. You’re just an old grump who can’t let children pet a dog. I feel sorry for you and your twisted heart.’ Her tone of voice didn’t tell me that she felt particularly sorry for him at all. I stood to the side, let him descend and her ascend, staying well back in case either of them thought about Cassius Claying it.
They didn’t look the type to start slugging it out. He was dressed head to toe in Slater Walker well-cut tweed and she had more than a little touch of the Helena Bonham Carter, carefully worked at, undone-look – but I would have put neither down for the twenty second mutual character annihilation bout they had just indulged in. The scene had played out exactly as Johnny had predicted: they had done the opposite of spreading joy, and pandemonium had walked into the scene. I understand that peoples’ patience with life has been worn gossamer thin these days and our world leaders are not exactly the greatest role models for politesse, but come on guys, latch onto the affirmative! Maybe I should have sung to them; I’ll be quicker about that the next time.