Of all the books on my shelves, one of the ones I’m fondest of is also one of the shabbiest. It’s a small, gunmetal grey volume about the size of an old tobacco tin, heavily creased up and down the spine. It’s called ‘The Knapsack’.
Even if it were not a proverbial sin to judge a book by its cover, the utilitarian appearance of my volume is easily excused by the fact it was designed as an anthology of prose and verse for the use of servicemen in World War Two. My secondhand copy advertises itself in the inside cover as belonging to an E. Riley of Hull; there’s no indication whether E. Riley ever served in the war, or carried it into action, but I like to think he did, and while away my time imagining the battles and foreign fields this shabby volume was borne through.
The anthology, as edited by Herbert Read, has an understandably martial and Christian theme to it in many of its sections, but it is very rarely less than entertaining. As the original vehicle for introducing me to the wild and Celtic wanderings of the Irish Saint Brandon, to the ancient ballad of Chevy Chase and the beautiful lyrics of Shelley, it has a place in my heart – but what really won me over are the half-dozen pages in the back reserved for ‘Notes and Additions’.
One of my favourite items is ‘The Thirty-Three Happy Moments‘ of Chin Sheng’tan. The story of its composition is a simple one. It was a rainy day in 17th century China, and the playwright Chin found himself shut indoors with a friend. To while away the monotony of their seclusion, Chin began to compose a list of the truly happy moments in his life. They are an entertainingly varied selection, ranging from the worthy and spiritual:
I am not a saint, and am therefore not without sin. In the night I did something wrong and I get up in the morning and feel extremely ill at ease about it. Suddenly I remember what is taught by Buddhism, that not to cover one’s sins is the same as repentance. So then I begin to tell my sin to the entire company around, whether they are strangers or my old friends. Ah, is this not happiness?
to the pleasures of the flesh:
To keep three or four spots of eczema in a private part of my body and now and then to scald or bathe it with hot water behind closed doors. Ah, is this not happiness?
And including both selfless actions:
I have nothing to do after a meal and try to go through the things in some old trunks. I see there are dozens or hundreds of IOUs from people who owe my family money. Some of them are dead and some still living, but in any case there is no hope of their returning the money. Behind people’s backs I put them together in a pile and make a bonfire of them, and I look up to the sky and see the last trace of smoke disappear. Ah, is this not happiness?
And the delights of schadenfreude:
To see someone’s kiteline broken. Ah, is this not happiness?
To say more would be to deluge my article in quotations, and spoil the pleasure of reading The Thirty-three Happy Moments through properly. Suffice to say, I found Chin Sheng’tan’s work both amusing and inspirational. I have always been guilty of finding happiness in the little things, in the sly moments of creeping contentment rather than in great acts and crowning achievements. Here was a work that celebrated precisely those moments of joy – often small and silly and insignificant, but not the less joyous for that. In my notebooks and facebook statuses, I began compiling my own small list:
To eat a piping hot bowl of soup on a cold and drizzly day. Ah, is this not happiness?
A few nights ago, I got so drunk I cannot remember what took place after a certain point in the evening. I worry that I spoke or acted rashly, and may have given offence to someone. Days later, I meet someone who was there, who assures me that I offended no-one, and that I am always fun and pleasant when I’m drunk. Ah, is this not happiness?
Comfortably finishing a book in a single sitting. Ah, is this not happiness?
I am riding my bicycle on a chill winters night, a few days after the Christmas lights have been switched of. The headwind pushes against my chest like an ice cold current, but I am too caught up in my own speed to care. Ah, is this not happiness?
I have discovered a bee in my kitchen on a sunny day. While I am still hunting around for something in which to trap it, it flied casually out of the door into the garden of its own accord. Ah, is this not happiness?
To watch McLintock! with a really good whisky. Ah, is this not happiness?
Bathing in a stream on a hot summer’s day, I decide to risk my neck sliding down a series of waterfalls. I end up in a bruised but exhilerated heap at the bottom, and acquire a limp for the next several days – but this is a small price to pay for the experience and the anecdote. Ah, is this not happiness?
It is the first really hot day of the year. I have taken advantage of the informality of the occasion to wear shorts. As my friends sweat in their thick trousers, a cool breeze rustles around my knees. Ah, is this not happiness?
To walk across a playing field in the summertime, while the swifts flit in endless circles around you. Ah, is this not happiness?
To visit your favourite pub on a Friday night, and find it doesn’t close until two am. Ah, is this not happiness?
To go climbing in good company; to lose all the skin from your hands in the pursuit of a worthy sport; and to return home to liver and onions and mustard mashed potato. Ah, is this not happiness?