“What a beautiful day…..”
What a beautiful day for filling your trousers with ice-cream, sticking a cherry on your head and saying, “How’s that for a Knickerbocker Glory?” It was one of the late Ken Dodd’s awful yet hilarious openers. You’d have required a heart of flint not to have been delighted and amused by the toothy comic. He loved (and lived) to make people laugh.
With the passing of this giant of comedy, the world seems a little less bright. It was serendipitous to read, in last Monday’s Times, Matt Ridley (Northumbrian thinker, columnist and working Peer) discussing the need for positivity. He must have written the piece before Doddy’s death was announced: yet the synergy was remarkable. ”My cure for disease X?” was the question in the headline. “A bit of positivity,” the answer.
Ridley had been struck by a headline commenting that The World Health Organisation reckons a deadly epidemic, Disease X, could one day appear, jump from animals to humans, spread virulently across the globe and kill us all.
Nonsense, says Ridley. Evolution is just too smart for any scientists (or natural virus) who might try to be clever in a deadly, mass-murdering kind of way. Then he mused on why fanciful theories are accorded screaming headlines in newspapers.
Bad news sells. Ridley happens to be a supporter of Brexit: but he acknowledges that a significant part of the campaign that narrowly won the referendum in favour of leaving Europe was based on negative stories. Threats of Brussels interference and money-grabbing were contrasted with the sunny uplands of £350 million a week for the Health Service and “getting our country back”. (His own reasons are rather more reasoned and cerebral).
Across the Pond, Donald Trump won the US election by painting a picture of overwhelming gloom. Ridley reckons that, during the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s campaign, 80% of all coverage was negative. Playing on people’s pessimism, Trump described a divided, struggling country and promised to “make America great again”. It went down well in America’s so-called Rust Belt, playing on a prevalent feeling of economic despair and loss of dignity.
It’s worked before. Hitler came to power at a time when Germany was in an economic mess: he identified scapegoats (the Jews in Germany), linked them to a global conspiracy, promised to make Germany great again, and was swept to power – power which, once gained, he made sure he couldn’t lose. It took a global conflict to do that.
We, the public, are suckers for negative stories: and clever manipulators of news can play on the negatives and the fears to win support for their extreme ideologies.
Ridley ended his piece by offering his antidote to Disease X and to the negativity and scare-and-doom-mongering that so easily lead whole nations into wrong directions. It is, he says, a bit of positivity.
Currently the exhortation to “look on the bright side”, or encouragement to see the glass as half-full, rather than half-empty, seems almost as hopeless as the Chancellor Philip Hammond’s attempts to appear “Tigger-like” about the economy this past week.
Yet positivity is the antidote to despair. If Ken Dodd showed us the sheer power of laughter, perhaps a still greater loss to humanity this week was Stephen Hawking, surely the greatest scientist since Einstein, and someone whose name will tend to be uttered in the same breath for decades and centuries to come. His achievements, ground-breaking, unimaginably new ways of thinking about our universe, were all achieved against the background of – no, in spite of – the motor neurone disease which had afflicted him since before he had even completed his doctorate at Cambridge. Yet self-belief, fascination with the universe and the desire to achieve new understandings drove him all his life – so much so that he exceeded his life expectancy (given his illness) by decades.
He too was irrepressibly positive: how else did his A Brief History of Time sell so many millions of copies to popularise deep maths and physics (though I confess I never quite managed to read it)? One thing I liked about Hawking was the way he was prepared to change his opinions: not just change them, but to completely refute previous statements. Most recently he reversed his view of black holes. He had previously declared that no radio-waves could find their way out of a black hole once in it: then he changed his mind, and proved his new hypothesis as conclusively as he had the earlier one. I call that an example of positivity!
Perhaps the only thing that Dodd and Hawking have in common is that they died in the same week. Yet both had that relentlessly positive desire to achieve and to do new things in their fields. And for that I admire both. They really are people from whom we can learn.
So, next time you’re feeling gloomy, reach for a bit of positivity. Just think to yourself, tattifilariously of course: “What a beautiful day, what a beautiful day for…”
You can finish it for yourself.