Article published on January 18, 2013.

Hello all. And happy new year to the lot of you. I’m hoping 2013 brings you joy and larks and a small pay-rise and a refreshing summer break not spent standing fuming outside Tie Rack in Heathrow Terminal 3 screaming at EasyJet staff.

This time of year I am whirled back to long ago, in a career far, far away when New Year brought me a new job. After a decade of changing till-rolls and putting stickers on paperbacks and asking parents to stop letting their foul offspring stick Where’s Wally stickers on their face, I moved up the book ladder to the head office on Charing Cross Road to something called a Marketing Executive. This was ooooh way back in the heady days when book-marketing was something done with blood, sweat and three colour litho processing. Facebooking wasn’t even a glint in a Winklevoss’s litigious eye. My job – if one can call fannying about with a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus a job – was to come up with ad campaigns for the varying seasonal promotions we would run in bookshops across the kingdom: Christmas, Mother’s Day, Summer Holidays and whatnot. You’re a bright sort, you get the idea.

January was time for me to try and shift the plethora of Self-Help / Healthy Eating / Atkins Diet / Quit Smoking paperbacks that would be launched onto a bloated, hungover, post-Christmas public. Happy New You! New Year…New You! Healthy Starts! The Gym Will Fix It! All these and more filled posters and dump-bins across the bookshops of Britain to varying levels of interest. We always shifted a few “units” as us precious literary luvvies like to call them – mainly to those folk who really were determined to kick the booze/fags/elastic-waist-sweatpants and wanted some advice – ideally at 20% off or at least 3 bits of advice for the price of 2.

So with this in mind I thought, as January is upon us, I would cast a buyer’s eye view on the top five “positive thinking” guides currently cluttering the bestseller lists and try and work out exactly what help is out there for you, dear reader, should you have decided that this is the year you’ll bloody sort y’self out for once. (I mean, I think you’re lovely as you are, but no doubt there’s something about yourself you’d like to trim down/cut-out /tone-up or take up).

First up: 52 Small Changes: One Year to a Happier, Healthier You by Heston’s mum Brett Blumenthal. (Not really. No relation. Otherwise it would be a 87 foot book made of sausage meat and dry ice, presumably). Brett is co-founder and CEO of Be Healthy, Inc. who call themselves a “wellness promotion company,” whatever the hell that is. Brett falls clumsily – no doubt in legwarmers – into that group of self-helpers who dress their mission up into something heroic and Olympian, hence being a founder of something called the “Healthy Road Warrior,” which sounds like a carb-free straight to video Mad Max sequel, rather than a seminar in jogging which I expect it is. When she’s not doing that, she employs punchably twee terms like “managing our wellness” and other Montessori guff. If you’re like me, both of these approaches will have you reaching for a kebab stuffed with Marlboro Lights so best we see what else is out there.

Now, the author Karl Moore has whittled down Blumethal’s 52 changes into a punchier 18 rules. Much more like it. Do one of Karl’s per week, you’ll be done by May 5th. His book “The 18 Rules of Happiness” claims to be a mini-course in, not just happiness, but mega-happiness. Now I’m not sure I want to experience that. Mega-Happiness? Hmm. Maybe it’s being British. Personally I’m really just seeking the same level of joy I get from a cup of strong-tea, a Tunnocks Tea-Cake and a clip from You’ve Been Framed with a kitten on it. Plus my face gets tired if I smile too much. So too much too soon here, Karl I think. Much like Neurofen Max Extra Strength, only one to come to if normal happiness just ain’t getting the job done.

The other three positive thinking tomes in the top ten are slightly weightier and fall more neatly into the “pop sciencey” field. These you could happily read on the tube without anyone thinking you’re off to Camden Town to buy some crystals and a wind-chime.

Psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz has collected together 50,000 hours of folk whittering on about themselves in therapy and distilled the insights gained into a collection of stories called “The Examined Life.” The idea appears to be that wading through denial-filled delusional self-involved drivel reveals much about human behaviour; what we say and what we actually think and what this tells us about the big thing we call “the human condition.” Warning: reading this isn’t going to make you lose that extra 5lbs, get up earlier, devour the classics, take up the oboe or renew your gym membership – it ain’t that kind of thing. But you may say “hmmm” and look at yourself and your kith in a more educated, well rounded light. But no, if the only thing well-rounded is your beer-gut and that’s what you want to get a grip on (both hands, in my case) leave this one on the shelf.

Again with the brainiac in mind, rather than the Pringle munching chain-smoker, we have a teasing little tome by a Daniel Kahneman. Marketing in mind, his publisher has gone with one of those Blinky Tipping Pointy Freakonomicky titles: Thinking Fast & Slow. Now I’m an absolute sucker for these sorts of things. Although oddly, I only buy them from railway branches of WHSmith, along with my bottle of Evian and this month’s Viz. Don’t know why. It’s the urge to feel like a travelling Mad Men style executive rather than a smelly inter-railer I suppose. See also The Economist. Anyway, Daniel’s theme is about the difference between snappy instinctive decisions and slow thought out ones. I’m sure it’s a grand brainy read (a New York Times Bestseller, no less). However, if you’re like me, am equally sure that if you read it, you’ll be more thoughtful and smart for about an hour and a half. Then you’ll watch Dave reruns of Mock The Week. And read a copy of Garfield while you’re doing a big poo. And promptly forget the whole thing.

If you’re still not thinking your way to happiness, grinning your way to fitness or wellnessing yourself to wellness, you can try Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Prof Mark Williams, Dr Danny Penman. Oh yes. A professor and a doctor, no less. So pay attention at the back and stop chewing. Mark and Danny suggest a thing they call Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT. (Beware these sorts of acronymy things when it comes to self help. Or as I like to say, beware T.S.O.A.T.W.I.C.T.S.H. Which almost would be clever if it spelt “toast witches.” But it doesn’t).

Mindfulness suggests, rather than overcoming the inevitable negatives in modern living, a few minutes a day of meditation focussing on the joys to be found in life is the answer. Might be your kind of thing if you’re feeling the stresses and strains of 21st Century life. Or you could come round mine and relax with a cup of strong-tea, a Tunnocks Tea-Cake and a clip from You’ve Been Framed with a kitten on it for Chrissakes. Your call.

Finally, as what I assume is an antidote to the above, we have Matthew Kimberly’s “How To Get A Grip.” This comes with the helpful subtitle: “Forget namby-pampy, wishy washy, self-help drivel. This is the book you need.” A bold, blokey, beer-drinking, big-balled claim from Mr Kimberly. The Amazon product description goes even further: Implement How to Get a Grip’s idiot-proof instructions to morph, overnight from being a friendless, wimpy and subservient doormat, perpetually vexed by the iniquities and raw deals that life throws at you, to being a total superhero.”

This strikes me as the sort of no-nonsense, plain speaking, take no prisoners, political-correctness-gone-mad, postcode lottery tirade that is the mainstay of your Richard Littlejohn/Jezza Clarkson types. You won’t find mediation or chakras or crystals or chanting here. Are you tired all the time? Then go to bed. Fat? Don’t eat so much, doofus. There’s a place for this and it’s nice to see it being represented here. Amazon reviews are mixed between “a bit light but lots of laughs and common sense” to “ranting and irritating.” It might be just what you need.

On a personal note, I have my own “self-help” lifestyle theory that I have neither the time, energy or printer ink to turn into a book. And it’s this: Your life is a journey on a big boat from two ports: birth to death. There are all sorts of decisions to be made: crew; refreshments; speed; direction; purpose; safety; entertainment and so on. However there are three captains in charge of the boat, all who have different itineraries: Mr Brain, Mr Heart and Mr Cock.

Sometimes Mr Brain can explain his decisions rationally to the other two. Sometimes Mr Heart gets Mr Brain pissed and Mr Cock is left in charge. Collisions inevitably follow. Often Mr Brain has to make a lot of steering corrections once Mr Cock has gone for a lie down. Occasionally Mr Heart grabs the helm while the other two aren’t looking and you end up fuck knows where.

Just accept these three are rarely going to agree. Make sure none of them have the helm for too long. Make sure they check in with each other from time to time. Keep them nourished. Keep them happy. But remember… you can’t blame them for where you end up. It’s your boat.

Here’s to smooth sailing in 2013.

Richard x


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