Three years ago, I trotted up to the Weekend desk in the Guardian’s offices with what one editor calls my “ideas look”. My idea was this: a space had opened up in the magazine and I thought I might fill it with a column on the small, everyday things that can bring cheer. (The late, great Clive James, whose writing I adored, had wrapped up his column – what an unbelievable honour to succeed him.)
I had recently been given a copy of JB Priestley’s Delight and, truly, it was. Priestley was known as a bit of a grumpster, so this collection of essays explaining his own micro-pleasures was something of a rebuttal. It was perfect to dip into.
I happened to read some of the entries in juxtaposed settings. I read about Priestley’s love of long trousers (“never did 18 inches of cloth do more for the human spirit”) while in a bikini on a beach. But there were times when, 70 years apart, we seemed to be perfectly in sync: I drank in Priestley’s love of fountains while watching kids weave in and out of fizzing patterns of water in London’s Granary Square. I giggled at his entry on Quietly Malicious Chairmanship as I went to take part in a talk at the Southbank Centre.
The joy of Saturday newspapers is in the shift to the weekend’s serene pace, a chance to wind down from the frantic, unrelenting, often dispiriting news of the week. In 2017 – a world of Trump and interminable Brexit beef – it seemed to me that a weekly column on the encouraging things in life, inspired by Priestley’s book, would resonate. It did.
The first columns were on the felicity of the perfect dressing gown, plays without intervals, and the turns of words in poignant poems. Almost instantly readers wrote in, emailed, or contacted me on social media to share their own thoughts and experiences. I have loved hearing from people who recognise entirely the satisfaction I take from certain things – and, equally, from those who state their own comfort is to be found in the opposite. (A lot of people, and in particular their bladders, appreciate intervals in plays.)
A piece on my enjoyment of quiet led to not one but two generous university professors inviting me to visit anechoic chambers to experience the closest thing on the planet to ultimate silence.
I have learned much in the past three years through writing the Joy of Small Things: about myself, other people, the world. It hasn’t always been an easy commitment. I did joke at the beginning that, as someone with diagnoses of multiple mental health conditions, and who is prone to depressive episodes, perhaps I hadn’t thought the idea of writing a column on continuous joy all the way through. I have filed columns in the waiting rooms of psychiatric hospitals, on the verge of anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure), digging deep into my hippocampus to recall the things that got me through these times in the past.
Both the writing and the readers helped to bring me back to all of the things that we often take for granted, the things that remind us that, as trite as it sounds, we are lucky to be alive in the world, and that, even if the macro seems to be a desolate wasteland – the rise of authoritarian governments, the frothing “culture wars”, the tiresome social-media baiting – there can be soothing and beauty and motivation in the quotidian. The way the light falls across a vase of flowers; the wagging tail of an ecstatic dog in the park; nabbing the last seat on a bus when utterly exhausted; the small engagements with benevolent strangers that pull us back from the edge like a hand on a shirt collar.
When the pandemic hit, many pleasures were suddenly denied us. Art galleries, drinking with friends in the pub, aforementioned trips to the theatre. The new routine? Daily televised updates on mass death. Not exactly happy-making. The compact contentments seemed to take on an even greater importance. It didn’t surprise me that people turned to baking banana bread, or organising home watch-alongs of films, or that those with gardens developed green fingers (and those without ordered pot plants), that people made the effort to clap and bang pots and pans for the NHS.
I received emails from dedicated readers, and from those new to the column, who had been using its online iterations as a sort of archive of happiness, either as a reminder of the Before Times or as inspiration for the things that one could still enjoy: fresh bedding, re-reading books, a thorough teeth-cleaning, board games, hot baths, hilarious memes, all-day breakfasts. Others tweeted me photographs of sunsets, or funny signs they had seen, or pictures of their reunited families.
Some columns did not pass what we call in journalism “the breakfast test” – is it something you wouldn’t mind reading over your cereal in the morning? My plan to write about the explosive relief of having a long-needed wee was vetoed. Perhaps, more embarrassingly, a column I wrote on spot-squeezing was deemed too disgusting. (On balance, this was probably the correct decision.)
At present I find myself, like so many others, in circumstances of uncertainty and chaos. If I am honest, the ground under my feet does not feel entirely stable and the future feels somewhat shapeless, but I know that if I focus, there are little joys to be found all around. I am filled with gratitude, therefore, to have had the opportunity to share my joys with you, and to have learned to appreciate yours. In this spirit, I asked four people I admire to write about something that boosts their own mood, a point of pleasure in their lives. Reading them has been, appropriately, a delight.
The joy of buying wood
Philip Pullman, author
It’s one of the greatest pleasures I know to take a well-sharpened chisel, for example, and cut a mortise in a piece of oak or walnut, and then use the right kind of saw to cut the tenon to fit into it. The pleasure when it slides into place, the shoulders perfectly flush with the edge of the mortise! One day I shall do it without any mistakes.
But the delight that lies behind that one is choosing the wood in the first place. The place I buy most of my wood these days is the local recycled wood centre. It’s a big shed on an industrial estate and, like the tomb of Tutankhamun as described by Howard Carter peering inside it, it’s full of “wonderful things”.
You go in past neat piles of old pallets, some intact, some broken up. It’s coarse, cheap softwood, stained, splintered, weathered, but good for something, even if only firewood. Then you pass used scaffolding boards, hefty things with the ends bound in battered strips of metal; surely they could find another life as part of a raised flowerbed?
And then you come to the real treasures. Broken-up sideboards, dining tables, bedheads, so much mahogany and walnut it makes my fingers twitch. Much of it is covered in toffee-coloured varnish: the plane will take that off and reveal the dense, red-brown lustre inside. Drawers from long-demolished bedroom furniture and occasionally, if you’re lucky, from museum cabinets, so beautifully fitted together with dovetails and rebates that I want to buy them just to look at. Floorboards, length upon length of oak or pine, in perfect condition but no longer wanted; entire slices from the trunks of sycamore or yew trees, which would make magnificent tabletops if only I had the room in my workshop. And pieces of lime, the best wood in the world for carving: that chunk, no longer than my hand, will make a perfect handle for the lid of the little box I’m making out of cherry. Which is also recycled.
A couple of feet of Paraná pine, the most beautiful, red-streaked gold! Unobtainable new these days, and rightly so. This must have been part of a cabinet in its time, and soon it’s going to be… a book rest, perhaps. And holly! Such a pure creamy-white! I’ve never worked with holly, but there’s enough there to make a lot of mistakes with, and apparently it’s a difficult wood to work… Maybe I’ll leave that for now.
But the Paraná pine, and the little piece of lime, and the unidentifiable length of mahogany that might have been the leg of a table, and which will do perfectly for a picture frame – I’ll have those. The things I make will be thrown away or broken up in their turn, no doubt, but in the meantime what a delight – what a privilege – to give this most beautiful material another life, another human use.
The joy of getting the last item in stock
Yomi Adegoke, writer
I’m a relatively easy person to please, which is probably why one of my favourite sensations in the world is realising I’ve nabbed the last of something. Whether it be loo roll, an in-demand ticket, or a multipack of Wotsits, there is nothing better than knowing you were so close to missing out, and didn’t. The relief of scoring the last bag of pasta at Tesco at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The serotonin boost at the order confirmation on Etsy after being baited by the notification that warned there were more than 20 people with the very same handmade rustic spice rack in their cart, and only one left. It is unparalleled.
In the same way that only just missing the bus can feel disproportionately debilitating on a particularly bad day, capturing the final Christmas turkey on a last-minute dash to the supermarket can make you feel as if you’ve won the lottery. It’s a feeling rivalled only by the sweet penny-drop of realising someone fancies you back, or the unbridled bliss of sitting in a towel after a hot shower, whiling away minutes by staring blankly at a wall. It’s so small, but that’s what makes it so great; triumph by not really doing anything at all, bar being in the right place at the right time.
Getting the last of an item is like finding you’ve won a competition you didn’t enter. Even those of us who aren’t competitive can be quietly smug at the invisible rivals we bested to that bag of oats nestled at the back of the shelf. It being the last thing left adds a certain romance, an element of fate that gives a flourish to the tale you’ll tell when you’re asked where you got those banging shoes from. “They’re from Zara,” you’ll smile broadly, eyes wistful in remembrance. “The last pair!” Suddenly they’ve gone from an indulgence to a star-crossed lover; your union was ordained by Venus and Cupid themselves. They’re instantly imbued with a sense of favour, of good karma.
It’s even better when you pick up the last of something for someone who really needs it. “I got the tampons – they were the last ones in Superdrug!” You’ll always let them know this, and though that detail means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things, they’ll also feel that tiny bit more grateful. Because like many of life’s simple pleasures – finding a quid in the street, beating the tube doors and making it on to the carriage by a whisker – it makes you feel lucky. Chosen. It’s the knowledge that the universe is on your side – in a small way, but on your side all the same.
The joy of growing plants from seed
Tracey Thorn, singer, songwriter and writer
Growing plants from seed still feels like a miracle to me, even though I’ve been a keen gardener for at least 30 years. “How does it work?” I ask myself. “How does the magic happen? How can something so big grow from something so small?”
I like the way these questions make me shake my head in dumb wonder. I like the way they bring me to an understanding of how insignificant I am in my role as gardener. I’m not in charge here. I’m not the one making this stuff happen. It just wants to happen. Bung a seed in the soil, water it if you remember, and it’ll grow.
You don’t even have to bung it in the soil; let it fall by itself. I like watching how plants self‑seed, spreading themselves around the place, popping up in odd corners: in the crevices between paving stones, or the steps that lead up to our front gate. Sitting on a hill made of London clay, our garden sinks a little further every year, slumping like an elderly relative in an armchair. The gap widens between the terrace and the lawn, and the seeds find the gap. Tiny sycamore trees sprout, trying to establish a miniature forest. I let them get a few inches high and then cruelly pull them out. “Better luck next year, buddy,” I think.
And when I sow seeds myself, I linger over their variety, enjoying how different they are. If you’re not a gardener, you might think a seed is a seed, picturing something uniform and generic. But each type of seed is unique – to look at and to handle. Broad bean seeds are basically old dried broad beans, thick and smooth and curved. You hold one easily between finger and thumb, and just push it into the earth, job done. But calendula seeds are like the shavings you shake out of a pencil sharpener, cerinthe seeds are like mouse droppings, and cosmos are as fairy-light and blow-away as the individual strands of a dandelion clock.
Foxglove seeds arrive sealed in a plastic pot the size of a thimble, dangerous even to handle without gloves. Courgette seeds are satisfyingly regular and flat, but need to be planted vertically into the soil, with their narrow edge facing down, and I like the fiddling that’s required to get them in at the right angle.
Then comes the dead time of watching and waiting for life to begin. I like the way there is nothing to do. You twiddle your thumbs until the race begins, and it is a race, between different plants, even between the same seeds sown in the same pot. It astonishes me the way some are faster and stronger than others, the way some start well and then fade, the way some just never show up at all. Seeds are both predictable, at a general level, and entirely unpredictable at an individual level. “What’s so special about you?” I want to ask the one that streaks ahead of the others, and is still doing best at the end of summer, ostentatiously being the tallest plant, with the most flowers. “How did you do it?” I think, and shake my head in wonder yet again.
The joy of a quiet train
Phil Wang, comedian
There’s nothing quite like the refuge of a quiet train. A seat to yourself and enough table space for a snack and a distraction. The trip should be a minimum of an hour and a half, but no longer than three hours. I like to get my laptop out, bursting with emails I’ve been putting off, only to close it and take out a good book, only to close that and stare out the window for the entire journey. Taking in the landscape, imagining a better world, a world like this, a world in which every train service is run at a loss. Richard Branson wouldn’t be able to go to space any more, but we’d all be a lot calmer here on Earth.
This is guilt-free procrastination. A train is a unique setting in which it is OK to be idle. The great thing about a train ride is that even if you do nothing, you are making progress. Progress towards a destination. Progress towards the next series of your life’s engagements. Just by sitting down you are doing something. You could spend the whole journey on the toilet and you’d still achieve a productive day. Well done, you defecated your way from York to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Take a bow, you captain of industry.
A quiet train carriage is a sacred space. It is a true act of villainy to break that silence. An aural vandalism. If the train is busy, fair enough. All rules are suspended. The mind comes to terms with it. It’s a noisy train. Just survive. Headphones on tight, podcast up loud, and try to ignore the BO. But to make unnecessary noise on a train that is undersold and roomy is to break something precious. Whether it’s a loud conversation, or music played out of a phone, or a first aid emergency – I don’t care. Take it outside. It defiles this rolling church, disrupts the meditations of its scattered congregation. The justice of a noisy passenger thwarted is sweet. I get off on YouTube videos of lairy lads getting kicked off trains by the British Transport Police, leaving them stranded as the night draws in. They’re Shrewsbury’s problem now.
A quiet train ride is a break from your life. A rare couple of hours when no one can expect anything from you except a ticket, and you don’t have to expect anything from yourself at all.
Phil Wang’s book Sidesplitter is out now. Philly Philly Wang Wang is on Netflix.
• The Joy Of Small Things by Hannah Jane Parkinson is published by Guardian Faber, priced at £10. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
Hannah Jane Parkinson will be in conversation with Eva Wiseman at a Guardian Live online event on 14 October. Book tickets here.