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Smile, and the whole world…

September 16, 2014

….thinks you’re slightly strange.

Go on, Smile. Smile like you mean it*.

It troubles me that the natural set of the human countenance is one of misery. Think about it, and tell me I’m wrong.

I don’t mean hand-wringing, hair-tearing, onion-peeling despair, but shoulder-shrugging, rush-hour-commuting, lemon-sucking grumpiness. We’re told that it requires far more muscular activity to frown than to smile; based on what I see on the train in the morning, people seem prepared to make the effort.

Not that smiling is always good. The supervillain in every film which a supervillain appears has that special smile to indicate just how evil he or she is. I guess the idea is that being able to smile at just how devious, cunning and downright bad they are proves that they’re even worse than that. And there’s something snake-like and crocodilian about it: who can trust the smile of a reptile.

Throughout literary history and mythology the snake, dragon, lizard and their kin have been there or thereabouts when there’s been wickedness afoot. Even beings from other planets and galaxies, when they’re up against Captain Kirk or Dr Who, are as likely as not to have at least a light covering of scales. Unless they are from one of those many species in the Universe that has coincidentally evolved almost identically to homo sapiens except for an extra limb, or one eye too few, or ears that you could spear an olive with.

So a crocodile that looks pleased to see you is a thing to be wary of. We all know it. Indeed, reptiles have been identified with insincerity ever since Adam and Eve were beguiled by the serpent in Eden.

Now at this point I wanted to link to something from Haydn’s Creation, but two things stopped me. First there was the inconvenient fact that the narrative of the oratorio ends before the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve. And secondly, I became distracted by coming across a reference to piece called The Expulsion from Paradise by Lord Berners, aka Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson. I knew the latter name but not the former, and had certainly never heard of him as a composer. So I followed it up. He turns out (according to the Source That Will Brook No Contradiction) to have been a talented writer, painter and musician, and was one of those things you regularly come across – a bit of a “character”.  He was somewhat on the fringes of the aesthetic world, so – perhaps undeservedly – he is one of the lesser footnotes in British arts history. Sadly I could not locate a link to the piece I wanted, so here instead are Three English SongsI think they have the melodic timbre and doleful accompaniment that should bring them much into the mainstream than they appear to be.

Back on track, then, to the impenetrable problem of the inexplicably smiling human. Admit it: you don’t think twice when you see one of the many thousands of folk looking down at their shoes without expression, but one smiling fellow on the street is going to attract that backward glance and the suspicion of being, well, at least a little odd. It’s not so much that we don’t trust it as that we can’t account for it. We look askance at someone showing that they’re actually in a good frame of mind. That is, if they are on their own: somehow, we expect smiling to be reserved for interaction. What a demanding lot we are.

Then of course there’s the smile disguising sadness or anger or distress – pretty well portrayed by Leoncavallo in the aria Vesti la Giubba from Pagliacci, sung in this amazing performance by Beniamino Gigli. Much the same point was made by Smokey Robinson (Tears of a Clown, but you can have the version by The Beat for change) and James Stewart in The Greatest Show on Earth.

James Stewart puts on a happy face

James Stewart puts on a happy face

And there’s the Smile of schadenfreude. Perfected  by Lily Allen.

The random smile with which I like to bewilder fellow commuters abandoned me yesterday morning. I was walking behind a man who nearly cracked my ribs with not one, but two umbrellas. Let’s leave for another occasion how I feel about the habitual selfishness of the surly blighters who share my occasional journey to work, and concentrate on the fact that he had two telescopic umbrellas tucked into the pockets of his rucksack. Let’s also put to one side the undoubted truth that the possession of rucksacks ought to be strictly regulated, and return to the question why he was carrying two umbrellas.

It struck me that either this chap was expecting a lot of rain, such that one was simply not going to be enough, or that he was actually a performance artist whose oeuvre consists of an umbrella-based rendition of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Spectacular. The agreeable image of him dropping his rucksack, and simultaneously drawing his two collapsibles faster than the eye can see, diverted me for long enough to forget how close to injury he had brought me, and restored the edges of my mouth to their upward slant. It could have ruined his reputation – if the star of the Cirque de Parapluie had proved unable to manage his equipment.

Where this leads me in musical terms is hard to say, but if this blog has anything to cling to it is the tenuous links to music that I know or discover as I go. So I shall choose an umbrella song – not Rihanna or Vanilla Sky, but The Hollies Bus Stop. This is a classic for a “beat the intro” quiz. If you know it, of course. The song begins with, and features throughout, some fantastic work by Tony Hicks playing an electric sitar.

I’ve been lucky enough to see the Hollies on three occasions in recent years. Of course they are not the same outfit they were, either in their line-up or in the tightness of the trousers they can wear, but each time I have come away feeling very happy, and grinning like the Cheshire cat. Smiles and Chuckles** all round.

Now where's that cream gone?

Now where’s that cream gone?

* The Killers. I feel I’ve neglected them lately. Perhaps that’s why they haven’t called.

** Six Brown Brothers. Six brothers from Canada named Brown.


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  1. Anne-Marie permalink

    a) Could it be that your assailant was not, in fact, carrying umbrellas but rather two of those ridiculous telescoping hiking sticks?
    b) I suggest that the endemic misery of which you speak is totally linked to the trials of being a commuter….

    • a) Interesting possibility, which I choose to dismiss because it is inconvenient.
      b) …or of shopping, parking, travelling, waiting at the doctor, getting up…

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