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15 February 2016

I’m at the age you could call “peak woe” – but there’s plenty of reasons to be cheerful

The Office of National Statistics says 50 to 54 year olds are the most miserable people in the country. But they've not seen the new Wonderpass.

By Nicholas Lezard

I’m looking at a report from the Office for National Statistics whose burden is that the most miserable people in the country are aged between 50 and 54. There’s a graph in the Guardian and everything, so it must be true.

I think it’s important to take these so-called findings with a pinch of salt. At 52 years old, being squarely in the middle of the range for this late-midlife crisis – peak woe, as it were – I am, nevertheless, as happy as a clam. Regular readers of this column, whose initial working title was Your Weekly Ray of Sunshine, can attest to that.

Seriously, there are so many things going on these days to put a little extra bounce into one’s step. All you have to do is look on the bright side. For example, the swaddling clothes have come off the building that used to be Marylebone Library and Town Hall and is henceforth to be the London Business School. This is what has always been wrong with this country: too many libraries, not enough business schools. True, it’s only the tower that seems to be unclad – the rest of the site is still surrounded by hoardings, and it doesn’t look as though the School will be open for Business at any point in the near future – but you have to start somewhere, especially if you’re going to be one of Nicky Morgan’s flagbearers and/or shock troops. (You’ll recall that our brilliant and utterly sympathique Secretary of State for Education warned young people against studying arts and humanities subjects, on the grounds that doing so would “hold them back for the rest of their lives”. And how true that is! I mean, look at me.)

What else? Well, I was strolling down to the bank the other day (see this column, passim and ad nauseam) and a van pulled up alongside me: a white, windowed van, such as might carry non-threatening police officers or traffic wardens, only this van had the words “IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT” stencilled on to the front and sides and rear. This certainly bucked me up. Inside were four or five uniformed operatives, clearly all fired up and ready to enforce some immigration. Quite what they were doing in Marylebone, I’m not sure, but you can’t enforce immigration often enough or vigorously enough, that’s my view.

They had stopped outside the Beehive, a pub gutted in a fire about a year ago and still not reopened. (A few months ago I asked some firemen who were attending another matter nearby if there had been anything suspicious about the fire. They gave me what is best described as A Knowing Look. That’s another good direction this country is heading in: until now there have been too many pubs still not closing every day, too few being burned down for insurance. Not that that was the Beehive’s fate, of course; nor, m’lud, am I even beginning to suggest that it was.)

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More blessings: the Wonderpass has finally opened. This marvel, which connects, by subterranean passage, the north and south sides of the Marylebone Road, has delivered on its promise of providing a fun and educational environment for those who wish to cross the road without waiting for the lights to change.

Minuscule dioramas at key points along the passageway show us vignettes of Jane Austen, Sherlock Holmes and oh I don’t know, I wasn’t taking notes. What with the big Victorian Monty Python hands telling us where the stairs are (in the old days, commuters would bunch up and mill about awkwardly in the entrances, unsure where to put their feet; I’m so glad this matter has been cleared up), it’s actually quite sweet, if you ignore how the council locks up both ends at 8pm, so that the homeless can’t sleep in it overnight. They should get a bit more fresh air – it’ll toughen them up, or at least make them reconsider their lifestyle choices.

Which reminds me: there’s a new homeless person in the coveted space beneath the concrete overhang of 91-93 Baker Street. Meet Mark, nine years in the army and now sleeping rough in a bag on the doorstep of business premises that host, o joyous irony, the offices of Apex Housing Solutions Ltd, one of whose logos is two very rudimentary cartoon humanoids shaking hands beneath a big £ sign. Mark seems to be an extremely personable man, looking, however, as though he might be hitting that problematic 50-54 age bracket soon. But if I give him enough money he’ll be able to go to the London Business School, learn some proper skills that will help him get along in life, and stop him from being Held Back. 

This article appears in the 10 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle