King's CollegeEsther Arthurson with permission for Varsity

Recently, on a painfully slow bus journey between the metropolises of St Albans and Hatfield, I found myself listening to popular British second world war songs. I won’t be taking any questions on that. Anyway, I came across the work of Noel Coward, who, I am reliably informed, was a playwright-actor-singer etc active throughout the 20th century.

But while I’m sure his oeuvre contains many a delight, I am mainly concerned with his fabulous song “There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner”.

To give you a sense of the lyrics, this is the first rendition of the chorus:

There are bad times just around the corner,

There are dark clouds hurtling through the sky

And it’s no good whining

About a silver lining

For we know from experience that they won’t roll by,

With a scowl and a frown

We’ll keep our peckers down

And prepare for depression and doom and dread,

We’re going to unpack our troubles from our old kit bag

And wait until we drop down dead.

Now, while you might think that these lyrics sound rather depressing, set to the upbeat, careless tune which they are, the song is endowed with a bizarre sense of not-quite-optimism. Moreover, the rhyming and alliteration employed in his evocation of different cities being down in the dumps imbues the song with a great playfulness:

They’re out of sorts in Sunderland

And terribly cross in Kent,

They’re dull in Hull

And the Isle of Mull

Is seething with discontent.

But don’t worry, this isn’t an insightful analysis of his work. It’s just that the collision of gloomy content with frivolous, lively form got me thinking – perhaps we need not be so serious in our optimism and pessimism. Maybe, between wholesale doom and gloom and unabashed hopefulness, there is a third model for confronting life’s challenges.

“Maybe, between wholesale doom and gloom and unabashed hopefulness, there is a third model for confronting life’s challenges”

While I don’t judge those who engage in “manifesting” or like to make “affirmations”, the confidence and positivity of such activities grates with me. Saying “I am strong, I am intelligent, and I am beautiful” into a mirror when one doesn’t feel any of those things, or telling oneself that “the right thing is just about to come into my hands” when one has just been rejected from every single job one has applied to – seems particularly agonising for a natural grouch such as myself.

And yet I cannot stand moping or wallowing. Sure, everyone needs it once in a while; I have, on occasion, thrown myself onto my bed cursing the world and lamenting that nothing has ever gone my way. But it’s a coping method that should have a strict 8-minute time limit. (5 minutes feels too short, 6–7 minutes is the sweet-spot that precedes self-indulgence.)


Mountain View

Why I'm a concrete hater

But if I’m not going to forcibly hype myself up or self-destructively drag myself down, what is there left for me to do?

Noel Coward comes to my rescue. I can “unpack my troubles from my old kit bag”, as he suggests, but I will do so while whistling or humming some optimistic ditty. The dual approach of recognition of rubbishness and allowance of negative emotion with the refusal to take life too seriously seems to represent a welcoming path forward.

He also nudges me in the final verse with his assertion that “we can’t save democracy and we don’t much care,” reminding me that really, if people could use a simple sing-along to get over the trauma of war, my frustration over the lack of an available washing machine really shouldn’t represent such an insurmountable barrier to enjoying my day.