by NJ McGarrigle

Charles Darwin’s Study


“For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 

Consider a cup of coffee. How happy does it make you, the first cup of the day especially? It is a simple combination of beans and hot water, yet its simplicity gives us infinite pleasure. Our first cup in the morning after getting out of bed is akin to the midwife’s slap of the newborn baby entering this big, bold world from the snug sanctuary of the mother’s womb; we need it.

Yes, I know the groan-inducing argument about caffeine being a drug – perhaps we drinkers do so in order to stifle our yawns – however it is unlikely that a coffee lover will overdose on fresh ground (its sheer richness will have you a bit punchy after your fourth cup) or start ransacking granny flats to fund their next double espresso.

A mere cup of coffee is one of life’s simple pleasures.

Of course, the simple pleasures in life is a well-worn cliché by now, however it does embody a fundamental truth about our happiness – if I asked you to make a list of the things, within everyday parameters naturally, that give you contentment, what would they be?

I have thought about this and it does not take much for a man or woman to live contentedly, even when we consider the obvious and insurmountable burden that is money; in many cases, one has more than enough, depending on what one desires, of course. But leaving our relationship with money to one side for the moment, I’ve listed some of the things that allow me to potter on happily from the moment I rise in the morning – and they all have one thing in common: simplicity.

Firstly, a somewhat ascetic breakfast: porridge with banana and honey. This is usually accompanied with a pot of tea or coffee, although the price variation between the two drinks is absurd when one thinks about it; a bag of coffee is the same price as a box of tea, the bean lasting little more than a week, while the leaf can last a steady tea slurper several weeks. Coffee in the Croke Patrick fashion: nothing fancy added, while always milk with tea, no sugar.

Next on the list is the radio: such a little box of joyous pleasure and discovery. For something so inanimate, it brings so much into our lives, be it news, classical music, sport, BBC World Service etc. At times the radio can feel like the company of a warm, wonderful and wise human being. Usually I flick for the various headlines in the morning, then dip into a news programme if it is worth listening to, otherwise the sounds of RTE’s Lyric FM or Classic FM are called upon to ease one into the day. After you have washed and dressed, listening to classical music in the morning can rebuild you piece by piece, little by little. It is strange, but as one gets older, appreciation of classical music bursts open like a newfound, fresh-water well.

Perhaps there is a symbiotic relationship between our mortality and classical music’s immortality. For example, I have had to stop typing this to listen to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, which was playing in the background. It is sublime and a sweet moment snatched from the day already.

Other things on the list – newspapers, magazines, and journals to leaf through while drinking my first cup of coffee of the day: New York Review of Books, New Statesman, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Dublin Review, Literary Review, The New Yorker, The Paris Review.

Tea’s up

Newspapers tend to be bought in bulk at the weekend, unless I’m out and about first thing in the morning. I find papers bought during the week keep me from reading books and as the cheeky saying goes, if you want to know little about a lot, read newspapers, but if you want to know a lot about something, read books.

On my second cup of coffee, I enjoy standing at the back door for a while, looking at the newly scrubbed scene and listening to the sounds of the day, as the natural world’s dial is gradually turned up: birds chirping, someone brushing a yard, children playing, even the rushed sound of the city can be enjoyed from one’s back door – movement and stillness in co-existence is a state of consciousness to enjoy, if you are in the latter category.

At these times, I am somewhat envious of the regular smoker, for they have the liberty of the pause. The non-smoker does not have that tiny opening to stop and listen, unless they force themselves to do so. It is, I think, why smokers have such fraternal instincts towards one another; it is not just the smoke, it is the ritual, the pause. The smoke is a simple thing but walls of separation crumble easily between strangers who smoke; they suck in a hit of humanity and exhale a breath of brotherhood. One sees this in the smoking areas of pubs, but we can also look at how down the ages smoking offered a modicum of amity for soldiers in battle.

Smoking remains a communion for the secular age.

But I digress. Getting back to my list, another requirement is good quality notebooks and a batch of sturdy pencils to scribble ideas, good, bad and indifferent. I always found keeping a diary too much of a chore, with feelings of guilt for leaving it empty; foresaid pages would then inevitably be filled with humdrum detail that should never have been written, never mind the idea of them being read. But notebooks at hand can be used to thrown down the odd kernel of thought and see if something larger grows from it.

To be truly content, one ideally should have an open fire and be surrounded by lots of books: scores of them, with four or five on the go at the one time, strewn across the floor usually. The strange thing about this style of reading is that at times it leaves me feeling I haven’t read a book in a long time – but of course the water is being pumped, even if the line does not appear to be moving to the eye. Poetry books lying around to be picked up at any time, collections of essays where one can paddle for ten minutes or two hours and coffee table collections on Cézanne and Miró, which can add light to the greyest winter day.

Finally, all that needs to be said about the requirement of my music collection is that it has the same purpose as the air I breathe, whereas a mini-list of wine, cheeses, whiskey, cigars and smoked salmon sit a little to one side of the necessities column: they are not essential to live, but for a man to truly live, they are essential.

* I realise I am writing this on my blog, so that poses the question about the Internet being added to the list. The answers are probably a take it, or leave it. I can say that I enjoy using the web, but if I had to live without it tomorrow, as I have done before for long periods, then I would not be terribly upset. For one thing, I would get a lot more reading and writing done and that is not a bad pay-off.