The beauty of small things

BMJ Published 22 March 1997    Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:909

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My home village, Rostrevor, lies between the Mourne Mountains and Carlingford Lough, but it’s not an uncomfortable perch, as if the mountains don’t like us and are slowly pushing us into the sea. We get on better than that with our native soil; the Mournes are protective, and Rostrevor nestles under their armpit as snugly as a wee mouse in a cornstack. This is not entirely fanciful; the Mournes deflect the worst snows and the sea breezes ameliorate the worst frosts, and during the Great Famine Rostrevor was untouched by typhoid fever, although the potato blight did hit us hard.

A Canadian visitor was unimpressed.

“Heck,” he said, “You call those little things mountains? The Rockies are ten times the size.”

“Oh, like you built them yourself, did you?” I retorted, for I like the Mournes just the way they are; accessible and not too rugged, so that you can climb them without Sherpas, drop a bottle of stout in a mountain stream, and when just cool enough share it with the skylarks and the ravens before taking out a big cigar and sending smoke rings floating gracefully down the breeze, like Gandalf and Bilbo would have done.

Bigness is not a virtue; there is a defining quality to small things, like a Seurat masterpiece, where omission of even one dot can lose an eye, a smile, even a mood, and irredeemably change the nature of the whole picture.

My insight was given support by a geneticist who surveyed 6000 people to find the true sources of happiness. “Find the small things that give a little high.” he advised, “a good meal, working in the garden, time with friends. Sprinkle your life with them, and they will leave you happier than the grand achievement that lasts for only a while.”

I could add; the rim of froth on your upper lip after a draught of Guinness; that first smoke after good sex; the coda to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

But small things can be a bugger, like the lad who complained of having sweaty feet. He wasn’t exaggerating, and the room was filled with an fruity odour, almost pleasant if its origin had been unknown. This was, he surmised, stopping him getting a girlfriend. But I probed deeper, and found he was a Garth Brooks fan, and so technically undateable, be his feet as fragrant as Mary Archer’s. So as well as medical advice I loaned him some James Brown tapes and when he returned both his sweaty feet and his social life had greatly improved.

Boy meets girl, boy has sweaty feet, boy goes to doctor, boy gets girl; it’s the classic Irish love story.

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