The inimitable Paul O’Grady on BBC Radio 2 concludes his Sunday evening programme with a “guaranteed happy ending;” this evening it was a song by Kelly-Marie. Ahead of the seven o’clock news, it is an upbeat moment.
The news brings a reminder that there are no guaranteed happy endings, the latest reports on the process to oust the vile Robert Mugabe from his position as president of Zimbabwe. In Mugabe’s case, there is no possible outcome that will represent a happy ending. The people murdered cannot be brought back to life, nor can those who have died as a consequence of the poverty brought to his country by thirty-seven years of corruption and violence. Even the prospect of his final departure is cold comfort, he will inevitably be replaced by one of those who have served as his lieutenants over the past four decades, men as egregious as himself.
Despite the realities presented by the television news, there seems a need to believe in a happy ending, the need for each story to end on an upbeat note, as Paul O’Grady does. We are a far remove from Victorian times with headstone inscriptions proclaiming blunt realities. Perhaps Nineteenth Century people met harsh endings with hopes of the after-life, sentimental hymns declaring the wonders of the blue yonder; it is a tradition still vibrant in Africa where nasty, brutish and short lives are given meaning by hopes of a world to come where there will be no tears, pain or grief.
Karl Marx regarded religious sentiment as an opiate, blinding working people to the realities of their lives, hopes of the hereafter being offered as a recompense for poverty and suffering in life here. The guarantee of a happy ending was deemed a significant factor in producing a population that was compliant with laws favouring those who were rich and powerful.
In England, religious sentiment is mostly a thing long past. The First World War was a watershed in thinking, the churches never recovered from the long decline that had begun in the previous century. Yet despite the hopes of the supernatural and transcendent being almost entirely absent from Twenty-First thought, there remains a wish for conclusions that set the story in a different context.
Paul O’Grady’s guaranteed happy ending is mirrored in popular ideas concerning notions like that of karma. Victorian theology may no longer have a place, but we do still seem to need an opiate.