Anyone struggling to think of an appropriate Christmas gift for International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach or other members of the Olympic family at the end of another long and difficult year could do worse than pick up a copy of Middle England, the new novel by Jonathan Coe.
Put a bookmark in Chapter 15 before you wrap it.
This is where a dozen or so of Coe’s diverse and affectionately drawn central characters settle down in various locations to watch the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Some of the reactions are laugh-out-loud funny.
Sophie and Sohan, young, 20-something intellectuals, fire off surprised/impressed texts to one another commenting on an allusion in Danny Boyle’s script to Humphrey Jennings, a documentary film-maker in the 1940s.
Sohan is so inspired he buys tickets to one of the matches in the Olympic women’s football tournament.
“A sporting event. Me! Watching sport!’” he recalls incredulously two years later, drinking champagne on the Shard’s observation deck.
Middle England is the best thing @jonathancoe’s ever written - and that’s a high bar. The way he uses characters’ responses to the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony to highlight their personalities is just wonderful. Very satisfying.— Ashley Davies (@MsAshleyDavies) November 16, 2018
Philip Chase, a minor publisher specialising in local history, hears the opening bars of the wildly unfashionable Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, feels instant vindication for a musical love he has kept largely to himself for four decades and runs off to phone an old school friend who turns out to be the only character not already glued to the TV.
Doug, a cynical, left-of-centre political journalist, is moved unexpectedly to tears by the whole display - and even more surprised to learn that his wife is there in the Olympic Stadium, in the VIP seats next to Bryan Ferry.
Ian, Sophie’s speed awareness course-teacher husband, whose cultural hinterland is limited to sport and James Bond, is, of course, thrilled by the famous segment featuring 007 and the Queen.
The effect of this is to induce in him “an almost orgasmic surge of patriotic excitement, so that he leaped to his feet and shouted ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’”.
Helena, Ian’s opinionated mother, by contrast, sits up until 1am writing a letter to the Telegraph complaining about the event’s “left-wing bias”, but it is never published.
Coe’s point, I think, is that the ceremony had something for almost everyone.
He writes of England afterwards “sinking into a deep, satisfied sleep, the kind of sleep you enjoy after throwing a successful party, when all the guests have gone home and you know that there is no need to get up early in the morning".
“England felt like a calm and settled place tonight,” he continues, “a country at ease with itself”.
You can see why I think this part of Coe’s tale would go down well in Lausanne, not to mention at the headquarters of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in Monaco, where London 2012’s guiding light, Sebastian Coe (no relation), now spends a good number of his waking hours.
But equally, you can understand why Bach and his colleagues might hope that Santa may also see fit to place a copy of Coe’s perceptive and wonderfully enjoyable book in the seasonal stockings of public authorities of potential Winter Olympic Games hosts, particularly in Europe.
I say this because that Opening Ceremony chapter seems to me to nail what those of us who believe that - on balance and for all their faults - the world is at least a marginally better place with the Olympics than without them, what we feel every time a new economic study concludes that the Games are not worth the candle.
Economic studies cannot take account of what they cannot quantify, and how do you begin to quantify the sense of national bonhomie and contentment delivered under one Coe and distilled and set down for posterity by another?
Yet it must have a value and, while even an Olympics cannot make it endure for long, for invariably hard-pressed administrations struggling to keep their societies on an even keel in an ever more baffling and complex world, I would suggest it is a substantial one.
Since it is the last Olympics, Summer or Winter, to have been staged in Western Europe, and since the Movement badly needs a similarly successful West European Winter Games, I think there is a strong case for the IOC to commission some analysis to assess the value to the host-city and nation of the London 2012 feelgood factor.
Baron Layard, a British economist whose 2005 book Happiness – lessons from a new science starts from the premise that economics is wrong to equate changes in a society’s happiness with changes in its purchasing power, could, I imagine, make an interesting contribution.
The book predates social media, an innovation that appears to have been preying greatly on Bach’s mind in recent times, particularly in the context of lost plebiscites.
But it helps to explain why the past decade or so of growing insecurity and stagnant or declining purchasing power has left middle- and working-class Europeans so negative and despondent.
People “care less about gains than about losses,” Layard writes.
"Researchers typically find that an income loss of £100 ($125/€111) hurts twice as much as an income gain of £100 helps.”
Closer to home, Bach and colleagues might also consider consulting HRH Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, the new IOC member from Bhutan.
Bhutan is the country that has pioneered the Gross National Happiness Index.
Indeed, as explained on the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative website, it was Wangchuck’s father, the 4th King of Bhutan, who in 1972 coined the phrase “gross national happiness”, declaring “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product”.
It might be easier for a poor country to make such an assertion than a rich one.
Nonetheless, it is hard to conceive what the Olympics are for nowadays if it is not to increase the overall sum of human happiness by a modest amount over a short period of time.
It follows that any initiative likely to persuade potential host cities - and host citizens - to take happiness into account when making up their minds whether they want to stage the Games must be worth a try.