Build a house, have a son, plant a tree. That was the ancient Chinese formula for a happy life. Today the surefire formula for a happy life is much cheaper and takes much less time. All you have to do is have your room redecorated by complete strangers over a weekend. Then you feel fantastic.
As recent aj correspondence pages prove, there is a widespread gloomy fascination attached to running, giggling, all-talking-at-once decorator tv shows like Changing Rooms and Home Front. Only the participants are innocent of it. They seem blissfully unaware that all over the country professional folk are slumped on sofas, tinny in hand, scowling at the screen as the brightly coloured little darlings scamper from a brilliant idea like loosely knotting fabric drapes, to an even better one like dyeing the cushion covers orange in the washing machine. Does a planner or a building-control officer ever interfere with their brainwaves? Are you mad! Hear them boast that they don't need to use an electrician and do all the plumbing themselves! Painting and decorating is indeed the modern formula for happiness.
No matter how much you sneer at their efforts, mimic their chuckling twittering voices or envy their skinny tops and decorous big hugs, you never turn off the tv, nor even dare to switch channels. Couples fall deathly silent, each fearful that the other will lose his or her nerve and admit that they like it and that's what they always wanted to do with the bedroom, so there.
Years ago social anthropologists spent a lot of time analysing the meaning of Do It Yourself, the more macho practice of knocking-through and opening- out that became a £10 billion business during the boom years of the housing economy. They decided it was the consumerisation of skills, something that nobody except the occasional over-zealous conservationist ever saw anything wrong with. But what we have in Changing Rooms is something different. It is not consumerisation so much as trainee patronage. 'John and his opera-singing wife Anne-Marie', the camera-shy couple who stumbled into their new ultramarine living room at the end of the programme last week, are the new Medici. They are clients without a clue (widely considered to be the best kind). Their idea of dictating a brief is to flounce about saying that they are dissatisfied with this and fed up with that. It is a doddle to pack such people off on a shopping trip for three days. Only when they come back, their blindfolds have been taken off, and they have been through their 'it's really really marvellous' routine do they begin to understand the enormous forces they have unleashed. Like Emma on Home Front last week who stared in wonderment at a scrawny draped curtain rail above a bed and gasped: 'I see, so basically people can just have a go!'
Indeed they can, and there is a modest professional niche here for those ready to give up bankrupting themselves entering architectural competitions. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any middle-class couple with a few bob is in want of a room makeover. It's the way things are.