Spectator: Isabella Tree

It’s that time of year when the highs of Christmas slide inexorably towards the gravel pit of anticlimax and antacids, and one has to be careful not to succumb to a double-dip depression. So, in between stuffing bin liners with wrapping paper, pulling pine needles out of the carpet and bypassing the carcass of the Christmas turkey in the larder, I’ll be following my father’s example and stocking up on antidotes to the blues.

My father-one of the cheeriest men that ever was-believed the trick was to get in early before the winter demons have a chance to take hold. He had his own self-styled survival kit-an arsenal of tried-and-tested wisdoms that he knew always made him feel better. For him, the worst of Christmas and New Year was an enforced sojourn in the country. A city man who loved our house in Dorset yet could hardly bear to be parted from the pavements for more than three days, he subscribed to the Rev Sydney Smith’s view that ‘in the country, one always feels the Creation may expire before tea-time’.

So it was to Smith that my father turned when feeling the onset of seasonal melancholia, seeking solace in the advice he gave Lady Georgiana Morpeth in February, 1820: ‘Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75 degrees or 80 degrees. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life-not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.

‘8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life-a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious words, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.

‘14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle little by little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe on yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana, Very truly yours, Sydney Smith.’

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My father followed these instructions to the letter-apart, obviously, from No 20, No 2 (a cold shower was out of the question), and No 19, where he was perhaps a bit wobbly. But it was the game plan that gave him a spring in his step even in the bleakest midwinter when the Maker seems, indeed, to have packed his bags and headed for a balmy beach.

And yet, despite the Reverend’s sense of foreboding, I’m investing in miracles of Nature this winter-tiny flashes of brilliance made all the more uplifting for their sudden appearance in our locked-in landscape. The impossible blossoming of fragrant winter daphne and Christmas box in the garden. Mandarin ducks. Migrating pink-footed geese landing with garrulous fanfare on the lake. Winter visitors such as woodcock and green sandpipers arriving from the frozen wastes of Eastern Europe and Siberia, presumably looking upon the brumal countryside of Sussex like a longed-for Shangri-La. And any minute now, according to our ornithological aficionados, we’ll be hearing the first notes of the song thrush.

It’s enough to get Smith, whose reluctance for the outdoors was legendary, to his feet. When a doctor advised the portly Reverend to take walks, but on an empty stomach, ‘Whose?’ was the reply.

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