March 2023

Talking of Rules and Rituals as practised in the past

This time of the year deserves a rest from the present. Talking of Rules and Rituals as practised in the past, none more useful that those laid down by Rev Sydney Smith (1771–1845). Wit, populist, writer, man of the cloth, Reverend Sydney campaigned against the inherited privileges of the British aristocracy, proposed the creation of allotments for the poor to grow vegetables, and campaigned vigorously against child-labour.  A serious trencherman who considered the secret of happiness to be a good digestion, many of his most memorable aphorisms involve dinner, among them: 

 “Madam, I have been looking for a person who disliked gravy all my life; let us swear eternal friendship.” 

“A man who wishes to make his way in life could do no better than go through the world with a boiling tea-kettle in his hand.”

“Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? how did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.” 

“If you want to improve your understanding, drink coffee.”

“Ah, you flavour everything; you are the vanilla of society.” 

“It is a great proof of shyness to crumble bread at dinner … I do it when I sit by the Bishop of London, and with both hands when I sit by the Archbishop.”

“My living in Yorkshire was so far out of the way, that it was actually twelve miles from a lemon.” 

And just to set the record straight, Rev Sydney did not himself deliver his most famous bon-mot – my idea of heaven is, eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets –  but ascribed the much-quoted witticism to his friend Henry Luttrell, as reported in Hesketh Pearson’s The Smith of Smiths.  

The great man could be counted an early feminist, being of the opinion, as reported by his daughter, that “half the talent in the universe runs to waste, and is totally unprofitable.”  What follows is from a letter offering Rules and Rituals useful to a young lady in (seasonal) low spirits: 

1. Keep good blazing fires.

2. Compare your lot with other people’s.

3. Struggle little by little against idleness.

4. Go to the shower-bath with a low temperature. 

5. Attend to the effects coffee and tea have on you. 

6. Make no secret of low spirits but talk of them freely.

7. Avoid poets.

8. Make your room gay.

10. See as much as you can of those people that respect and like you.  And of those acquaintances who amuse you.

11. Don’t expect too much of life. Live as well as you can.12. Don’t underestimate yourself.