Christina Patterson: I'm depressed by all this happy talk

"If you don't have anything cheerful to say," said my father, "then don't say anything at all." That, frankly, was a bit of a tall order. Of course I didn't have anything cheerful to say. I was a teenager, for God's sake. With the advent of spots, and a truly dreadful haircut, my state of mind had switched from relatively sunny to gloweringly unhappy. I didn't follow my father's dictum, of course. I believed in freedom of speech. The freedom to make everyone else as miserable as I felt.

There is, as yet, no clear cure for being a teenager, but I think my father would have approved of the latest advice on depression. In Beating Stress, Anxiety and Depression, Jane Plant, a scientific adviser to the Government, and Janet Stephenson, an NHS psychologist, claim that the best way to beat the blues is to, er, smile. And while you're at it, you could start the day with a grilled kipper, treat yourself to a smoothie, and end your day with a bowl of porridge.

"We do not agree with the usual advice to 'keep taking your medication and eventually all will be well'," the authors write. "We challenge many of the conventions in the treatment of mental illness." Well, you can say that again. As prescriptions for one of the more serious medical blights on our times go, "smile and the whole world smiles with you" certainly has an unusual ring. It sounds wonderfully straightforward – and, indeed, cheap.

The truth, however, is that Plant and Stephenson are just the latest in a long line of experts of various kinds truffling around in the forest floors of the "new science of happiness". Publishing, in recent years, has been awash with books telling us that if we want to be happy we should exercise more, watch less telly and make sure we earn more than our neighbour. There's nothing, apparently, that boosts the endorphins like a little stab of envy from next door.

But while the "new science" is telling us to get a grip, and a stiff upper lip, the "old science", ie the medical profession, is telling us just to keep popping the pills. The mere mention of misery is enough to get a doctor reaching for his prescription pad, and for truckloads of toxic chemicals which many of their patients will take for years and years – and some will take for ever.

We are, it seems, in a muddle about depression. Swinging between potent cocktails of drugs and breezy injunctions to cheer up, love, because it might not happen, we no longer seem to make the time, or semantic effort, to distinguish between the utter, immobilising hell of proper, serious, clinical depression – the kind of depression which is certainly a mental illness and which certainly needs all the drugs, therapy and magic formulae we can muster – and ordinary pain and sadness.

When somebody you love dies, or you lose your job, or your partner leaves you, or you suffer serious illness, it is entirely appropriate to feel utterly, bloody miserable. At times like these, it may not help to talk about "happiness" or "depression". Smile if you want to, pop your pills, and take your porridge. But perhaps the best you can do is, as the poet Nina Cassian put it, just to "call yourself alive".

* On Sunday, I sat in the garden. Dappled sunlight through a canopy of leaves. A chilled bottle of rosé. Bliss. Except that, from the moment I went outside, the screaming of police sirens didn't stop. I know I live in a city. I know I live on a busy street. But do they have to be quite so loud? And did every incident warrant this shrieking panic? "Disturbance of the peace" is, it seems, a crime which goes only one way.

Black, it seems, really is in vogue

A month ago, I wrote about a text I received from a friend, urging me to buy Vogue. Since my friend is a big, black man called Rob and the text was signed "Twiggy", I had my suspicions. No one could call Rob either fashion-conscious or politicised, but when he got the text from a friend about the "first edition ever to feature all black models" such as Alek Wek with the instruction to forward it, he did.

And so, it seems, did everyone else. The all-black July issue of Italian Vogue, which, according to Rob's text, Vogue were "expecting to be their worst-selling edition ever" has become a publishing sensation. Condé Nast has rushed to print 40,000 extra copies, some of which are selling on eBay for $50 (£25) each.

Sola Oyebade, chief executive of Mahogany Model Management, who has been running a Facebook, text and email campaign to get people to buy it, is understandably rather chuffed. "The explanation for why they don't use black models is always that we don't sell," she says, "but this shows that's not true."

What it also shows – vividly, hearteningly – is that this is not, as pundits and politicians keep saying, the age of apathy. If enthusiasm for party politics, its petty squabbles, puerile plots and willy-waving in Westminster tea-rooms and English beaches, is on the wane, passion about the real, live issues that animate our lives is not.

And passion, combined with canny use of new technology and the encouragement to dip hands in wallets, as Barack Obama discovered early in his campaign, can be an extremely potent tool. Time for change indeed.

How the fortune cookie crumbles

So, you've got the dress, booked the venue, sorted the caterers and survived the rows with the future in-laws and you're damned if anything's going to ruin your special day – and now it looks as though it's going to bloody rain. Poor old China. An entire nation has been marshalled and mobilised for this, the biggest party in the world, and the entire venue is shrouded in the kind of pantomime-dry-ice-cum-peasouper that you might expect in a docudrama about Jack the Ripper.

They've shut factories, banned most cars and even fired bullets at clouds. But there are some things which even the most determined governments can't achieve. Ruskin might have called it "pathetic fallacy". The Chinese will just have to seek solace in the old proverb, "There is no wave without wind". Or perhaps, "The crafty rabbit has three different entrances to its lair".

No, I've got no idea what they mean either, but did anyone ever find a Chinese proverb that made any sense?

Comments