In his beautiful and useful 17th-century self-help book The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton recommends merry-making as an antidote to depression. He lists "dancing, singing, masking, mumming, stage plays" as worthwhile pursuits for the down-at-heart, and approves of festivities for the people: "Let them freely feast, sing, dance, have their puppet plays, hobby-horses, tabors, crowds, bagpipes, etc, and play at ball, and barley-breaks, and what sports and recreations they like best."
I was reminded of Burton's wise words recently at a festival called Shambala. For here was Merry Old England in action. Around 10,000 people gathered in a field by a wood and lake for a weekend of medieval fun. There were bonfires, fairground rides, ball games and lots of dressing up. There were street vendors and hawkers of every description. There were bakers, coffeehouses, alehouses, jewellery shops, puppetry tents, soup stalls, clothes shops, jugglers, unicyclists, tumblers, musicians, a crazy-golf course, nightclubs, street ranters, acrobats, fireworks and displays of animals, from snakes to bearded dragons. There was a lot of drinking. This was Bartholomew Fair in action. The scenes were truly Hogarthian. The usual rules were subverted: men were dressed as women and women as men. It was a glorious topsy-turvy carnival weekend.
My own contribution was to set up the Idler Academy in a lovely blue-and-white-striped marquee, with coffee shop, bookshop, cocktail bar and bacon-buttie stall attached. It was great fun. But the highlight for me was something totally unplanned, and that was a dance class.
I've long felt embarrassed by my intuitive approach to dancing. Most of my moves were picked up by copying other people at raves in the 1990s and I now wheel them out at weddings and festivals. I am entirely untutored in moving to music, and have often felt that I'd like to take lessons. Occasionally, I manage to look halfway competent but that is largely due to luck rather than design, or more likely large quantities of booze, which either loosens me up or renders me blissfully unaware of the crumminess of my dancing.
That was why I was thrilled when a man called Oliver Broadbent approached me at lunchtime on the Sunday at Shambala and asked whether the Idler Academy would like to put on a lesson in the art of the Lindy Hop. We had a gap in the programme at 4.30pm, so we immediately agreed to organise a dancing lesson, or a sort of tea dance. I put up a blackboard announcing our Lindy Hop class with Oliver's organisation, named Brace Yourself. At the appointed time we plugged in the iPad, started playing "Hi-Heel Sneakers" and cranked up the PA. Oliver, and his partner Jessica Robinson, put us through our paces. I learnt how to do the basic move, which is called "slow, slow, quickstep", and how to twirl my partner, as well as how to do some slightly more flashy 1930s Charleston moves which involved waggling one's hands in the air. This felt good and right. Instead of watching Strictly Come Dancing on the telly, we were doing it for ourselves. It was surprisingly easy to pick up and enormously cheering. Just an hour's instruction has enormously improved my dancing confidence, and also my mood: dancing does indeed lift the spirits.
I was so excited by the lesson that I immediately booked Oliver to run a course at the Idler Academy in London. Like singing, drawing, poetry, handwriting, grammar or playing an instrument, dancing is a skill that needs to be taught. The progressive fallacy that you can do these things by feel, or pick them up by some sort of osmosis, and that the teacher's role is to "bring out" what is already in the pupil, needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history. It is pure nonsense and simply leads to the creation of someone like me, completely lacking in what 19th-century novels called accomplishments. Just one Lindy Hop lesson has advanced my dancing skills 100 times further than the previous 30 years of free-form disco guesswork.
The other point is that it felt right and good and exciting to be dancing with a girl, to have your arm on her back and to be holding her hand, rather than just to be dancing near her, which is what we generally do these days. It is strange to observe that in an age which considers itself to be liberated, dancing is generally conducted without any physical contact.
The final point to note is that all the dancers in our lesson grinned constantly from ear to ear. And this, too, is a cure for melancholy, according to Burton, who recommends "mirth and merry company" to those afflicted with a gloomy heart.
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'