Jonathan Dodd: A bit of first-quarter terror

Jonathan Dodd returns with his Sunday column and this week he talks about getting through the first few months of the year.

Scrabble letters spelling Terror

Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed


Well, now that the Christmas thing is over, and the wrapping paper and bottles have been collected, and the tree has been pulped or packed up back in its box in the roof or the garage, it’s time for the regular annual process of looking forward to that period when the weather changes and Spring comes, while trying to survive the sheer amount of time and miserableness we have to slog through until it finally arrives.

Anyone who made any New Year resolutions and hasn’t yet given up on them should be congratulated. Well done. Keep it up. I often wonder whether everyone just makes these resolutions because it stops them having to think about getting back to normal again after the delicious few days of getting up when you want and not having to be nice to workmates or customers for a while.

The real purpose of New Year resolutions
New Year resolutions are a good example of displacement activity. It’s useful to connect them to some future aspiration, such as joining a gym or starting a diet so that you won’t feel embarrassed stripping off on the beach in the summer. Gyms are notoriously fuller in the first couple of weeks in January, until the real purpose of these New year resolutions takes effect.

Runners

Once you’ve been back at work for a couple of weeks you’ve settled back into the old routine again, and the dreams of lithe bodies are lost to the cake runs and comfort food of the busy weeks at work. Besides, they put a couple of new series on TV and your house is so much warmer and more comfortable than weight-lifting and cross-training. After that it’s the middle of January and then the end of January and you think the worst is over.

Stabbing the woodwork with the end of my key
One thing that helps is noticing the dawn ratcheting itself earlier, tiny increment by tiny increment. I can never tell the difference, and I forget to look, but a couple of weeks later I realise I can see out of the window after brushing my teeth, or I can find the lock on the front door instead of stabbing the woodwork with the end of my key in the dark.

Analemma pattern in the sky

February is a doddle compared with January. Buds start to appear, and the odd snowdrop or crocus. Catkins are a good sign, if you have any catkin trees in your vicinity. I have no idea what these trees are, or even what they look like, because I only notice the catkins, and they’re not there long enough for me to remember what the trees look like when they’re clothed. Then the daffodils arrive, and you notice the sun for the first time again, occasionally shining weakly through the mist and lowering clouds.

They sit and write miserable crime novels all winter
This is easy to write down, but in reality it seems endless. There’s something quite dispiriting about scraping the windscreen every morning in the dark, or standing in bus queues in the dark, or coming home from work in the dark. How they manage it in Helsinki or Kiruna, with no light at all for half the year I can’t imagine, but apparently most of them do. Looking at my TV schedules it seems that most of the Scandinavians sit in a hut and write miserable crime novels all winter. In the dark. But funnily enough these all take place in the summer, in the light.

Landing stage at sea

There are other activities you can get on with in the long nights of the first quarter of the year. There are loads of box sets you can watch. I do love a good box set, although like any other kind of diet, consuming too many can dull your tastebuds and then you start feeling a bit bloated. Our all-time favourite boxset thing was West Wing, but there are seven series, and each series (shouldn’t that be ‘serie’?) has loads of episodes. It makes Lord of the Rings seem quite lightweight. We will get round to watching the whole thing again. One day.

Bottle that and spray it on schoolchildren
Some people I know follow football. Either they sit and watch anything football-related without ever getting bored or suffering from a surfeit of it. If only you could bottle that and spray it on schoolchildren the world would be a calmer and more intelligent place. Other football supporters I know only follow one team, and they can be spotted by the shirt they always wear whenever their team is playing or is about to play or has just played.

football match

The gradual encroachment of the end of the season, with its longed-for triumph or almost-inevitable bitter disappointment is a good way to spend the time until the sun comes out and the gloves and scarf can be put back into storage. Well, not the scarf, obviously. Or the shirt, because they carry on playing long after it’s necessary as a diversionary activity until there are better and more fun things to do, like mowing the lawn, and Spring Cleaning, and fixing all those things you can’t see and therefore don’t think about in all that darkness.

Thick layers of warm clothing can cover a multitude of sins
In fact, the misery of the first quarter of the year has a lot to recommend it. All those thick layers of warm clothing can cover a multitude of sins that are mercilessly exposed in the thin clothes of summer. There’s no need to barbecue, or clean the car, or hang the washing out and take it down rather than using the tumble drier all the time. You have a perfectly good excuse for not going anywhere outside unless it’s an emergency. It’s cold. It’s dark. Simple.

hendrick avercamp painting of ice skaters

Our winters are supposed to help us through this dark time, but they fail consistently. Can anyone remember when we last got enough snow to enjoy it or get on with any of those traditional winter pastimes like tobogganing or snowman-building, or even snowball-throwing. Let alone skating on a pond. There’s a whole generation or two who have never known these thrills. I bet most family houses nowadays don’t even contain a sledge or skates with blades.

I couldn’t see my feet, or my hand in front of my face
Weathermen try their best. They grow effusive about the possibility of a light smattering of snow on high ground, which could lead to some flurries, if the wind blows in the right direction or the night-time temperature falls a further ten degrees. But if you look in their eyes at these moments, you know they’re just making excuses. They know it’s not going to happen. Or if it does, it’ll inevitably be in early April, after we’ve given up all hope and we’re just getting used to the possibility of sun and warmth.

snow at port arthur

For two years in my extreme youth there was proper snow. So much that the sea froze in a couple of places, and all traffic stopped, and there was that particular silence you only get with thick snow or wipe-out fog. Come to think about it, you don’t get a good fog nowadays either. I have to go back quite a long way to a day when I was outside and couldn’t see my feet, or my hand in front of my face if I stretched out my arm. That was possibly the scariest day of my life. People outside started to whistle or sing or make some kind of noise, because they wouldn’t have known if someone was right next to them, or if nobody even existed anywhere any more.

Security and safety and an absence of terror
Sometimes I think that the weather is mimicking our aspirational lifestyles. What most people seem to want is security and safety and an absence of terror. I can understand that, but I have to be concerned about the lack of terror, because everything tends to merge into everything else if there’s no terror in your life. I can understand why people voluntarily submit themselves to dangerous sports, or take absurd risks for no apparent reason, and go to see horror movies and ride on those terrible things at theme parks.

Oblivion ride at alton towers

They don’t even call them rides any more, and you can see why. You actually hang off some of them. Others drop you vertically into a hole in the ground, or they hurtle you round backwards in the dark. I’m not a fan. I’ve experienced a bit of real terror on occasion, and I don’t need to do it again too often. Just reminding me is enough. A little spurt of adrenaline every now and then is good for you, but too much adrenaline for too long starts to act like a poison. It’s as bad for you as no adrenaline at all.

We should be ready for it, just in case
In fact, what we need every year is a single scary thing, somewhere in the first quarter. It should be completely unexpected and unforeseeable, and traumatic to a certain extent, but not actually dangerous. I remember the second storm years ago. Not the one that ended the career of Michael Fish, because that was in the night. The one a bit later, on a Friday, when I drove home dodging trees fallen across the road. Wondering about what and when this event might be would keep us on our toes and occupy our minds, and make the time pass quicker until the warm weather comes back.

Sign reading Expect the unexpected

I’m predicting a nearly-catastrophic event that’s going to take place, possibly, some time between now and the summer, which will appear to threaten our lives, that might nearly happen, but not quite. And it’s going to be big. And awful. And a relief when it’s over, if it happens. And we should be ready for it, just in case. We should be prepared for something unexpected at all times. Have we remembered to put wellingtons in the car? Is the gate shut? Do we remember what the neighbours look like? It might be coming. It might be round the corner. It might be just about to be almost upon us!

Unexpected road

I hope that gave you enough of a frisson to help you get through the next few tedious months. And I hope it never happens. But you never know!

If you have been, thank you for reading this. And LOOK OUT!


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