Caught by the River

Pleasures of… January

Katharine Norbury | 3rd February 2015

unnamedby Katharine Norbury

The pleasures of January haven’t been what they usually are…

The month began, as it always does, with the oldest person, which this year happened to be my husband, Rupert, careening out of the back door of my friend Lucy’s house as the clock struck twelve. A hunk of charred wood the size of a loaf was balanced precariously on a shovel in front of him. The remainder of the New Year’s Eve gathering stumbled after him into sideways rain, giggling, swearing, tripping over the empty bottles, trying to follow the intermittent glow of the embers, as we all slipped and shimmied, clockwise, naturally, round the cottage. Dennis, a former soldier and current financial planner who we had only met that night, had been cast in the role of a Tall Dark Stranger and was shivering bravely in the glow of the house lights, blasted by the elements, and then Dennis, along with the youngest member of our party – twelve year old Phoebe (appropriately named in this bizarre rite that must owe something at least to the rebirth of the sun god Apollo, feast day 25th December) – successfully received the coal shovel from the hands of The Old Year, played by Rupert, and carried the glowing ember back into the cottage. Phoebe was the New Year and Dennis the First Footer, together they deposited the contents of the shovel back within the safety of the cast iron wood burner where it reignited less than a minute after it had been removed. All this was managed pretty much before the radio crackled Big Ben’s final stroke.

As we sang, and drank, a Mexican wave of New Year’s rites were being reenacted in hilarious and sometimes dangerous revels all around the globe. In Madrid the tradition is to stuff twelve grapes into your mouth before the clock on the Puerta del Sol strikes twelve, one lucky grape for each month of the year, but after a number of untimely (or perhaps timely is more accurate) deaths-by-choking the clock strikes are now, it is rumoured, a little slower.

Success and excess are loosely identifiable themes at the birth of a month where the natural world is traditionally battened down, pared to the rind, the trees laid bare, the ground dark and fecund.

But this year something is different.

The pleasures of January – those crisp brief days and long cold nights – are quite simply – different.

On a traditional New Year’s Day I would have expected to be nursing Stuart Webley’s (fairly lethal) mulled wine outside the Ty Coch pub in Porth Dinllaen (voted, in a recent survey, to be the third best “beach bar” in the world) while a piper, blown off course to this remote finger of land, deep in Plaid Cymru country, played “Flower of Scotland” to perplexed and hung over locals.

But this year I didn’t quite make it. I got distracted at the other end of the beach and decided to join in with a different and parallel tradition, that of the“New Year’s Dip” to raise money for the Porth Dinllaen RNLI Lifeboat. I hadn’t intended to go in at all. I was on my way along the sand, the pub glowing on my radar, the piper inaudible behind the wind, and still wearing the little black number that I’d put on the night before, because I hadn’t quite made it home. My plan had been simply to stand and watch while other hardier souls, including Dennis the Footer and Phoebe the New Year, my daughter Evie, and the new candidate for Plaid Cymru, Liz Saville Roberts, all braved the waters of Nefyn Bay.

But even I could tell it wasn’t that cold…

So I pulled on a pair of bikini bottoms (which I always have in my handbag, along with a toothbrush, because you never know where life will take you) under last night’s little black number, and crashed along and into the sea, which felt no colder than it seems to do in summer. Ten minutes later I was on my way out again and feeling thoroughly refreshed and more than slightly fraudulent. I mean, it really wasn’t that big a deal…I wouldn’t say it was warm. But it certainly wasn’t January 1st cold.

The next big pleasure of January comes when I return to London to start back at work again. Every time I cross the Thames I am as excitable as a child. Is the river full? Or empty? Is it grey? Or silver? Or that kind of beige emulsion it sometimes turns, as white chalk and London clay mix together? Is it turbulent or deceptively smooth? Is it running inland, or to the sea? The Thames grounds me whenever I look at it… It moves, I stay still, fascinated by the cormorants, the herons, the gulls blown inland, presaging, who knows, storms at sea?

When I headed up to Battersea Park, which is the nearest expanse of open land near my home, the first thing I noticed was the squeaky toy chatter of two lime green rose-ringed parakeets in a plane tree above me. They were dancing along a branch of the not-that-bare tree and making alternate forages into a hole in the trunk. The cold season is when the parakeets traditionally seek out their partners, identify and defend their nesting sites. On the path ahead of me a pair of feral pigeons were flickering and dipping their heads and tails in their comical mating dance. And the ground, ordinarily dark and secret was so stuffed with bright shoots that it would have been difficult to walk across the flowerbeds without crushing the upturned points. The snowdrops were there of course. But already they seemed to be wilting in the warmth. The gorse had never stopped flowering and pale yellow primroses, upstaging the faded snowdrops, were clustered everywhere like discarded brides bouquets. Rosemary was putting out shoots. There was a solitary, delicate, rose. Great dropping boughs of camellia.

The following weekend I came across a sunflower, blinking nervously, trying to open browning petals, in the untended ground next to Albert Bridge. A sunflower?

Does leaving the doors and windows open so warm air can blow through the house count as a pleasure of January? Or is it something from the spring, brought forward? Or a pocket of summer that never left?

Today the winter finally seems to have blown in. The temperature dropped this afternoon so far and so fast that my fingers are stiff as I type. Rain in handfuls of jellied drops slap against the skylight, threatening to turn to snow. This, finally, is one of the true pleasures of January, just in time, before the month turns: a cup of hot chocolate – with just a dash of Jamesons – to thaw my fingers, cheeks red from a wind that is finally as sharp as knives.

The Fish Ladder by Katherine Norbury is published by Bloomsbury and available for pre-order in the Caught by the River shop.