By Nick Pelling
If April is supposedly “the cruellest month”, surely January is the glummest? No one has any money, our wilting Christmas décor mocks us and we still find ourselves in the cold, grey, dark, dead of winter. But maybe January has something to teach us.
The Romans thought that the God Janus had two faces – one looking back but another face looking forward. But poets have not picked up on that hint of optimism. Thomas Hardy spoke of the “death lament” in the January wind. And it was on a bleak January 1939 that the great Irish Poet W.B. Yeats “spent his last afternoon as himself,” as Auden put it. And it is quite hard to find a rhyme for January, unless you count ‘mortuary’, which is hardly encouraging.
To zoom in on one particular day, 30 January has a case for being a particularly accursed day: it was on that day – in obviously different years – that Gandhi was assassinated, Hitler became chancellor, the British army carried out the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry and King Charles I had his head removed. (Republicans might approve the latter, but superstitious folk might be wary of it.)
However, of course, there are countervailing trends. Take the case of Jean Pierre Blanchard and John Jefferies. A mere 237 years ago, these two gentlemen were inspired on a freezing day in Dover, to become the first people to fly in a hot air balloon from the white cliffs to Calais. Apparently, they very nearly crashed as the balloon started to plummet near the French coast and they had to throw everything overboard including
an entirely unnecessary ship’s anchor and even Blanchard’s
Most people would nevertheless hold that these various events are not meaningfully connected in any way. It is, perhaps, just an aspect of the bogus pseudo-science of numerology. However, anniversaries do seem to give us a framework for looking back. If we look back a century from 2022, we can see something of how we got here. For example, the current wrangling about the Brexit Protocols and the Irish border has its roots in the splitting of Ireland into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, or Ulster, which was formalised in 1922. Much like Brexit, the Anglo-Irish treaty was perhaps a bit of confidence trick: the ‘Irish Free State’ was not ‘Free,’ it was still a dominion of the British Empire. ‘Ulster’ was not the original ‘Ulster’ but a gerrymandered Ulster. It was in some ways a settlement that settled nothing but ensured future agonies. One hopes Brexit will not echo so painfully down the years.
A glance back 50 years is also revealing in a slightly less weighty way. For those, like myself, who complain that music is not what it used to be, there is a salutary lesson. On New Year’s Day in 1972 the most popular song in the UK was Benny Hill’s ‘Ernie’ (the Fastest Milkman in the West.) A novelty song which you might think sort of sums up
the tacky nature of the 70s, but it did win an Ivor Novello award for compositional brilliance. Apparently.
Of course, many people will naively assume that the Conservatives’ 1922 Committee will be having its centenary party this year – without actually having a party, needless to say. But they would be wrong: it was established in 1923. I don’t understand how or why. But talking of 1922 one cannot help thinking that a high-flying Prime Minister found himself crashing out of office for the last time in that year. That was, of course, David Lloyd George. He was a curious leader. A man who was spectacularly corrupt in many ways: he allowed people to buy their way into the House of Lords, he used his office to enrich himself and he was sexually a bit wayward. But he was nevertheless a man who offset his chicanery with extraordinary personal charisma and political brilliance. He laid the basis of the welfare state and then led the country to victory in the Great War. It is tempting to see some sort of parallels with our present incumbent, but as Marx once suggested, when epic History repeats itself, the second time it
is more like a squalid farce. He had a point.
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