January is a strange month. A kind of hangover (literal or otherwise) of the previous year. The decorations and lights stubbornly cling on in many of the houses I pass on my walks. Leftovers of too many foodie treats sit smugly in my fridge, challenging a renewed attempt to “be good”. The darkness of a morning is profound, intimidating. And the temptation to simply hibernate is strong. It remains my least favourite time of year. The flip side of this comes with my love of reading. The antidote – along with a cuppa – to All Things. My usual Christmas present to myself is a stack sufficient to last me a few weeks. The ability to escape the world and become willingly submerged in that of a book is one I developed early on. I relish it even more now that I understand and explore the structure.
My local book store here in Bergen released the latest Peter May crime novel into my eager hands only days after publication in the UK. Twenty four hours later, I reluctantly returned from Southern Spain and Gibraltar. No more pages left. He never disappoints. Perfect pacing, structure and twists, together with his legendary ability to engage the senses. My vertigo kicked in violently as the characters stepped out onto the glass-bottomed walkway on the sheer Rock.
Another author on my list who whisked me away from the perpetual rain was Chris Hammer, in his book Scrublands. Set in the unforgiving Australian outback, the unfolding drama grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and held me there, parched, burning my fingers on every inanimate surface. The hopeless, endless dry. I reached for my waiting glass of water in Norway – lucky for me – and continued the story. His description of the sun, which “…hangs over Riversend like a sentencing judge”, is stark. The book is a masterclass in how to repeatedly emphasise the merciless heat without ever seeming to do so. Show, don’t tell
I love that recognition of a truly excellent book, found in the profound sense of disappointment on reaching the end. And the impatience for the author to hurry up and write the next one. Write the book that you want to read, or so the advice goes.
Then there are books that are, quite simply, perfect. That could not have been written any other way (like great film music). And that will sit on my bookshelves, to be returned to as old friends throughout my life. I found one such gem in The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy. The combination of simple but profound text and Mackesy’s pared-back sketches is deeply moving. His ability to convey the essence of each animal and the child in only a few bold strokes of the pen is powerful. It is a gift within a book. A rich message of love. I cried over it as I cried over The Velveteen Rabbit.
January for me has been punctuated by rain. The relief of absence of lethal, icy walks has been tempered by the ever-present soggy umbrella. Nearly every day so far has been wet – and windy. Which makes use of said umbrella a fruitless sport. Umbrella carcasses sprout from waste bins and hedges in colourful ridicule. The irony of this relentless rainfall was not lost on me whilst following daily reports of the bushfires and drought down in Oz. My squishy heart was seriously squeezed by the plight of Australia’s wildlife. What to do? In a matter of days, groups of crafters began to emerge online, joining hands throughout the countries of the world and reaching out to our Australian brothers and sisters. Hubs sprang up here in Norway and I was galvanised to dust off the sewing machine and locate my crochet hook.
The sheer volume of injured and orphaned animals required industrial supplies of bedding, mittens to allow burnt paws to heal, nests, blankets and pouches. I cried more tears at each progress report we were sent, at pictures of shocked little ones clinging to a dead parent or having their wounds dressed. The efforts of carers, medics and fire fighters were inspiring and ceaseless. And out of the devastation has come reassuring evidence of an epic tide of goodwill, of enduring human spirit that has almost overshadowed grim world affairs and frustrating, unreliable politicians. It is unstoppable, apparently even when confronted by so many obstacles. January became that little bit less dark. And in the space of a few weeks, supplies have reached a level sufficient to have reserves for the future, in many areas. There can be no doubt that continuing climate change will necessitate reaching for those reserves. Meanwhile, I’ve remembered how to crochet, made nests, animal beds and some hanging joey pouches where orphaned roos and wallabies can feel safe as they recover. It has been a real pleasure to see people everywhere using craft skills to offer help. Crossing country and language divides with a common purpose. Encouraging also to see photos of fresh green shoots persisting to emerge from the ash and devastation.
New shoots are celebrated at Imbolc, the ancient festival marking the beginning of Spring and coming up around 2nd of February. Which, realistically, is yet a long way off here in Norway! The unusually mild winter thus far has certainly confused the plant life. I will keep an eye out for heartening signs on my walks over the next weeks.
So to the last recommended book on my pile. I’ve spoken before of my fascination with words strange and new to me, and their origins. A Word for Every Day of the Year, by Steven Poole, was clearly meant to come and join my collection. Today’s word is Ouphe. Meaning – an elf or goblin, rooted in the Old Norse alfr (elf). This in turn came to mean a changeling, or dimwitted person, and finally – oaf. Interesting. And thus I get to learn at least one new thing each day.
Recently I came across another Scots saying – I’m as fit as a lop (a flea). I recognised the origin of this word in Norse again – loppe is flea. I really enjoy metaphorically turning over stones and finding what lurks underneath. Being a word detective, I suppose!
Of formal “New Year resolutions” there were none in this household. None that I’m aware of. I can’t speak for Max. Naturally though – and informally – a few thoughts were marshalled into order as the wheel of the year turned. Mostly along the lines of avoiding temptation of the caloried kind, trying new walks, new things. It basically distilled down into the following: Be curious. Do better. And – vital advice for writing, from Messrs MacBride and Guthrie – Don’t be boring!