Keep calm and idle on, says Tom Hodgkinson
In the olden days, January was all about staying in by the fire, doing very little and eating a lot, so perhaps we should not be excessively depressed by the new lockdown. The word January is derived from the name of the ancient two-headed god Janus, who was often depicted on medieval calendars, one head looking back to the year just gone, and the other looking ahead.
Alexander Pope referred to the tradition in a letter in 1712, bemoaning his confinement during, I guess, the Christmas holiday, due to illness:
“I am just the reverse of this Spirit and Life, confin’d to a narrow Closet, lolling on an arm chair, nodding away my days over a fire, like the picture of January in an old Salisbury Primer.”
So let’s make this January a time for lolling on armchairs and nodding by the fire, and get through the next few weeks in a state of semi-hibernation. I’ve just ordered a stack of dry logs which we’ll store in the backyard and which should keep our fire going for a couple of months. Along with a few crates of Sharp’s Doom Bar and a pile of books, we should be OK.
I’ve also got a new annoying lockdown habit with which to torment my family: reading poetry aloud. I’ve moved on to this pastime following a storm of protests at my baroque ukulele playing. My friend Sir Timothy Ackroyd, who presents our Idler Academy online course on elocution, is giving me some lessons in reading aloud or what you might call rhetoric, and he insists I practise at home. So it is that at dinner time I subject my groaning family members to recitations of Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, Diary of a Church Mouse by John Betjeman and Sea Fever by John Masefield (which perhaps inspired Night Fever by the Bee Gees). Sir Tim encourages me to imagine the scenes I am describing in my mind and one piece of homework was to paint a picture of woods on a snowy evening. Sir T was quite impressed by my daub.
In this way I have found that I can make myself reasonably happy in lockdown, even if my happiness is bought at the expense of my family’s wellbeing.
So let’s get the fire going and the drink flowing, turn the news off and open a book. We can get through the next couple of months together without succumbing to misery.
These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your thoughts.
Love your letter from Idler Towers as always. It reminds me that since Janus is the god of portals and doorways, the people we know as janitors are not mere custodians, but earthly representatives of Janus. How lovely, and how important to remember and respect that role.
Perhaps reading Philip Larkin’s poem ‘This be the verse’ to your family would be more apt, given their annoyance?
Best email I’ve read all day amidst a sea of online work. Will try and read some of those poems. Looking forward to the drinks starting again, it’s a real marker for the end of the week for me. Perhaps you could read a poem aloud to us on Idler drinks?
Your emails brighten even the darkest lockdown days Tom. Thank you for helping me to remember what life is really about.
I do not normally reply to emails that drop within my Promotions inbox, but I couldn’t help myself here. I simply would like to say thank you, as this is such a lovely message and such a warming, positive read. I will read the poems by the warm radiator (as we don’t have a fire!!!).