It seems unlikely that early Christians picked January 6th – Epiphany – solely to mark the day we can take the Christmas decorations down, but how jolly useful of them to have set up a date that can act as a watershed. Before it, celebrations marked by reds and golds, noise and laughter, feasts and cheerful over-doing it; after, a clearing-back to simplicity, calm and quiet. January is the time when even the most cluttered of us find ourselves drawn to a little minimalism, when we can enjoy the sight of a windowsill or chimneypiece untrammelled by cards. A single hyacinth growing in its glass is all the decoration we need as the days begin, almost imperceptibly at first, to lengthen. And now is the time for the lovely peacefulness of evenings by the fire, reading.
Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t call them kings or wise men and doesn’t say how many of them there were (the most plausible translation, should you be interested, seems to be that they were Zoroastrians – giving rise to a pleasingly frivolous vision of Freddie Mercury pitching up at the stable), but the chaps who followed the star set a precedent for Good Guest behaviour by bringing presents. And, should your tastes or your budget not run to gold, frankincense and myrrh, be of good cheer, because books make the best presents (although if you hanker after frankincense, try a bottle of Tauer’s scent, L’Air du Desert Marocain). Now is the first time since Christmas when we have breathing space to sit down and properly read, rather than flick through, all those gorgeous books lovely people gave us. As well as a stocking-full of vintage Ladybird books, which are becoming a slight obsession of mine, I have the chance to get ahead on at least one anniversary being marked in 2015, thanks to a well-loved nephew and niece and their thoughtful choice of Dan Jones’s Magna Carta as a brilliant present. I am already absorbed in this clear study of how the Charter came about, what happened to it and why it is important. As a consequence, the New Year’s Resolution you will be most pleased to hear about is a determination not to emulate the Wedding Guest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and stop one in three to share my newly-acquired fascinating insights (I’ll let you know how successful I am with keeping that resolution).
And I have Monty Don’s Gardening at Longmeadow to enjoy through the year as well. Compellingly written and the perfect blend of discussion, reflection and instruction that puts Don in the same (premier) league as Christopher Lloyd. The catalogues for spring-planted bulbs have started to arrive as well, encouraging a lot of armchair gardening which is, as you know, so much less of a physical and financial drain than the other kind. Now might be a good moment for some more reading about gardens, though: Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst: an Unfinished History, of course, and Philippa Gregory’s two novels about the Tradescant father and son, Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth. I have not read Elizabeth Buchan’s Consider the Lily, but judging from the reviews that might well be my loss and one for the Books To Look Out For list. Oh, and we can have poetry too: Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’, which, if you happen to be unfamiliar with it, you are simply going to have to pop off and read, now that I tell you it seems not to be possible to mention it on the internet without adding the rather crushing phrase ‘one of the most famous poems’ (admittedly they tend to qualify this with ‘of the seventeenth century’, but still, you wouldn’t want to feel left out, would you?). And how about Thom Gunn’s ‘The Garden of the Gods’? And if that gets you reading all of Thom Gunn, well, hurray, and you can thank me later.
While we wait … and wait … for snow, I can at least re-read the splendid snowiness of Dorothy L Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Or – pleasure of all pleasures – revisit Italo Calvino’s playful and mesmerising If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller (Se Una Notte d’Inverno un Viaggatore, but I can’t read Italian, and am lucky to have William Weaver’s assured translation). And if you, like me, enjoy this, that’s 2015 sorted, because you simply must get round to reading Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. You do not need me to remind you of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods One Snowy Evening’ because it stays in the heart of everyone who comes across it, but there is a chance you haven’t read Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, Walt Whitman’s ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’ or Thomas Campion’s ‘Now Winter Nights Enlarge’.
While you sit contentedly – oh, and how that lovely word reminds me that now is the time to re-read The Wind in the Willows – book in hand, by all means make resolutions, but make them things to read, not vile self-hating and dreary weight-loss goals. Here, as a New Year’s present to you, are three suggestions. Read something by Charles Dickens. It took me far too many years to realise that there is a reason why he is so famous, and the reason is the very simple one that he is an utterly fabulous writer. So there’s gold for you. Second: read something in translation from a different culture and tradition – the exoticism of frankincense, if you will. For me, that’s going to be Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. And finally, some myrrh. The Balm of Gilead is known for its soothing, healing properties and is beginning to look like the latest wonder-drug from cholesterol-busting to cancer-combatting. Quite a challenge; a book to soothe and console, cure and heal. That’ll be Shakespeare, then. Happy New Year.