Although the brisk and chilly days of February and March are still ahead, January is on the right side of the winter solstice. The darkest, longest days of winter were packed away with the tinsel and fairy lights and by the end of the month the light is stretching until teatime and the birds are still singing at 5pm.
January can seem like a harsh month. Indeed, this might well be the reason that the Scots Gaelic for January is Faoilleach or “wolf”. And yet, there is a fresh emptiness to January that I have always appreciated. By the end of December everything reaches an almost psychedelic level of hectic craziness. Despite the long dark days, everything seems to be on exhausting fast forward. But with the new year, dawns potential. It is like a long and refreshing drink of ice-cold water after the richness and overindulgence of the previous month.
Having finally got through the hateful infinitus shopping list that I wrote on the 1st November and didn’t reach the end of until the 24th December, and having managed to extricate myself from the endless cleaning vortex caused by having so many people over to the house over the festive season, the calendar is refreshingly free. As so often the case, a trip to Ikea beckons.
Ikea’s founder Ingvar Kamprad died in January 2018, at the age of 91. He founded Ikea at the age of 17 using some money his father had given him as a gift for performing well at school despite his dyslexia. He worked until the very end of his life, staying true to his own motto that most things remain to be done. Perhaps as a result of this busy optimism, a trip to the flat-pack palace always cheers.
When the renovation at Thompson Towers reached its concluding stages we were rarely away from the blue and yellow mecca. Even Beloved’s natural flat-pack sympathies were severely tested by the time he reached cardboard box number 83 of 125. In the midst of this flurry of home improvement I attempted to install cabinet lighting in the lady sanctuary. It turned out to be an unexpectedly lengthy undertaking.
The first time I brought home a light which had looked remarkably similar to the three I had already brought from our previous house. Once unwrapped, however, it turned out to be completely different . “No harm no foul,” I thought as I cheerfully exchanged it for the correct one on my next weekly visit. When I tried for the second time to fit the lights I realised I must still be missing a vital connector as I still couldn’t seem to plug it in.
Back to the shop I trekked, more irritably this time. Having evolved from my previous visit I brought the 15 packets of connecting elements I already had and sought the help of an assistant to help me find the missing piece. On return home I tried for the third time to mount the light over my desk. It still wouldn’t work. If anything, every time I introduced a new element it simply made the chain of electrical components longer and yet simultaneously farther away from the goal. Soon I would have cabling that would easily stretch to the Easons on Lower Main Street but still could not actually switch it on. I was beginning to wonder if it I who was the missing link.
After the third fruitless attempt I succumbed to a terrific loss of temper. All the bits were bundled into a box in mid-September and put into the black hole under the stairs where I couldn’t see them any more. Out of sight, out of mind.
But now it was the New Year. New starts were abounding. Maybe it was time to tackle the lighting algorithm once again. Apart from anything else I was fed up sitting in a dark pool of my own shadow any time I tried to use the desk.
Summoning all my grace and patience I once again made the journey to the land of Scandic dreams.
Me: “Could you help me please? I am trying to assemble this cabinet light and no matter what I do I never seem to have all the correct pieces.”
Assistant: “Do you have the two Flokkkk pieces?”
Assistant: “What about Plomph? Do you have it?”
Me: “Oh yes. I didn’t at first but then I got it the last time I was here.”
Assistant: “What about Dekkksranbard? You know you need two of those? One male, one female?”
Me: “Yes. Yes. I found that out the second time I tried to sort it out.”
Assistant: “Well, as far as I can see you have everything you need.”
Me: “But I don’t. Every time I try to put it together, everything connects up but then there seems to be a bit missing between Plomph and Flokkk. I bought both Dekkksranbard bits to fill the space but it still doesn’t work. The cabling is 17 metres long now but I still can’t plug it into the wall.”
Assistant: “Which light do you have?”
Assistant: “What? Not Dfraf?”
Me: “Nope. It’s definitely Flettwrongsittenzen”
Assistant: “Ah right, well, that’s a different matter then. You don’t need any of that other stuff at all. You just need a plug. Here it is. Plogg. £1.99. Job done.”
DIY aside, thankfully January also brings the beginning of Spring Watch at Thompson Towers. No sooner have the decorations been wedged back in the attic for another year than I begin to get the twitch. Early exploration of the garden just after Christmas reveals the beginnings of new life amongst the deadness. The bulbs I planted in October are pressing through the soil in earnest and are gratifyingly spotted in places I had forgotten I had planted them.
The chief of all of these is the snowdrop. Appropriately called “Galanthus” or milk flower, its starry blooms brighten up the darkest forgotten corners of the garden and remind us of the joys to come as spring steadily advances. For such a diminutive flower it inspires great passion. Surprisingly, it is not native to the UK. Earliest records of its cultivation are from the 1770s. Just under a hundred years later, at the height of the Crimean War in 1855, Snowdrops began to carpet the ground and revived the spirits of the troops who were at the point of collapse after struggling to survive a freezing cold winter with insufficient food or warm clothing. Thus, just as the poppy became a powerful symbol during the First Word War, the Snowdrop became an emblem for the earlier conflict. Many specimens were brought back by soldiers fighting around Sevastopol at the time and the flower began to known as the “Star of Hope”. The 1880s marked the beginning in earnest of the collection and swapping of tips and information regarding the species amongst plantsmen and women who began to be known as galanthophiles.
The gardening world is full of such passionate collectors and breeders of particular varieties, the all-consuming pursuit of which soon becomes their life-long mission. In December 2018 we lost one of these great pioneers, and like Ingvar Kamprad, he was another nonagenarian. Anyone who loves to garden will know the name David Austin: a badge of quality in the world of roses. I have plenty of passion, for what is in fact my favourite flower, but not very much real skill and so I have always appreciated the fact that his do not immediately succumb to some mysterious blight and promptly shrivel up and pop their clogs within three weeks of planting. They seem to survive despite of, rather than because of, my ministrations.
David Austin’s company introduced over 190 new rose cultivars during his 50 years in the business and this won him international acclaim for his contribution to horticulture. He died in December 2018 aged 92. In the days following his death his family, who now continue to run the business in his name, were overwhelmed by the thousands of tributes, from rose-lovers both near and far, that quickly and unexpectedly flooded their social media pages. These comments were full of love and appreciation for the man and his work, and many included pictures of beloved Austin Roses flourishing in the contributor’s own gardens in every corner of the world. It turned out, that in the world of horticulture, David Austin was an absolute rock star.
Gertrude Jekyll said, “The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies.” My own plot is small but that fact couldn’t be more irrelevant. Gardening is not about quantity. It is not about acquisition. It is about sinking your hands into the earth, it is about the privilege of watching nature up close, it is about observing the seasons slipping from one into the other. It is noticing the shortening of the shadows as the sun climbs high in the sky until its very zenith in the height of mid-summer and then watching it beginning to fall back down through the trees in the golden days of autumn. It is about dumping all your anxieties and concerns in a forgotten heap on the back doorstep at the exact moment you edge into your wellies and step out into your own little kingdom, trowel in hand.
It is about taking part in something much much bigger than you, something forgiving and eternal, something made new each and every spring, something uniquely able to help heal your soul in your most broken times. David Austin knew it. I know it. And at the beginning of a whole new year of gardening I hope 2019 is the year you begin to know it too. Happy New Year!
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