Ingrained in the deepest reaches of my mind sits recollection of a January. Far beyond yesterday’s shopping list is a picture of a crisp clear day on high moorland. Icy cracks and crevices, like fissures of diamond, bond the huge granite boulders thrust up from the core of the Earth. Shallow pools of water are sealed with glass, only splintered with a daring footstep as satisfying as a spoon piercing a Crème Brûlée. Encased in a padding of jumpers and scarves and jackets and gloves, the wind nonetheless manages to lash the face and penetrate the body. Feet lose feeling, yet the rest of the body is invigorated. And as rosiness returns in front of an open fire, like the cold the memories fade, lost again, floating around somewhere amongst the numerous pithy sentences that would undoubtedly make a great book if somehow I could wed them to a narrative.
On the other side of the world, below the equator and quite a bit east, the tilt of the Earth has conspired to produce utopian conditions for flies, ants and mosquitoes. All seem rather attracted to me. As a quest to receive more invites to fancy barbecues and opulent garden parties I may well advertise as a portable insect attractor. Like one of those electric zappers, but with the added bonus of being able to serve drinks, cook meats and deliver witty anecdotes and sarcastic put-downs disguised as sarcasm but quite possibly not. I may well call this emerging enterprise that has literally emerged in the last few minutes, Aussie Mozzie Boy. He takes the angst out of ants.
Here in January a heat hovers and the thought of wearing anything other than shorts ever again seems quite ludicrous. It actually becomes too hot, and the parade of once-sturdy Agapanthus begins to wither, much like a Scotsman on a Melbourne tennis court awarded a succession of daytime matches in the hope of providing another sporting spectacle; that of reddening skin and dehydrated muttering, and a pile of towels so soaked in sweat they could water the vines in the Yarra Valley for the remainder of the year.
The concept of being too hot seems alien, even though it is a frequent ill-informed complaint of an Englishman in an English summer. I once heard a particularly toasty day – the kind accompanied by a generous north-westerly transporting dust and ash and smoke and flies – described in charming vernacular as a “stinker”. And too bloody right mate. But this idea, that a hot sunny day can really suck, is perverse to an English soul. Now, if it was gloomy and dank and dreary and accompanied by drizzle at around three degrees Celsius, then I would expect that to qualify as a stinker, and I would have probably revelled in as much. Once. But now I am a soft-skinned insect allurer who may start to feel a little chilly in the legs at a garden party once the sun has set and the blood extraction procedure ramps up.
And so we note the theme of contrasts, which is not in the least bit surprising and not at all likely to be recurrent in the context of Australia and England. You say tamaaarhda, I say towmartoe, innit. Seasonality has produced an affectation of difference in January north and south, but what of that which ties us together? A new calendar, a new year; a clean slate, a fresh page; a resolve to set goals and stride into the year with purpose; and an inevitability that most of us will – at best – be only partially successful. Rated emerging or promising, but never strongly supported.
January is the month of resolutions, from revolutions to evolutions and aspirations about dedications to somehow become superlative. As if you weren’t pretty damn fine in the first place, you endeavour to eat less cake, drink less beer, replace a cigarette with some Lycra and set some vague but worthy ‘life goals’. Inspired but daunted you cope with such change by eating more chocolate, drinking more wine, slowly jogging past the dodgy youth to inhale some suspicious-smelling haze hovering overhead, and revel in the ambiguity of those vague aims for life which can be almost unendingly put off for another time. I say you, but I could easily mean I.
I have nothing against New Year’s resolutions and annual goals, despite being someone who displays a comfortable inadequacy over such gestures. I make them, but in a very hazy manner. Yeah, I intend this year to you know just go with the flow and take opportunities as they come and, yeah, maybe go on a trip somewhere, depending on what the work situation is like, and hinging on some other stuff and things that pan out.
My goals are, in business parlance, far from SMART. But how many of us, unless in the industry of setting crude financial objectives which involve fleecing $200 million out of customers’ superannuation funds by October 2015, are able to set genuine SMART goals? I always struggled with this goal-setting process in the corporate world. I think my main problem was that if I was to be honest and list my genuine goals for work it would be somewhat out of sync with that expected: This year, I would like to make enough money to live comfortably for doing as little work as possible and avoid any responsibility or decision-making unless it enhances my long-term objective of sitting by a pool being fanned with palm fronds by statuesque goddesses immodestly attired. What should of course be spouting out of my mouth in such situations is something about client-centric fulfilment, strategic interactive opportunities for streamlined co-delivery, and some gigantic revenue target to make the overseas shareholders one hundred times richer than they already are. This last one would be implicit across everything if not always overtly stated as such.
Anyway, this has little to do with January as most work goal-setting episodes tend to take place one month before you have to achieve them…so something like November. But we do have our personal resolutions to uphold, made in an alcohol-induced glow in the wee hours of the first day of the year and foolishly blurted out to bystanders in an attempt to make it look like you do have some appetite for self-improvement. Unfortunately, we also choose to do this in January.
In cooling, northern hemispheres, this is akin to climbing a very steep mountain in a blizzard while wearing flip flops and nursing a humungous hangover. Picture the eighth of January for example. The coloured lights of Christmas are but a distant blur and all that remains from the festivities are the dregs of Aunt Agatha’s sherry and a box of those Danish butter biscuits, destined to be re-gifted. You left for work and came home in the dark. In between, the darkness cheerily lifted to a dense drizzly grey. Despite looking innocuous this soaked your new jacket as you popped out from staring at spreadsheets to get a forlorn-looking cheese and onion sandwich from Tesco. Still damp in the evening, it takes you two hours to get home on a congested train because even the points don’t see the point anymore. And for dinner: half a lettuce and a rice cake, followed by a run in the graveyard. All because you made those resolutions.
So unless your aim is to get as depressed as quickly as possible and accumulate a colony of a new species of mould on your clothes, there is a high likelihood that, come February, you’ll be back chuffing away on 40 a day and eating KFC for breakfast. Because how else are you going to make it though this? In Australia, by contrast, again, there is at least some logic to attempting self-improvement in January. The weather is good, fresh fruit and salads are de rigueur, and practically everyone else you see is glowing in an unbelievably self-contented halo of white teeth and good skin. But here, the slippage into obesity and alcoholism that commenced with Christmas lingers through January and into the next month as a constant companion. It is a protracted holiday season, a period in which it is too hot to exercise with any conviction and the beer is too cold to avoid. Resolutions are easily swayed and as enthusiastically broken as the heads of the succulent tiger prawns drawn en masse from The Pacific.
So, in semi-conclusion, is January really the best time to start afresh, a clean slate for setting aspirations and committing to arduous goals? I’d say no, but you would be justified in hypothesising that I would say this for any month of any year. You’d also be justified in accusing me of downright hypocrisy if you take into account the context in which all the above words have been written. I’d call it poetic licence, but lacking much in the way of anything poetic.
So, in an attempt to address this deficiency let me transport you to the Australian high country. January is still in its infancy and here the skies are a deeper blue, the air more comfortable in which to linger. The clear waters of the Snowy River meander in shallow pools and trickling cascades, bridged by a chain of irregular stepping stones. The walk to Australia’s highest point is well-frequented, but the expanse of open moorland and unending skies projects an excess of space. Leftover Christmas food can still be embraced overlooking a small, still tarn. Winding up to the summit, like the coiling of a Swiss railway conquering a pass, countless ridges and folds of land concertina their way toward the horizon. At 2,288 metres, you reach the top of Australia, Mount Kosciuszko. A new year, commenced on a high.
The cynics amongst you (me included) might then say, “Well, it’s all downhill from here!” But to me, there is something innately appealing about climbing a mountain at the start of the year. The concept of the fresh start is realised through the open vistas, the pure air, and the blank canvas of the fairly indistinguishable landscape of the Australian high country. There is a goal, real and tangible, I daresay even SMART. And then there is the achievement of reaching that goal, and being rewarded for it solely by the beauty and solace of nature. In my eyes, a reward that beats that excuse for a performance related bonus you received at work last year.
So in January, forget cutting back on the cream cakes and fretting about what you are supposed to achieve in the forthcoming year. Just go climb a sun-kissed mountain or tackle an ice-racked tor. The rest of the year will then be a doddle.
For more mountainous inspiration in January or beyond, check out my gallery of various high points near and far