Sunday, 4 January 2009

Shivering into a new world.

Well we made it, safely into the New Year I mean. This time round Britain had to wait a little longer for the champagne corks to pop as an extra second was added to the old year in response to a set of calculations too abstruse to concern us here.

The method by which this was done though should appeal to anyone with a fondness for British ingenuity and eccentricity, the simply added a few more old style pennies to the pendulum of Big Ben. High tech; who needs it?

For those hardy souls waiting in Trafalgar Square or the centre of any other major city to see in 2009 it must have been a bitterly cold evening and, for the even hardier souls filmed by news programmes with little else to cover celebrating New Year’s Day by swimming in the frigid waters of the Serpentine or the sea off Brighton. I salute their bravery in the face of the worst the weather can throw at them whilst also questioning their sanity.

This looks like being a boom time for such lunatics as we enter the coldest January since records began, a news story that managed to drive both the economic crisis and the latest war in the Middle East off the front pages last week, giving, for anyone seeking it, further evidence of the famous British obsession with the weather. After all in few other countries could a television weather forecaster have a higher public profile than a member of the cabinet.

Being obsessed with the weather doesn’t, of course, mean that the British are prepared for it, which would involve abandoning our cherished pose of cheerful amateurism in favour of forward planning. Over the next couple of weeks the newspapers, mourning perhaps the absence of their favourite targets for scorn, politicians of all stripes, will be filled with lurid articles and incredulous editorials aimed at council managers from Land’s End to John O’ Groats who have been so unwise as to get caught out by the fact that it often turns cold during the winter.

This is, of course, going to be a cold new year for altogether more serious reasons, as demonstrated by two stark statistics picked up by every newspaper in the land, experts predict that by the end of the year some 600,000 more people will have lost their jobs and that one in ten shops on the high street will be standing empty.

This sets up a particularly queasy contrast with an image that has dominated the television news reports since Christmas, that of bargain hunters storming the January sales, most of which began in December this year, like an army of gatecrashers storming the last big party before the bad times start to roll.

The Chinese, I am told, have a favourite curse, it runs as follows, may you live in interesting times, for interesting read uncertain and alarming; ours then are certainly interesting times.

Lest we become too gloomy about the year before it has even begun we should, perhaps, draw a little comfort from the performance of Britain’s Olympians which lit up last autumn. They came through with the goods again as a discontented winter puts its head down and makes a dash for a disillusioned spring making the New Year’s Honours list into a triumphant pageant instead of the usual celebration of dutiful mediocrity.

One of their number the gold medal winning cyclist Chris, now Sir Chris, Hoy gave to posterity a quote that expressed both his modesty and a proper disdain for the hubris that is in part behind the troubles currently besetting the world.

He said: ‘when Chris Hoy starts to talk about Chris Hoy in the third person, then Chris Hoy will have disappeared up his own backside.’

Arise with honour Sir Chris Hoy, the newest and perhaps the shrewdest of all the knights in the service of this wintry kingdom.

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