Floods, rain, snow, wind, oriental viruses – is February the most dismal month of the year or what? Yes, the climate always takes a turn for the worst once autumn morphs into winter; but December receives a bye on account of Christmas; January gets a relatively easy ride because it’s a clean slate and all the good people enter it on a wave of over-optimistic resolutions; March may still be prone to the occasional biting breeze, but there are indications of spring scattered around that hint at better days to come; yet February is wedged in-between – a dull, dark, dreary nothing of a month that had to buy the sponsorship of St Valentine and give itself an extra day every four years just to make it seem interesting. When it comes to the twelve-month calendar, February is the spiritual soulmate of a day like Tuesday or a county like Bedfordshire.

The novelty of February 29 retains a certain intriguing quality purely on account of it only appearing at four-yearly intervals. Those born when it falls find themselves in the strange position of only being able to celebrate their ‘real’ birthday every leap year, which means they can justify being rather flexible when having to declare how old they are. Had I myself been born on the nearest February 29 to my actual date of birth, I’d be celebrating my thirteenth birthday in 2020. And whilst such an anomaly could be viewed as a canny (if futile) ‘get out of jail’ card for an opportunistic paedophile, I guess it’s the nearest thing the Gregorian calendar has to ‘showbiz years’. However, the whole concept of a leap year seems to be best embodied in February and its extra day, which gives a month with so little to shout one of its few notable distinctions.

Most countries seem to work around potentially problematic issues thrown up by February 29 by declaring March 1 to be the legal date anyone born on February’s extra day would be recognised as turning 18, for example. Mind you, if one was to be rigid about it, what a quite appealing thing it would be to only have to celebrate a birthday every four years. For those of us who dread the annual approach of that day when we’re reminded of everything we’ve failed to achieve in the past twelve months, only having to endure it every time the Olympics comes around might actually make it feel as special as we’re constantly pressurised into pretending it is once a year. A pity the day we’re born is one of the few aspects of who we are that we can’t control or change – though I’ve no doubt the Labour Party leadership contenders are planning to propose ‘self-identified birthday rights’ as we speak.

The roots of this aberration in the calendar lie in the inconvenient fact that a complete revolution by the earth around the sun takes six hours longer than a nice, neat 365 days. The gradual accumulation of an additional 24 hours within four years therefore necessitates an extra day being added to the calendar to prevent the eventual order of the seasons being thrown into disarray. The Ancient Greeks and the Romans, who were quite a clever lot, worked all this out and incorporated it into their respective calendars, those from which our own slowly developed. The most significant change since then came in 1582, with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar as an attempt to correct perceived faults in the Julian calendar; although immediately adopted by most Catholic countries in Western Europe it was slow to catch on globally.

Britain and its colonies didn’t convert to the Gregorian calendar until 1752; doing so necessitated the undeniably strange process of having to bypass almost two whole weeks – the most extreme example of putting the clocks forward in history. Essentially, Wednesday 2 September that year was followed by Thursday 14 September, a move which brought the British Empire into line with the major European powers excepting Russia, which didn’t drop the Julian calendar until as late as 1918; this means, for example, that any study of the Napoleonic Wars from a Russian perspective requires the use of ‘Old Style’ and ‘New Style’ dates in order that the scholar doesn’t become confused. Mind you, I guess it must have been awkward arranging international dates in advance when there were two competing calendars which were separated by weeks…
‘Where were you? I waited for three days and you never showed up!’
‘Sorry, I thought we were using the Julian calendar.’

Interestingly, the presence of Valentine’s Day in the middle of February – the day that means a lot when you receive a card and is downgraded to a crass commercial con when you don’t – is echoed on February 29 in some cultures via the tradition of ‘Bachelor’s Day’. This is loosely observed in the UK and Ireland, and is a twist on that cringe-inducing stunt in which narcissistic dicks embarrassingly propose to their girlfriends in public places, pressurising their intended into accepting when a gawping crowd demands a specific outcome. In this case, the roles are reversed and it is the woman who has ‘the right’ to propose; an additional incentive for the woman is that if the man turns her down, he is obliged to financially compensate her. It goes without saying this ritual is now seized upon every four years as nauseating filler by regional news magazine programmes and daytime television. A four-year gap at least spares viewers something.

Oddly, not many household names or people of distinction were born on February 29. Looking through a list, the only one who stood out for me was actor Joss Ackland (b. 1928), a man in possession of central-heated vocal chords that must have made him a fortune in TV ad voiceovers for decades. It’s a similar situation when it comes to those who died on February 29. Monkee Davy Jones passed away on that day in 2012, though it was interesting to note Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer in 2011, was hanged by the Islamabad authorities on February 29 2016 in order to prevent his supporters from annually marking the anniversary of his execution.

I suppose an extra day on the calendar once every four years remains such an oddity that one can’t help but wonder what it would be like to have a permanent extra day of the week – though given how many excessive hours Brits already work in comparison to their continental cousins, it’s a wonder it hasn’t been introduced. One feels such a day wouldn’t sit between Saturday and Sunday as an additional 24 hours of relaxation, but would probably be lodged between Wednesday and Thursday as an extension of the working week. In the Year Zero revamp that followed the 1789 French Revolution, attempts to develop a secular republic accompanied a desire to ‘decimalise’ the calendar along with currency and the number of hours in the day. A week was extended to ten days, though even this radical approach to redrawing everything still included an extra day every leap year.

So, this most miserable of months has one more further 24 hours of cold, wet ‘n’ windy drudgery to endure than it had in 2019, ’18 and ’17, and then we hit March. There probably won’t be any immediately noticeable change in the air, but at least it won’t be February anymore.

© The Editor


erosWhen John Lydon once declared ‘anger is an energy’, he had a point; anger is certainly a creatively fruitful source of motivation when it comes to writing so much. Few emotions can inspire a hammering of the keyboard in quite the same way, it has to be said; but shall we have a day-off and talk about something nice for a change? This year so far has naturally carried on where 2016 left off, and most of the stories to make the headlines and thus provoke posts on here have hardly celebrated the joy of life. Was there ever a time when the news wasn’t doom ‘n’ gloom? Bar the odd occasion, probably not. But today I proclaim a 24-hour armistice on Brexit and Trump and instead present a post that coincidentally happens to fall on February 14th. Okay, so it’s an obvious cash-in, but not entirely unwelcome.

Writing about things one loves, as opposed to hates, is easier than it sounds. Sure, well over half of the songs ever penned have been an ode to an object of desire, though they tend to work best when said object is unattainable or has so far proved impervious to the author’s desperate entreaties. Songs that sing of domestic harmony and mutual understanding between two people when the thrill of the chase is over tend to veer towards the twee and nauseating; and it’s also telling that many of the greatest love songs emanate from the end of an affair, whether heartbreakingly melancholy or spectacularly bitter.

Avoiding melancholia and bitterness narrows the field and risks heading in a direction that should really provide free sick buckets en route; therefore, I am steering an extremely delicate course here and will do my utmost to prevent the wheel from taking us to Vomit City.

So, what do you love? What makes you feel warm inside, lighting a soothing internal flame as though you’d just ingested a bowl of chocolate Ready Brek on a chilly, misty morning as a momentary respite from the dread of venturing out into the dim, dank day with an icy classroom as your destination? It’s something one has to think long and hard about, just as listing one’s most detested records is a simpler task than compiling a mere eight Desert Island Discs that one loves above all others. The seemingly never-ending run of a TV programme such as ‘Room 101’, as well as its one-time competitors like ‘Grumpy Old Men’, show how venting one’s spleen comes so easy whereas the opposite requires a little more contemplation.

As far as the most basic sensations go, then of course it’s hard to beat that outdoor stroll when spring has surfaced for the first moment of the year. Winter’s main drawback for me is not so much the cold or the lousy weather – more the way everything looks drained of life, with the bare trees, the hard ground, the absence of flowers, and most of the day resembling the middle of the night. When spring hits, somebody switches the daylight on again and we’re striding through a landscape straight out of a Ladybird book, like the transition when Dorothy leaves monochrome Kansas and arrives in Technicolor Oz.

Conversely, I also embrace the autumn. For many, it is a depressing curtailment of summer; for me, it is one last glorious hurrah of rich, deep colour injected into the landscape and a dash back to the hearth with the anticipation of a warm meal. These sensations take root in childhood and tend to remain there even when the surroundings change, though this has now been extended into a cottage industry. Recently, there has been a rare incursion of a Scandinavian word into the English language that has been on the tip of trendy tongues over the last twelve months – Hygge.

In case it’s passed you by, Hygge has become the latest publishing fad, with several books of less substance than the coffee-tables they were designed to rest upon rush-released to cash-in on the craze before it burns itself out. Hygge emanates from Denmark and seems to be summed-up as a retreat back to a pre-electronic world of simple uncomplicated pleasures – candles, open fires, reading a book, walking the dog, and generally chilling out in a smug New Age Nirvana. Hygge shouldn’t naturally lead to cynicism, but it smells too much like a pre-prepared diet associated with the kind of people who tend not to appeal to one’s best instincts. Package a mood for mass consumption and you kill it. Few sounds put me at ease more than the contented purr of a cat in my lap, but the fact that you can’t bottle and sell it keeps it precious.

Other serene sedatives for me include the speaking voice of Oliver Postgate and the singing voice of Sandy Denny; but not all the things I love lull me into seductive torpor. Who (at least over a certain age) doesn’t enjoy the occasional four-minute air-guitar indulgence behind closed doors? For me, few provide better work-outs on the invisible fret-board than ‘Hocus Pocus’ by legendary fuzzy Dutch Prog-rockers Focus; but I’m sure you all have your own personal favourites. I also used to love spinning the likes of Bizarre Inc, Altern-8, The Prodigy and numerous others when I felt like staging an indoor Rave with an audience of one back in the day – the day being roundabout 1991; releases a fair bit of ‘positive’ energy when you can leap around like a lunatic for a bit – in moderation and with due consideration for one’s neighbours, of course.

What else? I love a cigarette (or 40), as regulars will be aware; and I love a glass of Scotch-on-the-rocks as a liquid accompaniment, just like all those Real Men used to in ‘The Professionals’. I love a bottle of wine with a good meal, though the good meal is a pleasure more sparing in my schedule, usually once-a-week. Snacks were basically made with me in mind. I love a good book as well – something that was an early passion and then lapsed for a shameful decadent decade or so before I got my arse in gear and decided the best way to conquer my voluntary illiteracy was to devour the library of nineteenth century classics.

I love Larry David and the way he can make me laugh like few others have these past ten years, and I love the elegant brushstrokes of Thomas Gainsborough, the stark black & white French and English cinema of the early 60s, architecture from the Georgian to Art Deco, British history from the Civil War to the Second World War, the aesthetic beauty of a dress cut by Ossie Clark, and – to quote the late, great Jake Thackray – I love a good bum on a woman, it makes my day. No, this isn’t me applying for a dating agency, though I know it’s beginning to sound that way. So I shall call time on this brief interlude between the grimness we’ve become accustomed to and leave the floor clear for you and your loves. That wasn’t too painful, was it?

© The Editor