Folk song favourites: The January Man

So, it’s January again. We’ve been here before, right? You know what I mean, January’s the time for new beginnings. It’s out with the old, in with the new. The time to finally do the things we’ve always dreamed of doing, and to stop doing the other stuff, the stuff that no longer fulfils and leaves us instead with that sad, damp feeling of regret. This year, we tell ourselves, things will be different.

Only they won’t, will they?

Time is simultaneously both linear and cyclical. My receding hairline and aching joints testify to time’s linear incarnation. They are all in worse shape than they were 12 months ago, and the downward spiral will inevitably continue.

Milky Bar in January, waiting patiently for the return of the insects

But time is also cyclical, Our seasons come and go, predictable and reassuring. I don’t much like winter, but at least I know what to expect. Winters in my part of the UK are cool and dull. Often windy, sometimes foggy-damp, occasionally snowy, invariably miserable. The days are too short, the nights way, way too long. But the best thing about winter is that it doesn’t last forever. Even when conditions are at their bleakest we know for sure that better times are just around the corner, when there will once again be insects for Milky Bar to chase.

Folk music has its origins in the pre-industrial age, when rural populations were closer to the changing of the seasons than most of us are today. The seasons could not be escaped, and had to be respected. Traditional folk singers, and their more contemporary successors, therefore frequently reflected on the seasons in their lyrics.

Which brings me, finally, to The January Man. This contemporary folk song was written in the traditional style by Dave Goulder (b. 1939) who was, coincidentally, born in my home county of Derbyshire. Dave’s song captures perfectly and poignantly the way in which the seasons shape our lives. It is a magnificent piece, and exemplifies the folk music genre at its very best. You can read the lyrics here.

Like all the best folk songs, The January Man has been covered by numerous performers, including Christy Moore, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, Rachel Unthank, Siobhan Miller and Mike Harding. You can track them all down on YouTube.

This one is by Steeleye Span, an English folk rock band formed in 1969 and still performing today with a rather different line-up. The link below is to a version recorded on the band’s 50th anniversary tour in 2019! Steeleye were an important part of the British folk revival. Their early albums graced the record collections of many wistful, long-haired, wannabe hippies…including the Platypus Man, way back in the days when he still had hair. So, to celebrate the New Year, why not treat yourself to 4 minutes and 47 seconds of magical folk music by clicking on the link below. Happy New Year, everyone!

Postscript

The final paragraphs of this post have been re-drafted following a tip-off a few hours after publication from my blogging buddy Laurie Graves of Notes from the Hinterland. Laurie advised me that the YouTube track to which I was linking does not appear to be available overseas. Hopefully the new link, to the version by Steeleye Span, works a little better. However, I’ve also found an alternative link the version I originally wrote about, an a capella masterpiece by Martin Carthy (b. 1941). Martin is one of the most influential performers of British traditional music, and The January Man shows him at his very best.

The snowdrop – a flower not to be trifled with

Flowering at a time when pretty much nothing else is in bloom, snowdrops inevitably capture the imagination of all who encounter them in the British countryside. The ‘Fair Maids of February’ reassure us that the bleak midwinter is passing, and more congenial times lie ahead. Poets heap praise upon these humble harbingers of spring’s awakening, while storytellers speculate about their origins. Who doesn’t love a snowdrop?

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Interestingly, although snowdrops are widely distributed and recognised throughout the UK, they aren’t native to these islands. They originated in the damp woodlands and meadows of continental Europe, and were brought here – probably in the sixteenth century – to grace the estates of the idle rich. However these private collections inevitably ‘leaked’ into the surrounding countryside, and by the late 18th century the flower was reported as growing wild. Now completely naturalised, snowdrops can be found in shady woodland, on country estates and along river banks all over the country.

Hodsock Priory, 2016

Snowdrops are also a common sight in graveyards, and this could be the reason why they’re sometimes associated with ill-fortune and even death. In Victorian times it was widely believed that you should avoid bringing snowdrops into your house. If you disobeyed this rule the consequences could range from your milk turning sour to a member of your family dropping dead within a year. Plainly the snowdrop isn’t a flower to be trifled with!

Although these days we happily dismiss such dire warnings as fanciful nonsense, it’s worth noting that snowdrops are poisonous due to high concentrations of phenanthridine alkaloids, particularly in the bulbs. Now, I haven’t a clue what a phenanthridine alkaloid is, but (just like the average beer-swilling Saturday night out during my student days) it’s known to cause confusion, poor coordination, drooling, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and seizures. I humbly conclude that excessive student partying and eating snowdrops are both best avoided!

Hopton Hall, 2017

Paradoxically although some people make a connection between snowdrops and death, others view them as symbols of hope. The reason, I suppose, is that they show themselves just as winter’s drawing to a close, and their appearance is a sure sign that the days are getting both longer and warmer, and that spring will soon arrive.

It’s for just this reason that, around about now every year, Mrs P and I traditionally mark the changing of the seasons by taking a trip to one of our local snowdrop hotspots. These include the gardens of Hopton Hall, an 18th-century country house in Derbyshire, the Dimminsdale Nature Reserve on Derbyshire’s border with Leicestershire, and two estate gardens in Nottinghamshire, at Hodsock Priory and Felley Priory. Each boasts a fine display of snowdrops, and looks splendid on a crisp and sunny February day

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Sadly, to visit one of these snowdrop havens in 2021 would contravene the government’s strict Covid lockdown rules and invite a fine of £200 (each!) from the local constabulary. Instead, we’ve had to get our annual snowdrop fix from Mrs P’s excellent photos and a small clump that survives against all odds in our unkempt front garden. Ah well, there’s always next year I suppose, once Covid’s back in its box.

Felley Priory, 2017

My first butterfly of 2021

Winter always drags, but this year’s been worse than ever. Lockdown 3.0 was imposed just after Christmas, meaning that – other than a weekly trip to the supermarket and an occasional stroll around our suburban estate – we’re confined to Platypus Towers. No chance of a swift visit to a bird reserve on a fine day, and thanks to the regular visits of local cat Milky Bar, only birds with suicidal tendencies visit our garden. It’s a pretty miserable existence, and the lousy weather makes things worse.

But after several days of wintry conditions we wake up on 22 January to a dazzling morning, the sun blazing from a cloudless blue sky. We sit ourselves down in the garden room – which faces south – intent on making the most of this meteorological anomaly, when to our amazement a butterfly appears. It settles on the window ledge, just a metre away from us on the other side of the double glazing, and soaks up the rays for about 20 minutes before moving on again.

The Peacock is a spectacular and unmistakeable butterfly, and takes its name from the vivid pattern of eyespots that decorate all four wings. It’s one of just a handful of British butterflies that overwinter as dormant adults, hunkering down somewhere sheltered during the darkest months in readiness for an early start to the breeding season when spring arrives. However, as we discover today, even in the depths of winter a relatively warm day may rouse Peacocks and encourage them to take to the wing.

I’ve been interested in butterflies since I was a little kid, but have never spotted any this early in the year. And never have I been more grateful to see one of these magical insects: the last 12 months have been tough, and it’s good to be reminded that the beauty of nature will still be there for us to enjoy when the Covid restrictions are finally lifted.

* * * * *

In 2020 I saw my first butterfly around 6 March, and described it as a “symbol of hope in the darkest of days.” You can read my reflections about the symbolism of butterflies by clicking here.