January is the cruellest month: New Year’s Day

Alexandre Cabanel Phedre
Alexandre Cabanel, Phèdre (1880).

All over England people were waking up queasy and despondent.1

They say that there’s a day in January that’s the bleakest of the year. Possibly the third Monday, Blue Monday, when a horror load of weather, job despair, post-Christmas bills and the like will squeeze the joy from us. It’s pseudo-scientific rubbish, of course, but it caught on because it’s plausible; a dismal January day is unmatchably putrid. We all of us are likely to have at least one powerfully bleak day before February. I like to get mine out of the way early, right at the beginning. It’s become a sort of tradition, and I’ve furnished and decorated it until it’s almost pleasurable. It’s a feast day of sorts, built on an assumption of melancholy and bodily weakness.

New Year’s Day

I assume we’ll be handling a hangover and a certain morbidity. Hangovers bring on low spirits and New Year’s Day is a good time to brood and regret; perhaps only milestone birthdays are better for that.

When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a s**t you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is and there is no use crying over spilt milk.2

The trick with hangovers is to identify what you have to deal with and be prepared. Your hangover begins long before you take your first drink. And while on a fine, cold winter’s day an afternoon constitutional might be right, proper and pleasant, you shouldn’t leave yourself needing to go out at all. Get your supplies and do your prep now.

The first thing to deal with is your conscience. Try to perform an unexpected and satisfying good deed in the days leading up to New Year; best of all is to do one shortly before you start celebrating. You can then reflect on that with some consolation whilst contemplating your wretchedness and shortcomings later.

Eat before you drink; eat while you drink.

Drink as much water as you can, as early as you can. Take water to bed with you when you retire.

Know that only the passage of time will cure you and easing the passage of time is your purpose. Unless you’re lucky and have one of those enjoyable, devil-may-care, lovable rogue hangovers, in which case you may want to mix a Bloody Mary. (I love a Bloody Mary: try it with a dash of sherry.) If you’re unlucky and have an incurable pain then a sort of hateful half-waking sleep is your only friend, no one can help you.

In the morning gently alkaline, gently fizzy, chilled mineral water is more welcome than can be fully imagined when sober and well. I favour Pellegrino. The alkaline may help stomach acidity brought on by alcohol, and the thought of that makes me feel a little better. Small victories, mental as much as physical, are what we’re after. Paracetamol is gentler on your turbulent belly than aspirin and Ibuprofen, assuming your head would benefit from some easing; take some with your water, if you like.

Once you’re dealing with your thirst and head, your blood sugar should be looked after. You supply your own bitterness; what you need from outside is sweetness. I also like to eat as soon as I can bear it. Here are some ways to get sugar and salt and fat into you painlessly and even pleasantly. They’ll make you feel better, even if you fall into something of a digestive swoon after eating.


Some swear by flat Coke; I hate it, it’s too sweet for my aging palate. But…

  • Coke float: add a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream; this will reduce the rasping acidity and unctuous sweetness of the cola, as well as fortifying the drink and preparing the stomach for food. Better still, use ginger beer instead.
  • Cola ‘tea’: I’ve not tried this recipe from Hong Kong, but it sounds promising, if unlikely—read about it here.
  • Fentimans Curiosity Cola is more agreeable to the more mature palate. Their other soft drinks can also do a job, especially the ginger beer, if you can handle the spice.

Maple syrup

Pancakes with maple syrup and bacon or grilled ham. This is what I’ll be eating on New Year’s Day. Make the batter the day before and just freshen it with a little milk and whisking. I use an American recipe with extra eggs and milk for less doughy, more fortifying pancakes. Cinnamon is reputed to be medicinal and refreshing, and even if that’s hokum, especially at these doses, I still like and add it. I fry the pancakes in a mix of groundnut oil and butter, though the butter can be a bit much when delicate and can be omitted.

  • 1 cup self-raising flour
  • 1 and a bit cups full fat milk (to personal taste)
  • 2 eggs
  • a dash of vegetable oil
  • pinch cinnamon (optional)


Being acidic, pulse-raising and diuretic, coffee should probably be avoided, but that would be a despicable breach with tradition. One way to soften it is to steep milk overnight with cinnamon bark and add this (warmed) with a spoon of honey to some really dark, strong coffee, espresso-style or as close as you can make it. It’s a gratifying brew, even if, like me, you normally drink coffee black. This can bring on an appalling wakefulness and if you’d rather stay torpid and unaware, don’t drink it.

Apres hangover

Once things have settled a little I like spicy food; best of all is a Thai meal for late lunch or early dinner, starting with a hot broth, chicken or fish by preference, with chillies. If your stomach isn’t still overly turbulent. You could also choose to drink a fiery Bloody Mary and begin again.

Passing the time and easing the mind

Proverbs 17:22

You can either embrace the full horror of what you have become or try to distract yourself; you’ll probably need to kill off some time, at any rate, once you can’t sleep any more.

One New Year’s Day I watched Mulholland Drive while eating cold leftover beef, sitting unwashed and unshaven, blinking at the horror of it all. The film, which had been enigmatic enough when I’d seen it previously, suddenly made great and terrible sense. It was in its way the best New Year hangover I’ve had, but I’ll never repeat it: never. I’m more inclined to find something comfortable to watch (books usually requiring too much); films, by preference, or undemanding television. Wholesome, with some action, a little humour, a world to escape into. Some films and series have their own universe you can leave your own for, and these—quite a disparate bunch—are best. Previous successes have included The Life Aquatic (Wes Anderson films are generally well suited), Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hill Street Blues, the 1979 cartoon film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the quiz show, Pointless. If you think about what you’d watch if you were working your way through a split from a long-term relationship you’re unlikely to go far wrong.

If none of this works, smoke some coffee and watch Eraserhead.

Finally, I sometimes recall what a friend’s grandfather, an old soldier who had fought with the Eighth Army in North Africa during the last war, said about morale: washing, shaving and putting on clean clothes do much for it. In the end, this is largely a question of morale, and it’s as well to look after it.

Good luck, and happy New Year.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, December 2014)

1. Evelyn Waugh 1934 A Handful of Dust (Harmondsworth: Penguin)

2. Kingsley Amis 2008 Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis (London: Bloomsbury)

6 thoughts on “January is the cruellest month: New Year’s Day

  1. If by gusto, you mean in bed by 11pm, then yes! You be careful young man and I look forward to a follow up post on how you dealt with your fragile state from this evening.

    Always nice to see Hill Street Blues mentioned in a post too. Grew up adoring that show. Cleared a path for the 24/7 police procedural dramas we get these days (some good, some not so good)

    1. I don’t believe that for a moment.

      Even hearing the opening tune is a comfort and a pleasure. I rewatched the whole lot on 4OD a few years ago and it’s still good. More humour than I remember.

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