writer, broadcaster, portfolio woman

Start the world – I want to get on

The Independent, January 6th 2011

Brain not quite engaged. Eyes a bit dim. Energy levels still low. I think I now know how a hedgehog feels in the spring after emerging from a winter’s hibernation. In fact, I wouldn’t mind crawling back under the pile of leaves and sleeping through till March.

A combination of a week and a half off work and an illness that lasted a fortnight – neatly encompassing Christmas and New Year – has left me, like many others, feeling enervated and oddly detached from the world. This week I had a rapid, forced re-entry – two columns in four days plus a day trip to Liverpool to interview people for a radio programme – but I still don’t feel quite up to speed. And I suspect I’m not alone.

Almost everyone I know has been ill over the past fortnight. However much you wrap up against the biting cold, you can’t stop the freezing air entering your lungs. And the low temperatures have encouraged germs to spread. I struggled through the snow to a 50th birthday dinner before Christmas at which three of the seven guests claimed to be running fevers and coughed and spluttered over the rest of us. We didn’t have a hope of fighting off the bug.

Added to that, the preponderance of bank holidays has made this Christmas break longer and sleepier than most. With only three working days last week and four this week, the world seems to have pulled the shutters down and switched off the lights. Even yesterday, in London, there was little sign of a reawakening.

You notice it in the news. There’s been absolutely nothing going on, except for a ritual New Year spat between politicians over the VAT rise. Yesterday morning, Gerry Rafferty’s death was the third headline on the Today programme, even though the news had broken halfway through the day before. And on Monday, the BBC led with Pete Postlethwaite’s death. He might have been a great actor, but first item on the news?

It’s been the same on Twitter. We’ve been forced to amuse ourselves by tweeting “less ambitious” film titles like The Man Who Would be Mervyn King or Batman Returns his Videotapes. It passes the time in a mildly diverting way, and it’s more interesting than reading yet another blogpost on Ed Miliband’s first 100 days.

But if this is how we feel now, what will it be like in the first week of May? Most businesses are used to shutting down or running at half-speed over Christmas and the New Year. But this year, there will be the concatenation of an extraordinarily late Easter – right at the end of April – followed by the royal wedding and the May bank holiday. So, for two weekends in a row, we will have a Friday and a Monday off work. That will produce three consecutive weeks that are shortened by a bank holiday.

Parents are going to have an even more complicated time than usual. Because Easter falls so late, some schools are going back in the week before Easter, then taking off the two (very) long weekends. For employers, that fortnight will be a nightmare. Staff will have calculated that they can take 11 days’ holiday at the cost of only three days’ leave. The nation’s offices and factories will empty.

The extra day’s bank holiday alone has been calculated to cost £6bn in lost productivity. But when you factor in the number of workers who won’t think it worth coming in for those three working days between Easter and the wedding, it could be a lot more.

For employees used to eking out their holiday allocation, it’s great news. I wonder how we’ll all be feeling, though, on the first day back at work, 3 May? At least we’re inured to New Year malaise, even if this year’s is more marked than most. But to experience it when the leaves are green, the flowers are blooming and the sun is out will be weirdly disorientating. Not so much jet lag as season lag.

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