Happy Last New Year

I wrote this for my first column of 2013 in the Swedish Goteborgs-Posten. I think it makes interesting reading for the end of 2013. I really do wish everyone and all of us a better New Year.

I’m writing this in the first week of the new year. Don’t worry, I don’t have any resolutions – or none that I haven’t always and already had and failed to keep most of my life. I’m not going to start and maintain a diary, or set a daily word target and keep to it, or join a gym and give them my money without using their facilities until I finally admit that I could give the money away to more deserving causes than my conscience*. I know the January 1st date doesn’t matter, and it has been many years since I saw in the New Year (or rather locked myself in the loo while others rejoiced in the joys they believed the New Year would bring) Still, we clearly need to keep track of before and after, and to have a sense of the relative distance between then, now and to come.  January 1st is an arbitrary way to divide up our lives, but what isn’t? In England the tax year starts in April, and it is the last remnant of an old ecclesiastical calendar (itself, I suppose, loosely imposed on top of an agrarian calendar) when Spring and new growth, reasonably enough, was deemed to be the proper beginning of the year. The academic year of schools and universities begins in September and October. If nothing else it means that calendar manufacturers can make more money by producing separate academic diaries for students and teachers. And everyone has a birthday which is their very own personalised new year. However they are calculated, calendars are metaphors for renewal and age and useful conveniences for creatures (very possibly only us on this particular planet) that are burdened with a vivid sense of time.

This year America was due to fall off a fiscal cliff at a symbolically satisfying midnight on 31st December, although no one with any sense would have lost money by betting that it would be more or less sorted out in time. It was more or less sorted out, and the strict deadline served as a way of concentrating minds. There is very little else that occurs regularly, apart from birth and Spring, that has the dramatic grace of the new year to allow us to indulge in our fantasy of new beginnings. The newspapers year after year prove resolute in looking back and forward as if journalists believe that world affairs are affected by the change from number 12 to 13. Millions of people cheer in the chimes of midnight no matter what their troubles at 11.45pm, with the help of alcohol and a truly marvellous capacity for optimism. People wish each other a happy and better new year as if the imaginary cliff of 12am will work its liminal magic on more than US economics.

Things do and don’t alter over time, though not so much by calendar years. 2012 brought us the collapse of hope for the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011 as the world helplessly witnessing the terrible attempts of the Assad regime in Syria to maintain power. In the UK in 2012, the Church of England proved its ancient alliance with the sexism of much of our society by rejecting the idea of women bishops, while all over the world women have marched, organised, and, in India, died, in an attempt to live their lives without fear of rape and discrimination. In England we have had floods, murders, vastly long and expensive inquiries into the behaviour of the press, the police, the government, the banks. Each seemed momentous for a few weeks, and then another momentous event occurred. Time passed, and interest waned or was diverted. We are only human, there is only so much we can keep in our heads and continue genuinely to feel pity, anger, determination about. In the UK we discovered that paedophilia has been a part of our normality for decades, that the care of the elderly and the vulnerable young is not good enough by a very long way. In the wider world many people in many countries sighed their relief, if not joy, that Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in the US election. New laws will be enacted, new leaves turned, new lessons learned, we are assured, with each and every revelation. And then there’s that fade as whatever it is drops to page six or seven of the newspapers and disappears from the TV and radio news, and occasionally you wonder what happened about this or that, in the midst of whatever is happening now. Or it simply repeats itself. It’s one damn thing after another, and one damn year after another doesn’t really make very much difference to our poor easily distracted minds or the incorrible affairs of human beings.

So in this fresh moment of 2013, what remains of that brief optimism in the middle of the night that something will change tomorrow? Soon Obama will be sworn in, and I hope that, without another election to win, he will make the kind of social and economic changes that were promised and which won him the presidency in the first place. Then I will remember that one man really can’t effect radical change in a system designed to prevent just that. It will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, and, if we don’t fall for hopeless nostalgia,  we will remember how it was only his early death that left us with the last sense of promise that might have been fulfilled. Here there will be a new royal baby, and that will be a useful screen for politicians and newspapers who want the nation to forget about the continuing cuts to the welfare system, schools, universities and the NHS –  those real promises of the United Kingdom.

I’m sure that in the next twelve months lots of very good things will happen, some of them to me, some to you. We will take pleasure in things read, seen and done, that will enhance our lives, give us courage and delight, make us grateful to be alive. I think of those good things as being done by individuals, for themselves and for others, appreciated by individuals and passed on to individuals, in spite of, rather than because of, institutions and bureaucracy. After 65 years of living, I can only find the potential goodness in the small, personal, the often inconsequential, the difficult, the less popular and the overlooked. The trust in community that I had when I was young remains little more than a hopeless fantasy, as I’ve observed the way that organised political and belief systems overwhelm and weary people with good ideas and novel ways of putting them into action. I don’t trust group emotion, crowd approval, or mass sentiment: those orchestrated displays of good feeling on the national scale seem to me to be the tools of the establishment. I am moved by those prepared to stand up against greed and power grabbing, especially if they have the wit and originally to make ridiculous what they despise. I doubt very much that 2013 will be very different, or very much less tragic than 2012, no matter what anyone does, but I think it magnificent that there are still people who will keep furiously mocking the tragic and corrupt, and hold up a mirror for anyone who chooses to see. 


* This was a big, fat lie. I did join a gym and I’ve been paying monthly without going for about 6 months.