What planet are you on?

You don't need to be Russell Grant to predict what sells papers in January. And you don't need to be Carol Vorderman to deduce that our dependence on the stars is not entirely logical. But all the signs are that horoscopes have a future

Ye gods, what a year. "Sorting out a more satisfactory emotional base" for my life was "the driving motivation" for the first half, while "high ambitions" took up the second. My nearest and dearest were a shocking liability throughout. One"family member" acted in "erratic unpredictable ways" in February. A frankly knackering "social whirl" in early spring was followed by "a more demanding mood" in which everyone had "over-high expectations" of me, the fools. Everyone in my entire life seemed "on edge" in April, but then "joint finances" improved and I threw myself into a "secret romance" which, all too predictably, I'm afraid, made 20 April "sticky".

I was "emotionally topsy-turvy" on 7 May but, bang on cue, "finances" improved again, once they were given my "wholehearted attention". My "sunny charm" knocked everyone dead in early summer, enabling me to keep my "hidden agenda" up my sleeve, before I legged it to "fly free" to "greener pastures". But sadly, by July my life had descended into turmoil once more: an eclipse of the sun warned me that "a career push" was "vital", and it was all I could do to stop myself being "distracted" by "emotional muddles". Sadly, my professional clear-sightedness didn't stop another bout of "sticky moments" and I strove unavailingly to "keep my temper steady", "hold to compromises", and "find a middle way between neither pushing too hard nor being pushed around".

My family, not surprisingly, found themselves "on tenterhooks" in August, as I flailed about in this socio-economic maelstrom, and the kindly attention of "close partners" was thwarted as they found, yet again, my "attention diverted to sorting out finances". Honestly, it's like being married to Gordon Brown. As the year drew to a close I narrowly avoided having to "rub up against rather tricky people", and refused to "suffer fools gladly" around my birthday on 24 October, contenting myself with "pulling strings behind the scenes".

I certainly didn't want any "unresolved clutter", as I approached Christmas, and "getting finances into shape", when I'd rather have been out getting sloshed, meant I had to "resist the temptation to fly off the handle". But luckily I found "a gentle way of letting off steam" - possibly at the Priory in Roehampton - and ended the year bravely staring at "the momentous turning-point of the century".

Because, as you will have guessed, the year I've been looking back on with such drained exhaustion is 1999. I've just been reading Marjorie Orr's month-by-month horoscope in The Express for my life, right through this year, and by the time I reached the end, I felt like lying down in a cave until it was all over. It's not the "predictions" that bother me - nothing concrete is predicted - it's the prevailing note of frantic emotional activity. According to the clairvoyant Ms Orr, I will spend the year on a roller-coaster of emotion, swinging between confusion and impotent fury, endlessly upset, bothered, undervalued and over-provoked by puzzling spouse and traitorous work colleagues, forever balancing the account books and constantly defending myself against strange, unnameable crises.

I do not know Ms Orr, but I suspect she is the kind of friend we all need in a crisis - one of utter unflappable conservatism, whose conversation is a succession of emollient platitudes about casting no clout, taking the rough with the smooth, not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. She would never, you feel, be the one to say, "Oh for God's sake just leave the bastard", or "Of course you should take the job", or "Just try a little snort of this, you'll like it". For she is one of the nation's leading "sunstar columnists" as hack astrologers are sometimes called, and her function is to reassure - to whisper in her readers' ears that, although their lives are amazingly mouvementes, they must try not to be swept away by the stormy emotions and crazy scenes with which their days will be filled.

Astrology is an odd profession, beginning in Babylonian starlight, 4,000 years ago, made up of equal parts mathematic calculation, astronomy, pagan gods and post-event historico-psychology. It may seem a long way from the divinations of the ancients to the crystal balls of Marjorie Orr, but some things have never changed: the seriousness of its believers (who have included Hitler, Gandhi, Rupert Murdoch and the Abbey National Building Society), the money-spinning potential of its newspaper columns with their phone-line spin-offs (the late Patric Walker, Russell Grant and Mystic Meg have all been reported as earning pounds 500,000 a year) and the extraordinary grip its cryptic bromides still exert on our imaginations. When the Darwinist Professor Richard Dawkins trashed the whole subject of astrology in The Independent on Sunday in 1995, saying that its professional exponents should be jailed for fraud, the resulting correspondence filled acres of newsprint.

At this time of year, it's also a goldmine for newspapers and magazines. When the next 12 months will pitch us straight into a new century and into a whole thousand-year epoch, the whole business takes on a kind of epic urgency: the only thing bigger than the passage of centuries, millennia and eras is the firmament itself, whose stars have outlasted them all, and from which we try to learn what will become of us and how we should live.

Apart from being perhaps the only metaphysical impulse that most of the population will have embraced since the days of choir practice and Sunday school, astrology is also democratic. The stars that are common to all of us, that shone for both Julius Caesar and his chariot-minding slave, are the governing influences upon great and humble alike.

If Mars and Pluto (which rule Scorpio with dynamic and power-crazed ruthlessness, and are the reason girls give Scorpio chaps a wide berth at parties) are both in Sagittarius next September, playing hell with my capacity to make any money, though at least I can be comforted that the Prince of Wales (Scorpio, born 14 November) is in the same yacht. This accounts for the secondary phenomenon of early January - a rash of predictions of how the year will pan out for various "celebrities": how Zoe Ball will have a baby and Jerry Hall will win a huge divorce settlement against Mick Jagger (says the Sunday People), how Ann Widdecombe and Peter Mandelson, both Librans, will be transformed "from villains to heroes", and the entire cast of Friends (mostly Leos, spookily) will come unstuck, according to Shelley von Strunckel in The Sunday Times.

The Express and the Daily Mail are currently in the midst of a soothsayer battle for readers. The Mail offers "Jonathan Cainer's Millennium Countdown" all this week (yesterday Love, today Wealth) and a "Personal Horoscope" special free offer. The Express has the sainted Ms Orr's "Your Stars for 1999" running all week, with an eight-page pullout guide in colour. The Express offer was flagged, last weekend, by a TV commercial featuring Ms Orr, a grand, duchess-like figure, explaining why she is a good astrologer to a snappish, disembodied telephone voice, presumably The Express's abrasive editrix Rosie Boycott.

"No it wasn't me," said Boycott, "It's all fiction. But the reason why we do it is because horoscopes sell papers. At this time of the year we expect to add as many as 80,000 to the sales figures." At what cost of investment? "It's done on newsprint, and it's written by the staff astrologist, so it doesn't cost us much - in the region of pounds 12,000".

Did a sophisticated rationalist like herself believe in star signs? "To an extent. I think horoscopes are good if they can nudge you psychologically towards something you've been half-thinking, and crystallise the thought. It's all about language. The good ones write well."

The language issue is not one that springs to mind. Mischa O'Connor in today's Daily Star advises, "Borrow an item instead of buying it and you'll save some much-needed cash"; Gemini Jane in The Sun suggests, "It is a great time to renovate or decorate your home."

Justin Toper in The Mirror, a man who fatally resembles a Glitter Band roadie circa 1972, goes for a more direct and positive approach - yesterday he promised Leos that "something wonderful is about to take place" and Scorpios "You are about to enjoy a whole new way of life". But then Mr Toper lives on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, and is entitled to a little euphoria.

A more teasing note is struck by Jonathan Cainer in the Mail. "Things have to be different in 1999," he announces boldly. "You already know, I'm sure, the things to which I refer. Why, then, does this send shock waves down your spine? Don't you trust the sky to take care of all your emotional needs?"

Then, perhaps fearing he is being over-deterministic, he writes, "Are you worrying about going from frying-pan to fire?" and we're back with the essence of horoscope writing:blandness, holding steady, walking your own path, playing a strategic game, finding the middle way. The trick is to make the seething neurotic mass of horoscope readers feel congratulated on their indecision, feted for their selfishness, praised for allowing forces outside themselves to run their lives. No wonder it's been a potent tool with which to quieten the proletariat for 4,000 years.

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