The column: A heavy toll
He's already suffered little green men in kilts, and biryani burps. Can New Year's Eve get any worse? Howard Jacobson thinks it probably just did
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 02 January 1999
I only bother to point this out because where you are, in reader's time, it's already the New Year, but where I am, in writer's time, it's still the Old One, and to be honest with you I'm not certain I'm going to make it through. The black dog of melancholy is threatening what he always threatens at this time of year - to sink his fangs into my heart. In which case you could well be reading dead man's prose.
(A hostage to fortune, that phrase, I acknowledge; but I take my chance. Once the black dog bites, the laughter of ironists can no longer touch you.)
Common sense tells a man that what makes him feel bad must make others feel bad too. But if the rest of the world takes New Year's Eve as hard as I do, it hides it well. All that linking and kissing. All that auld lang-syning. All those balloons and party hats. All that splashing in fountains. Is it just masquerade? Beneath the motley of merriment is everyone thinking what I'm thinking? - another year gone without significant achievement; another year closer to the obscurity of the grave; another party in the company of people who are not the most beautiful and brilliant on earth. Oh, God!
Pity my poor wife who has always rather liked a New Year's knees-up. She too now dreads the chimes at midnight, fearing what will happen, what I'm going to say and do, when the dog leaps.
Public Apology No 2
Our New Years' Eves haven't always been bad. We spent our first ever one together in a bubble bath in a holiday cottage on the Lizard in Cornwall, duetting "This is My Lovely Day" from Bless the Bride, and taking a long time looking for the soap. This was hard on the other guests who'd been entwined in felicity far longer than we had, but we had no thoughts for them. Love at any time is callous, but on New Year's Eve ... ! Even our second one, which we celebrated while on a skiing holiday in Austria - Ros skied and I holidayed - didn't lack for mirth. Or for gluhwein. At ten to midnight Ros sang highlights from The Valkyrie and broke a glass with her voice, which over-excited her ski instructor which over-exasperated me. I punched a hole in the pretty painted Tyrolean wardrobe when we got back to our room and delivered myself of sentiments which would have made Othello horripilate. Then I went out and lay down in the snow. High drama - that's what you want when the year hovers on its axis. Back, back! Turn back!
After that, though, I became a writer and my melancholy started to get the better of us.
I sheet my New Year's Eve melancholy back to the time my parents took themselves off to a New Year's Eve Ball, abandoning me to my own company. Even my younger brother and sister had parties to go to, and they were five and three. I alone was without an invitation. My parents left me an orange and a bottle of Vimto and told me to enjoy myself, then I heard them laughing brilliantly as they climbed into a taxi. I sat up and watched the New Year in on television. We had a 9in television which showed everything in green. I'm not looking for sympathy. Even a green television was more than most people had in those days. But it's the worst colour in which to watch Jimmy Shand. Green-faced Scotsmen in green kilts and green tam-o'-shanters - that's what New Year's Eve means to me. Is it any wonder I get sick?
The year after Austria my brother lent us his flat in Notting Hill Gate for a week. He and his wife were away but they left all their New Year's Eve party invitations on the mantelpiece. Spoilt for choice and dreading anti-climax, we lashed out on a bottle of champagne and stayed in. We weren't children. We could make our own entertainment. But at about 10.30 my nerve snapped. We had to do something festive, else I'd die of sadness.
Next door was a highly regarded Indian take-away. I bought lavishly. Three sorts of chicken - vindaloo, madras and Kashmiri - three sorts of mutton, three sorts of beef, prawn biryani, pappadums, rotis, parathas, nans, side dishes of spinach and potato, spinach and cottage cheese, spinach and okra; then I realised I had forgotten starters so I went back for samosas, pakoras, and three sorts of butter chicken, beef on skewers and lamb in fried patties. Ros ate a little spinach. I ate the rest. At five to midnight I collapsed clutching my stomach. My wife is Australian - it occurred to me that she might not have known what number you dial for an ambulance in England. With the last crumbs from the pappadums I drew 999 on the carpet. Then the bells started, everything turned green, and I lost consciousness. When I came to it was 1 January, 1978, I had a tandoor in my throat and I was three stone heavier than I'd been on the last day of the year before. I learnt later that Ros had sat up on her own, watching Jimmy Shand on television.
And this New Year's Eve - the one you've already had? I will try to be sensible. A year is just a year and a life is just a life. If I can hold my nerve until 1999/2000 I will be all right. Because no one is going to survive that New Year's Eve. Forget the Millennium Bug; prepare for Millennium Melancholy. Just think - another millennium gone without significant achievement ... Already the dogs are massing. And we'll all go together when we go.
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