There's the feeling of utter dread when you realise that another year has passed and nothing's changed except for the things that have got worse

What's the worse thing you've ever seen? I am excluding such horrors as war, pestilence and plague, starving children, tortured animals and ecological disasters. That's not the kind of thing I'm after, this column being essentially light-hearted. But given those constraints, what have you seen that has made your mouth go dry with dread and your whole world tilt for a moment? I am prompted to ask this question by a visit to a new show in town; an appalling melange of mime, awful bloody clowns and naff acrobats called Saltimbanco (apparently that's Italian for unfunny wanker) presented by Cirque du Soleil. When I phoned people to tell them about my terrible experience, they all said: "Oh God, if you'd asked, we could have told you how awful Cirque du Soleil were. We saw them in LA/Paris/Ulan Bator and we walked out after 11 seconds - they were so crap."

After we fled the show at the Royal Albert Hall, I asked my wife it this wasn't the worst thing she'd ever seen, but on reflection she thought that the most dreadful spectacle she ever had the misfortune to witness was in an open-air junk market, the old walled St Paddy's market in Liverpool, where one of the stalls was a horse-drawn cart selling second-hand false teeth. The mounds of pink plastic gums with grinning jaws full of teeth attached was bad enough, but what made it so truly awful was that crowds of people had surrounded the cart and were trying the teeth in their mouths to get a pair that fitted.

It seems that every day brings its own store of shuddering horrors, from the fresh piles of steaming dog dirt on the pavement right outside your door to poor saps on the television in your front room being Michael Barrymore's kind of people and John Major predicting he'll still be Prime Minister in five years' time. I asked my friend David, aged 46, what was the worst thing he'd ever seen, and he said it was when his Aunt Penelope had bought him a pink ice-cream cornet and he'd tripped and the pink ice-cream had fallen off the cornet on to the ground and was ruined. At least I think that was what he said; by the time he got to the end of the sentence, he was sobbing uncontrollably, so like all the best newspaper reporters, I made my excuses and left.

Of course, New Year's Eve itself, over and done with once more, thank goodness, has an entire set of unique horrors unrivalled by any other time of the year. There's the feeling of utter dread and panic when you realise that another year has passed and nothing's changed except for all the things that have got worse, so you desperately resolve that next year is going to be different, but even as you make these resolutions, you are filled with dark despair because you know you're not even going to get to the end of the week without sinking back into the morass your life has become. And of course you might live in the Slough of Despond, but that doesn't mean that the alternative is attractive and the end of another year really underlines that time is getting shorter and shorter. There's nothing like New Year's Eve for hearing time's winged chariot whistling by your ear.

Then there's all the enforced bloody jollity, the desperation to have a good time. I used to drink in a rough pub in Hammersmith frequented by heavy-drinking Scotsmen. One 30 December some years ago, I was talking to one regular, a straightforward alcoholic called Tam, who used to scare the life out of me, being about seven-foot tall with an impenetrable Aberdeen accent. "So, Tam," I said, desperately trying to make conversation that wasn't going to get me beaten up, "I expect you're looking forward to tomorrow night, Hogmanay and all that." "Indeed I am not," he said. "It's the one night of the year I never go out." "Why's that, Tam?" I asked. He spat contemptuously on the floor and hissed out the words "amatcha hoor". A professional like himself could not bear to see all the unpractised "amateur" drinkers indulging in his favourite pastime.

Looking at the crowds of New Year revellers, shiny-faced with desperation to enjoy themselves, throwing down more alcohol than they'd consume in a month, kissing women with moustaches and men with saliva-flecked chins, his words often come back to me - "amatcha hoor". But now the miserable cynicism is getting worse. Now I look at a couple having a quiet meal in a trattoria and I still think "amatcha hoor", or if I see people shopping for gloves in British Home Stores, Tam's voice echoes in my brain - "amatcha hoor".

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