There is, as defined by human behaviour as much as by the calendar, no other night like New Year's Eve. It is unique for all kinds of reasons; principally, of course, the symbolism of the old year receding into the past and the new year looming up ahead, with all that implies in terms of fresh starts, new regimes, and adieux to Benson & Hedges, or Scottish & Newcastle, or Ant & Dec, or whatever vices you have sworn to bury over the next 12 months.
Also unique, though, is the forced jollity of the occasion, the tyranny of having to compress into those few hours the most fun you can possibly have with your clothes on, or indeed, if you're lucky enough to get an invitation, with your clothes off. It begins in the teen years, this compulsion to turn New Year's Eve into a spree of merriment, and it lasts until we're mature enough to realise that the lower our expectations, the more likely we are to enjoy ourselves.
Tonight, somewhere in Hereford, my 16-year-old daughter will embark on a series of annual disappointments. Which is not to say that the party she's going to won't be fun, but I bet it will be less fun than she expects it to be. New Year's Eve almost always is. It's woven into the whole culture of the occasion, along with "Auld Lang Syne".
For me, the epiphany – when I finally realised that jollity can't simply be kindled by a date – came 14 years ago. It took the worst of all New Year's Eves to bring me to my senses. Jane and I spent it at a country house hotel near Maidenhead, with our good friends Steve and Mandy. We were all in our early to mid-thirties. We had two young children, they had one, and the prospect of the hotel organising babysitters while we changed into our suits and frocks and sauntered elegantly down to the bar for a glass of fizz, followed of course by a "gala dinner", seemed hugely attractive.
It seemed, now that I look back on it from the lofty peaks of Mount Middle-Age, like an affirmation of our comparatively new status as proper grown-ups. We didn't even mind that it came at a proper grown-up cost: more than £400. Not such a fortune, surely, for a New Year's Eve to remember.
Well, we remember it all right. At the gala dinner our small table of four was surrounded by tables of 12, 16 and 24, where the obligatory fun involved the sustained blowing of plastic trumpets. Then a competition developed between the funsters at these tables, to see who could make the most noise. While the staff pretended that this was the most tremendous hoot, the four of us must have looked like a mini-convention for people with toothache. And then, amazingly, our evening got worse. The food was scarcely worthy of a school canteen, and the band made us nostalgic for the plastic trumpets. Moreover, at 4am, long after we'd cut our losses and retired to bed, everyone within three miles – but notably our children – was awoken by a screeching fire-alarm, set off in jest by some moron with (I'm guessing) a small red-and-white plastic bowler hat held on his head with elasticated string.
When we checked out six hours later, the receptionist asked whether we had enjoyed ourselves. "No," I said, and explained why. "Oh dear," she said, processing my credit card payment. And that was that. We've stayed at home ever since on New Year's Eve, having lovely low-key dinners with friends and family, and not ever having to venture out to look across at strangers enjoying themselves at least six times as much as us.
Having said that, I might relax my strict staying-in rule this evening for an early snifter at the King's Head. Our local pub, which apart from the church is the only public building within less than half a day's walk, was taken over by Paula and Tony almost 10 months ago. It was an auspicious day for Docklow, because they have done wonderful things there.
The pub has had four sets of owners since we moved here in 2002, and there have been times when a busy night at the King's Head meant two balls of tumbleweed blowing through it, rather than one. But Paula and Tony have given the old place some real joie de vivre, having moved in, funnily enough, on Friday, 13 March. But then, what's in a date? Happy New Year.