I can’t speak for you, reader, but for me no new year can be said to have begun until I’ve shed a tear. The only question is whether I shed it on the last day of the old or the first day of the new, and what in particular precipitates it. This time, I made it through the champagne, fireworks and kisses of the last night of 2013 only to be set off the following morning by the New Years’ Day concert televised live from Vienna.
Daniel Barenboim, looking as though he were sucking a lemon, leading the Vienna Philharmonic through the stirring slush of Strauss. Other considerations apart, the Vienna Philharmonic is enough to make a grown man cry. Such a zest for life in their playing. Then there’s the nostalgic ritual of the concert itself, dating from 1939, a year already drenched in tears, somehow brave in its continuance, given all that’s gone before, and braver still in the fleeting assertion, shown in the faces of the orchestra and the audience alike, that there isn’t, and never was, a finer place in the whole wide world to be on New Year’s Day than Vienna. As if.
I mistrust togetherness tears, precisely because I’m susceptible to them. The band plays, emotions surge, the oceanic sensation of limitlessness beguiles you into the arms of humanity, and the next minute you’re giving a Nazi salute. That’s something else that gets the tear ducts working – Vienna, with its beautiful and treacherous associations; Vienna, with its power to inspire longing and loathing. “Wonderful city where I belong,” I used to love listening to Richard Tauber sing about Vienna, but he’d had to flee it at about the time Das Neujahrskonzert was inaugurated, wonderful or not. Behind the tears, the questions. Ought I to be feeling what I’m feeling? Ought I to be watching at all?
In a sense, every new year is a reminder of the ones before. Small wonder they’re upsetting. They mark the passage of time even more fatefully than birthdays do. The bells toll and the world is grown a little older. And without doubt, part of what’s upsetting me as I watch the Vienna Philharmonic playing in 2014 is the memory of a New Year’s Eve I spent in Vienna 20 years ago, waltzing with my wife of that time on Graben Street, hearing Tauber in my head, loving the snow, the glamour, the swirl of years and dresses, the fantasy of being transported back to the great days of the Austro-Hungarian empire which would not, in truth, have been that great for me.
But then it’s all fantasy, every bit of it. Yes, we’d waltzed in the snow – or at least I’d made as though to waltz – but we’d been brawling all day, with friends, with each other, with a waiter who’d brought us what we hadn’t ordered at a coffeehouse that wasn’t as good as the coffeehouses we’d read about, even arguing with our friends’ dog who froze fast to the icy ground the minute he set a paw outside the hotel and so expected us to take turns carrying him. A magical New Year’s Eve? Only if I scissor out the dog, our arguments, the truth of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and picture us waltzing for ever in an empty landscape like figures on a music box.
New year tears work either way: remembering what was or what wasn’t. And I now realise I’d been preparing them, in anticipation either of sorrow or a too transient happiness, from the very first New Year’s Eve of which I could be said to be conscious, when I sat in the kitchen watching Jimmy Shand on television, wondering why everyone I knew was at a party and I wasn’t – everyone, that is, except my grandfather, who sat on a chair next to me, coughing up bile and clipping his yellow toenails with the scissors I employed to cut balsa wood.
It has to be better than this, I thought; I don’t have to be the saddest boy on the planet; it doesn’t just have to be me and Jimmy Shand and an old man with rotting toenails. But it was many years before it did get any better than that, and even then the exquisitely romantic New Year’s Eve I longed for – waltzing in the streets of Vienna, for example, or dancing cheek to cheek with Ava Gardner in a bar in Manhattan while Yanks who looked like Fred Astaire went mad in Times Square – refused to materialise.
From the age of 12 to 16, I played brag on New Year’s Eve with schoolfriends, cursing the celibacy of the occasion, cursing the cards I was dealt, cursing the fact that I’d been born poor, though I couldn’t have said how riches would have helped, and yet knowing that on some future New Year’s Eve I would look back on these evenings with an aching fondness, missing our once carefree celibacy, the jokes we shared, the excitement of cards, our vanished youth.
Enter girls at last, and all that happened to my New Year’s Eves was that they became sadder still. You have to have reached a mature age before the girl you take to a New Year’s Eve party is the girl you want to leave it with. If they were always wrong for me, I was certainly always wrong for them. My dissatisfaction with the year that had been, matched only by my dissatisfaction already with the year to come, made me a horrible companion.
For men like me, the future is simply too close to the past on New Year’s Eve. We should try separating them, first by banning the countdown to midnight, then by outlawing “Auld Lang Syne”, and finally by interposing a dead or fallow year between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Worth it for a dry eye once in a while.