We knew what would happen, but we didn't know why

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The Independent Online
By tradition, in this final column of the year, I review the success of the predictions made by myself and three friends on the previous New Year's Eve. Stained with olive oil and cabernet sauvignon from the lengthy selection meeting, the list of guessesis locked in a filing cabinet on 1 January at the house of one of the other futurologists and released to me on the day that I write this piece.

Although conceived in drunkenness as a fresh slant on two dusty seasonal customs - New Year resolutions and columnists' reviews of the past year - there has proved to a mildly serious purpose to the game: a revelation of to what extent politics and culture are patterned or random. When a significant event occurs, we make retrospective connections - "an accident waiting to happen" is one of the cliches of the age - but how often can you see the accident getting ready? Is news a lottery or a stock exchange - pot-luck or susceptible to projection?

For the second year running, three of us turned out to have written on the first line of our almanac foolscap that John Major would be replaced as prime minister by Kenneth Clarke. Once again, we were all wrong, but probably shared the mistake with a group about the size of the electorate. Indeed, by now, this expectation deserves a special place in the history of conventional wisdom. Has a politician so widely written off ever survived so long among the written-about? The one dissenter - a staunch Tory- was laughed at for her belief in Major's durability, but even she, by now, wishes that she had been wrong.

In the area of opposition politics, my own list rather startlingly proved to contain the prediction that "John Smith will no longer be leader of the Labour Party". Reading this produced a horrible moment of fearing that I was like Richard Burton in The Medusa Touch, able to predict catastrophic events. Then I remembered my reasoning, which provides another small illustration of the business of political opinion and the rewriting of history.

This was not, on 31 December 1993, a morbid prediction. My guess was that Mr Smith would be removed by his own party. It may seem indelicate to mention it after the posthumous eulogies in May, but there was a significant level of disgruntlement and it seemed then that a Conservative Party under Clarke might intensify doubts about Labour's cautious and stolid leader. It was against the same background that another of our futurologists predicted that John Prescott would replace Margaret Beckett as deputy leader during this year.

The same process of right outline with wrong detail attended my prophecy that "Bill Clinton will make a symbolic act of apology to the American people in a TV broadcast". My feeling was that he would confess to minor wrongdoing over "Whitewater", a hot scandal last December. In fact, he did go on TV to apologise, two weeks ago, and used the word "sorry", but it was in reference to all of his policies and his two years in office so far.

We were right to predict that the Scott Inquiry would not report and the Maxwell brothers' trial would not take place. Because of this, cynicism about the operation of the British establishment will probably be a key factor in drawing up our 1995 lists.

Just as we had all failed to foresee Mr Blobby, we all missed his 1994 equivalent: Elizabeth Hurley. But this phenomenon - an annual icon of nothingness, famous without concrete achievement - is probably impossible to predict, except as a general trend, which can be expected to continue next year.

This year's edition of that long-running Christmas Day show The Queen was the most intriguing for some years. For a start, it became clear that Her Majesty is going to have to broadcast live, or at the very least record, on Christmas Eve if she is not toadd to her other troubles a reputation for being out of touch.

She had taken international reconciliation as the theme of her 1994 broadcast: based around images of her historic trip to Russia, President Mandela's election and the relative peace in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. This must have seemed clever at the time, not least as a neat distraction from events in her family. However, on a Christmas Day when news broadcasts featured Russian military imperialism and terrorism in Algeria and Jerusalem, the Queen looked like someone in fancy dress at a funeral.

This was unfortunate, because the second section of the broadcast dramatically demonstrated that, in at least one way, the monarch knows which way the wind is blowing. Against a soundtrack of a choir singing the national anthem, images whizzed past of Elizabeth meeting the leaders and peoples of the world. This visual grammar - personal theme tune, hagiographic photo album - is employed by politicians when they find themselves low in the polls. Margaret Thatcher and George Bush both cashed in their air miles and international acquaintances in precisely this way.

John Osborne, who died on Saturday, provided one of the starkest illustrations of the operation of artistic fashion in writers' lives. His reputation depends on Look Back In Anger, regarded in cultural shorthand as having changed the nature of British theatre when first staged in 1956, by chasing theatrical decorum and upper-class vowels off the stage.

The problem was that the play was celebrated as much for what it wasn't (ie, Coward or Rattigan) as what it was. It became what might be called a programme-note drama: one that, when revived, requires a working knowledge of British artistic and social history in order to produce even a fraction of the same impact. Perhaps it was some consolation to him that, towards the end of his life, this victim of theatrical fashion was a beneficiary of a literary trend. The vogue for rancorous memoirs and diaries allowed the playwright - in two of the most vicious autobiographies ever published - to turn his disappointments to profit.

Incidentally, Osborne's death subjected him to another contemporary fashion: the "outing" in obituaries of drinkers. Reports of his death made much of his fondness for alcohol. A notice of the sitcom writer, Richard Waring, who died last week, mentioned "aggravation [that] was fuelled by drink". Even the Roman Catholic journal the Tablet, where you might expect charity, felt it necessary to comment, in a moving piece on the recently dead journalist Peter Hebblethwaite, that "finally his years of high drink consumption took their toll".

These may seem sobering thoughts in this season of hangovers. And yet these men died at 65, 69 and 64 respectively, not horribly short of actuarial expectations and far older than many mere sippers who are fated to die in other ways. Fittingly, perhaps, Osborne has been seen out with an example of the national prissiness against which he railed.

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