I HAVE in my hand a piece of paper. It has just been released to me from a locked filing cabinet in south-west London. It is, in places, a highly embarrassing document, and I have been asked to disguise the identities of three of the four people involved. I am the fourth.
On the piece of paper - lightly stained with Australian cabernet sauvignon and gravy - four of us wrote down, about an hour before 1993 began, lists of predictions for the year ahead.
History imposes logic on the past. In books published afterwards, wars, heroes, artists, fads and freaks are neatly fitted into the creeds and sequence of their centuries. The writing of history is one of the tricks by which we pretend that our lives are part of a more or less orderly process. Ticking off old prophecies, however, is likely to show us in a different light: confused, nave, assailed by random forces.
Or maybe we had just drunk too much. This, anyway, is how 1993 looked to four white, middle-class - and not necessarily entirely sober - people in their thirties, as the clock ticked down towards it.
One significant development of 1993 that did not figure in our lists was the growing pressure for protecting private individuals from press intrusion. But because of it, I have been instructed to identify my fellow coffee-and-mint clairvoyants only as 'Gypsy Rose', 'Soothsayer' and 'Madame Sosostris', with apologies to Romany, Shakespeare and T S Eliot respectively.
To begin with, prophecies made by only one player. I'm thrilled, and quite surprised, to read my guess that 'the British government will make overtures to the IRA about talks'. The reason given, in parenthesis, was the prohibitive cost to a bankrupt Britain of supporting the union with Northern Ireland. I also predicted - 20 days before his inauguration - that President Clinton would have 60 per cent approval ratings 'by December'. When he was in the 30s and 40s I thought of burgling the filing cabinet, but the president reached 58 per cent last week, just before the latest sex scandal. I was wrong that the 'heir to the British throne will change', although there were many days in 1993 when I saw that jackpot hovering.
'Soothsayer' - a journalist - was right about the departure of Terry Venables from Tottenham Hotspur; tantalisingly close to being correct that 'Heseltine will leave the Department of Trade and Industry' (which he did, for three months, after his heart attack); spot on about Manchester United's domination of domestic soccer and correct about the financial troubles of Yorkshire Television. He was, though, wrong in believing that Richard Branson would buy the Observer, and wrong that Governor Patten would kowtow to the Chinese.
'Madame Sosostris' was right about Australia's victory in the competition for the millennial Olympics, and about the discovery of Arthur Fowler's affair by his wife, Pauline, in EastEnders. She correctly predicted the progress of both inflation and unemployment, but was wrong about the inevitability of military intervention in Bosnia.
'Gypsy Rose' was wrong that the UK would fail to ratify the Maastricht treaty, mistakenly believed in the survival of Eldorado, and was equally wrong about the death of the Queen Mother (except for a few hours in Australia, following a news agency mistake). Her best guess was that Caroline and Robin would announce their engagement on The Archers. Her most original divination - that there would be a 'smog crisis' in London - is supported anecdotally, if not officially.
All four futurologists expected the removal of John Major and his replacement by Kenneth Clarke. The confounding of this foresight is perhaps the strongest moral to emerge from this exercise. We should beware, as we enter 1994, of the terrible fallability of the conventional political wisdom. Almost no one predicted in advance that Margaret Thatcher would not survive 1990; almost no one guessed that John Major would see out 1993. (Limping politicians should not, however, become too sanguine. All four of us wrote down that Norman Lamont would be sacked during this year. He was.)
None of us imagined either Mr Zhirinovsky or Mr Blobby, the year's two big surprise guys, in different areas. Both will doubtless be fitted into retrospective historical narratives as symptoms of the self-destructive volatility of public taste in the late 20th century, but their appearance stands as a reminder of the unpredictability of civilisation.
We seem to have been particularly far away from guessing Mr Blobby. Indeed, 'Madame Sosostris', in a notably highminded flyer, predicted that 'ballet will become the big new cultural craze with the masses'. In fairness, however, two of the party can claim moral sightings of Mr Zhirinovsky. 'Soothsayer' foresaw 'a major uprising in Russia', and 'Gypsy Rose' asserted that 'Yeltsin will go'.
Even with the courts closed for the Christmas holidays, this newspaper's lawyers do not really want me to mention the two prominent individuals who, our cultural pools panel predicted, would be exposed as crooks during 1993. All I can say is that neither of them did anything during the year to make inclusion on a 1994 list seem ridiculous or vindictive.
As midnight approached, discipline seems to have broken down. I don't really see the point of three people predicting that a fourth will not complete a book he was due to finish by December. And one of us, for some reason, offered the prophecy: 'Andrew Neil will not get married during 1993.' A winner, as it turned out.
We will be round the table again, fate willing, on Friday night, and the lists will again be written and locked in the filing cabinet. I think we will have learnt that the temptation is to see history as a logical development of trends, forgetting the daily possibility of a Zhirinovsky or a Blobby.
On 31 December last year, 'Madame Sosostris' concluded the evening with a prediction that a baby of the table's acquaintance would have grown 14 teeth by the end of 1993. The terrible consequences to the fingers of those of us who have just tried to test the accuracy of this prophecy should perhaps stand as a warning of the way in which those who make prophecies risk being embarrassingly bitten.
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