Happy New Year

2014numberNew Year’s is, by and large, tinged with regret. If the year has been particularly difficult, there’s marginal relief to be had at its conclusion; if the year has been splendid, then there’s sadness at leaving it behind and some trepidation as to what the future may bring. Either way, it represents the outer frontier of the holiday season: beyond it, alarm clocks, early mornings, hastily consumed cups of coffee and the commute back to work all beckon. The lights come down, the trees are set out as rubbish, the stores start aggressively marketing Valentine’s Day wares, the holiday season is tucked into the space of memory, revisited mainly when photo albums are opened. Christmas 2013 is finished; the realities of winter remain. As I write this, I am sitting in New York, and a blizzard warning is in effect for this evening. Tomorrow I’ll go out into what the storm leaves behind with my Bradford City scarf tied around my neck and hoist a snow shovel to help ensure my parents’ car isn’t trapped on the driveway.

As I attack the drifting snow, I will remember that Spring will come. There will be trips to the garden centre for pale green seedlings, which always seem so frail in April. The sun will eventually linger into the evening. It will be possible and preferable to sit outside of Nando’s at Bradford’s Centenary Square and have lunch; it will eventually be right to wear sunglasses as I consume my Extra Hot Butterfly Chicken. For the moment, that scene seems a distant dream, something contemplated as one tries to hibernate in the dark or watches the tiny flakes of white descend en masse.

Moreover, January is the poster-child for austerity. Pay day was just before Christmas; the feeling of being flush is gone, replaced with wondering how one is going to stretch one’s finances to the end of the month. According to the Financial Times, British consumer spending in Q3 was up 1.7% though wages only increased 0.2%. This is the month when plain white and brown envelopes are stuffed into mailboxes, the black sans-serif text showing one’s address providing little hint of the cheque coming due. Television and the press encourage us to go on diets: what remains of the turkey is sealed in plastic containers and stuck in the back of the freezer. If Charles Dickens had given us a portrait of pre-transformed Scrooge in January, no doubt the miser would be portrayed as smiling through the month. His view of December’s profligacy, in his mind, would no doubt have been vindicated. It’s no wonder that many Christmas songs plead for the feeling to extend throughout the year, or for it to be Christmas every day.

Dick ClarkSuch pleas are bound to fail. Eventually, we face New Year’s Eve: it’s no wonder so many people get drunk on the night. I happened across one New Year’s Eve television programme which showed a correspondent in Miami who was obviously inebriated. He wandered aimlessly around a hotel with a roving camera team. He made a point of speaking, albeit with slurred and disconnected words, to young women who were all in a semi-state of undress. They appeared to be no more sober than he was. I could easily imagine him waking up the next morning with a damaged career as well as a hangover. Another reporter was in a New York dance club: he was accompanied by women who looked like they were extras from Robert Palmer music videos with their slicked back hair, bright red lipstick, limited dance movements and absolute silence. One of them poured cheap champagne out as freely as if it was water. My father changed the channel and found a testament to how these New Year’s programmes have become ever more mired in mediocrity: there was a show entitled “Dick Clark’s Rocking New Year’s with Ryan Seacrest”. Dick Clark, the long time host of “American Bandstand” (a programme similar to Britain’s “Top of the Pops”) had presented a New Year’s show right up until the year of his death. He was an American institution and presented the New Year with skill and brio. His successor, Mr. Seacrest, as the title of the programme indicates, obviously lacks Mr. Clark’s talents; indeed, this is one of the very few television shows to my knowledge which refers to a deceased host in order to maintain its attractiveness. Mr. Seacrest also made the ill-advised choice of inviting Miley Cyrus, who wore an oversized white fur coat and a vacant expression. Fortunately, the last ten seconds of all the programmes were the same: at Times Square, the lighted crystal ball descended, the crowd chanted the countdown from 10, the ball landed and a sign reading “2014” lit up. Sinatra’s “New York, New York” rang through the air, couples kissed and confetti fell. My family raised a toast. Then my father switched the television off and bid us all good night.

This New Year’s Day, I went to see the New York house in which I spent a good part of my childhood. To get there, I took a long walk in the early twilight. The wind was biting cold: my Bradford City scarf, my coat and my gloves weren’t entirely sufficient in keeping it out. I passed some familiar landmarks on the way.  There was the County Club, which was set on a vast golf course: it had not given up the ghost on Christmas just yet, the wreaths and garlands were hung out across its freshly painted white walls, each tied up with a large bright red bow. Turn a corner and walk further along, and I found a large school which I never attended, but nevertheless, was a familiar landmark. It was built probably in the 1920’s: it was made mainly of red brick, but its height and tall windows spoke of an era that was far less concerned with energy efficiency. It was topped with a white tower that would not have been out of place atop a New England church. I wondered if it was still open, given how difficult it would be to keep heating such a place: I later found out, to my relief, that it was.

Perhaps it was the arch of a set of trees or the fact that some of the houses hadn’t changed, but I clearly recalled being a child and going trick or treating on this street. I remembered carrying a plastic basket shaped like a Jack O’Lantern and knocking on unfamiliar doors. I remember Almond Joy and Hershey bars being deposited into my basket, to be consumed as I watched television later in the evening.

Further on, and more familiar houses lay ahead. However I noticed there were quite a few which had changed: some had been extended, others completely rebuilt. The Fords and Dodges which were parked outside the houses of my youth had been replaced with Audis and Volkswagens. The area had gentrified. Finally, I found my former home. Or rather, I found the address.

The home I was looking for was a compact house, painted beige with dark brown shutters. It was barely two storeys: upstairs was confined to my parents’ bedroom and a small lounge. There was a full living room in which our oversized Christmas tree usually sat. My strongest memories are of the kitchen: my parents put in a bay window and placed the kitchen table right by it. I remember sitting there on winter mornings with the radio on: I would look out at the snow falling and wondering if I had to go to school or if the school would shut due to the weather. I remember the excitement I felt when my school’s name was announced, the scent of my parents’ coffee, the soft light of the kitchen reflecting off the yellow linoleum floor.

But the kitchen was gone, the house was gone: what faced me was not a compact suburban home, but rather a three storey behemoth, done up in dark brown render with white window and door frames. Even the prominent sycamore tree in the front yard, under which I had sought shade in the summer, had disappeared; it had been replaced by a driveway that was set in a gentle arc in front of the house. I saw nothing of what I once knew.

Perhaps I should have expected as much. I thought if I looked at my old home I could somehow commune with myself at the age of 10. If I could have stepped into a time machine and visited him, I perhaps would have spoken of Yorkshire and provided reassurance as to where he was headed. Maybe life would have been more certain with such information. But at that moment I couldn’t connect the structure with anything that remained in my memory. Everything had changed.

Matt Smith recently reassured us during his final moments on Doctor Who (before he turned into Peter Capaldi) that we all change, and it’s OK. Indeed, everything changes, and it’s OK. But this is not necessarily the “OK” that arises from it being beneficial, it is inevitable: we are set to change. 2013 ends, 2014 begins and brings change. Perhaps the best of 2013 will continue: perhaps 2014 will present an opportunity to remedy what was worst about last year. The holidays are over, it’s back to work: while there is no assurance that 2014 will be better, easier or happier than the year that has just passed, at least there is a chance to make it so. When we come to New Year’s again, yes, there will still be regret: but perhaps we’ll have begun to forget who Miley Cyrus is, the Miami correspondent could be stuck in Cleveland and more monuments to greed, stupidity and avarice might have come down. With these bright possibilities in mind, I say, Happy New Year.

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