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The parties were better back then, when Roman armies roamed the city at night

All other New Year's Eve celebrations will pale by comparison.

These are the coldest collations of the year: shards of glass tossed on the kerbstone, dressed with vomit. Nearby stands a seven-eighthsempty bottle of supermarket champagne; while if you follow the straggle of pink streamers you can see beer cans lurking by the wheelie bin, tinnily jostling. The party has well and truly pooped out.

This year there was comparatively little hoo-ha: the failure of the Mayan prophecies to come up to scratch left the credulous with sod all in the way of an apocalypse – while as for the more civic-minded, there was a mass sense of the anticlimactic: the Eve marked the end of the spectacular year of the Jubilympics, a twelvemonth of unsurpassed gloriousness and achievement, the like of which we’ll never see again in our lives, nor our children and grandchildren in theirs.

Forced fun

Some consolation was to be found in the ennoblements of those who had reeled, writhed, and – in the case of Sir Bradley Wiggins – fainted in coils; but for the most part, as the damp, drear 31 December merged seamlessly into the damp, drear 1 January, there was no sense that the populace were shouting and staggering from any great sense of joy, only going through the motions.

Lying in bed, in the small hours, listening to the occasional yelps of grimly enforced gaiety, I thought back to the New Year’s Eves of the more distant past. You may have gathered that I am not the most cheerful of revellers – some characterise me as the death and soullessness of any party but it wasn’t always so, believe me. I remember New Year’s Eves before the munificent Mayoralty forced London’s transport workers to stay up all night – in those days, if you chose to revel on the far side of town, you might find yourself with a very long trek before your belated bed.

One year, sometime in the early 1980s, I ended up at a party in Rotherhithe – at that time still a wasteland of redundant docks and warehouses, its “renaissance” but a twinkle in Terry Conran’s hooded eye. And although people gyred and gibbered, there was still – come about 2am – the sense that the world spirit of dissolution had moved on. Together with a couple of mates I left and took the long bend of the Thames for home. Crossing London Bridge, we passed by Fishmongers Hall and were just tending towards King William Street and the Bank of England, when we heard the massed slapping of marching feet.

Yes, “slapping”, because as the sound drew closer it became conjoined with this vision: around the bend of Gracechurch Street came a formation of Roman legionaries. In the lead was a standard-bearer: above his helmeted head flew the letters SPQR grasped in the talons of a rampant eagle; beside him strode the decanus, his short sword drawn, while behind them came perhaps 20 more men, all with long pila at slope-arms, burnished helmets, tunics, cloaks and dangling, jangling baldricks. We stood, slack-jawed, as the le gionaries slapped downhill on to the Bridge and headed south into the sodium-tinged darkness.

Pale imitation

Anyone seeing such a visitation would’ve been shocked and questioning of their sanity. But what saved us from hysterics were the following facts: all of us had seen the same thing – so we knew we weren’t hallucinating (or, at least, if we were hallucinating, it was only part of that collective hallucination ordinarily termed “reality”); and then there were the legionaries themselves, who, far from having the swarthy and squat aspect expected of first-century Roman invaders, were distinctly pale and paunchy. Put simply: it was obvious that these were men dressed up as legionaries, rather than a couple of real contubernia that had somehow managed to march through a tear in the space-time continuum.

Why a group of Roman army fanatics had decided to suit up then tramp through the City was a question that could never be answered – they may have been of our era but their expressions were Caesar-stern, forestalling any inclination we might’ve had to hale them. And why do I offer up this anecdote now? Because once you’ve been part of a triumvirate who have witnessed a troop of legionaries marching through a silent London in the small, cold hours of New Year’s Day, all subsequent celebrations are bound to seem utterly infra dig.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers