What do you do when there's evidence in black and white that life is not as you intended?

During the past few years we have developed a way of starting the new year which, as rituals go, seems only marginally preferable to the human sacrifices of the Incas. It's not just that we make resolutions. Probably most people do that. The problem is that we write them down. And we don't just write them down on a piece of paper which would inevitably get lost. We write them down in a notebook. And not just any notebook, but the notebook which contains the resolutions we made last year, and the year before that. Then we read them out, and then write a score at the bottom.

Two years ago, it seems, I scored an unimpressive 6.5 out of 18, and then only because of some generous marking by some of the judges (ie, me), awarding me half a mark for allegedly having sort of managed to "reply to letters by return of post".

Last year we performed the ritual while eating bacon and eggs on a bright sunny morning at a breakfast table at a Korean restaurant in Sydney. I was feeling a deep sense of contentment but after undergoing the self-inflicted inquisition and scoring 2.5 out of 17 I first gave a kind of "good sport" laugh, and then suffered a sort of panic attack.

Most of the time we can lie to ourselves about our life. One of the most important attributes of the human brain - it must be programmed into it like our ability to learn language or our capacity not to be overly concerned about the sufferings of others - is the way we can convince ourselves that the way our life happens to have turned out is the way we intended it to.

But here, in black and white, was a vision of 17 things I had wanted from 1997 and I had achieved two and a half of them. And that was only because I had been given half a mark for the resolution "to keep office in order" which can only mean that, though I didn't keep it in order I did keep it. That is, I didn't actually have it taken away from me in 1998. What would I have felt at the end of 1996 if I had been shown the list of what I would have failed to achieve in 1997? I might just have thought, well, I'll take 1997 off and go and do something else.

On the other hand, Browning has the great lines (in his poem "Andrea del Sarto"), "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?". Maybe it would be psychologically disastrous to fulfil all your resolutions.

Or, worse still, what if it all happened in public? I have just got around to watching the tape of 42 Up (the programme in which a group of children have been interviewed every seven years). I've grown up with these people, in a way that I haven't with anybody except people I'm related to. Seeing the programme brought back not just the characters I remembered but all the discussions, back when it was 35 Up and 28 Up and even 21 Up, about which was your favourite and least favourite, the way one used to argue about one's favourite Beatle. This time I'd come to feel affection for most of them.

But for the moment I have a clear unfavourite. Surprisingly, it's not the one who as a 21 year old sat in the Oxford college that I would go to a couple of years later and said that people working on assembly lines could send their children to Eton if they really wanted to. No, it's the posh one who became rather hip and Bohemian, went to Durham University and has ended up as commissioning editor of documentaries at Channel 4. He has also, after his appearance at 21, chosen not to take any further part in the programme.

Now we're all much more media aware, we've seen The Truman Show, and the project has come to seem more complicated, less scientific than it once did. I was glad that this time Michael Apted asked them all what the programme had meant to their lives. I can understand the discomfort some of them feel about the attention it has attracted. But still, there's something interesting, shall we say, about working in documentaries yet refusing to be the subject of one. There used to be a snobbish maxim that "television is for appearing on, not for watching". A new, more distasteful version of that might be that "television programmes are for making, not for appearing in". That can be left to the deluded punters.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium