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13 January 2021

The New Year we long for is the one in which the virus no longer dominates our lives

As fireworks lit up London's skyline, I thought of us all in the city below watching from our separate spaces.   

By Tracey Thorn

New Year’s Eve has never been my favourite night of the year. When I was young I remember wanting something transformative to happen – a wildly attractive stranger! A life-changing kiss! – but it was always a let-down. And structurally, it doesn’t even work, its supposed high point – midnight – coming too early if you’re young and out clubbing, too late if you’re old and having dinner with friends.

This year, of course, none of us were doing any of those things. I would quite happily have gone to bed at 11pm but living where I do in London that is not possible, unless you’re the sort of person who can sleep through a couple of hours of fireworks.

Instead, I decided to try to make the best of it, planning drinks, and food, and a film to watch with our youngest, Blake. Things had got off to an OK start with cocktails at 7pm, when my phone rang with the news that a family member had just been admitted to hospital with Covid. And so we joined the many, many people around the country who’ve had similar news, and the generalised anxiety we’ve all lived with for most of a year became a particular and specific anxiety.

[See also: In an old box sits mum’s scrapbook – labelled, in her neat writing, “A Few Tried and Tested Recipes”]

We tried to carry on with our evening anyway – what else was there to do? So we finished the cocktails, and opened the wine, and ate the food, and then sat down to watch our chosen family movie – The Long Good Friday.

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I don’t think I’ve seen it in a very long time, but I found I remembered much of it so clearly. Made in 1979, it was full of shots of London looking the way I remember it looking: the ungentrified East End, the undeveloped river, the smoky pubs: I could almost smell it all. I worried that Blake would find it slow – as all films from the past seem slow to his generation – but he was struck by the vivid set pieces: a bunch of gangsters hung upside down on meat hooks; an impromptu murder with a broken bottle; and, of course, the final, back-of-the-taxi masterclass in screen acting from Bob Hoskins.

Blake is a drama student, and so was mesmerised by what Hoskins was able to do with his face in such a short space of time, registering a succession of emotions from shock to fury to realisation to resignation, ending with a kind of grudging respect for those who had finally, and unexpectedly, got one over on him.

[See also: Ronnie Scott understood that for some people music is the only outlet – so he opened a club]

By now it was nearly midnight. We got some more drinks and, as the fireworks started, went out on to the roof, which has a good view of London. The sky lit up in all directions, the noise was as deafening as usual, but without the added human element – there was no whooping and cheering and applause. Just the explosions booming out into the night, the rockets soaring up into an empty sky, and I thought of all of us in the city below, watching from our separate spaces.

“Well, Happy New Year,” I said to Blake, and he smiled ruefully. “Yeah, you too.” Then there was a pause. “I feel a bit melancholy,” he said, and I had to agree. I could have told him once again to stay strong, and be patient, and look on the bright side, and that it won’t be much longer now, and there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but I am sick of hearing myself say these things.

I could only think what a difficult year it’s been, and what a sad place we are in, and how uncertain is the way ahead. The New Year is supposed to be a time of plans and resolutions, fresh starts and clean slates, but it’s impossible to feel that right now. The year will only feel new when we have moved into that longed-for place where Covid no longer dominates our lives, where we can return to some of the simple things we took for granted, where we can start to make plans again and feel confident that they won’t be cancelled.

None of us can put a date on that New Year, and longing for it too much risks wishing our lives away. Mindfulness tells us we have to live in the here and now, find meaning in the present, and live every moment as it happens. And so we keep trying.

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This article appears in the 13 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, American civil war