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12 January 2022

I start the year as I don’t mean to continue, sipping venerable condiments

Right now I’m only on the year’s fifth day, and all I can say is it looks like it’s going to be a tough one.

By Nicholas Lezard

Every New Year I think fondly of the reply given by Samuel Beckett to a reporter who foolishly, or mischievously, asked him what his resolutions and hopes were for the following year. Beckett replied by telegram, so his answer looked like this: RESOLUTIONS COLON ZERO STOP PERIOD HOPES COLON ZERO STOP BECKETT. How he must have relished dictating the word “colon”. Anyway, I have pretty much the same attitude – except this year I do have two goals: one is to get my taxes sorted out and the other is to start tidying up and then keep things tidy.

The first is a legal obligation; the second more of a practical one. I am congenitally incapable of doing either, but then nor was I born with wings and I still managed to fly to New York two years ago. These things can be done. On the way up the stairs last night I picked up four items from the floor that could only have arrived there on my foot: a cigarette paper, a leaf, something that may well have come from the top of a pizza, and a scrap of tissue paper. It’s a start.

I do not like to place too much importance on what, after all, is an arbitrary date in the year – and pagans will argue that the new year is in spring, anyway – but like it or not you can’t help thinking that, like the first ball of an Ashes series, the first day of the year sets the tone as to how it will pan out. In my case, if the first evening of the year was anything to go by, it will be spent sipping spoon after spoon of, alternately, Henderson’s and Lea & Perrins’ respective relishes, trying to determine which one is better, and the subtle differences in taste between the two.

Frankly, I think Henderson’s owes Lea & Perrins a lot of money. “Harry Henderson,” says the bottle, “blended the first batch of this famous relish in Sheffield in 1885.” It then says its secret recipe is known to only three family members. And possibly, the bottle does not add, also by Lea & Perrins, which brewed its first batch 50 years before that, only it was better. (I will not enter into any correspondence on this matter. And yes, I know Henderson’s is vegan.)

[see also: In my post-festive season loneliness, I wonder if I have gone feral]

Anyway, resolutions are like predictions of what kind of person you are going to be next year, and predictions are the things that make God laugh, so on the whole I tend not to make predictions, or resolutions. They are hostages to fortune. Over Christmas my daughter was staying at the family home and uncovered some files of clippings from my early days in journalism. She found them most diverting, particularly the piece, which must date from the late 1980s, which confidently asserted that mobile phones would never catch on. OK, I was probably playing the contrarian card just for laughs; if I remember correctly, I said that the feeling of embarrassment generated by using a mobile in public meant that people would only really feel happy using them in the street if they could do so by ducking into a phone box. I might have written the piece just to set up that gag, but whether I did or not the main point is that she, and all the friends she told, now think I’m even more of an idiot than they thought I was in the first place. I decided to front it out. “My proudest moment,” I said.

Anyway, it’s back to the New Year. I write this a week ahead, so right now I’m only on the year’s fifth day, and all I can say is that it looks like it’s going to be a tough one. A casual observer would notice the two bottles of tamarind-based relishes on my desk, the general squalor surrounding and indeed on the desk, and conclude that this was a man fraying at the edges. One of my best deeds of 2021 came when a friend was having a severe panic attack because an electrician was coming round and he hadn’t tidied his flat for a year. He sent me a photo. It looked pretty bad, but I sent him a photo back and he suddenly felt better.

This really has to stop. Not the doing good deeds, but the general shabbiness. Do I say this every year? I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure I thought it was going to be the same old rubbish but I did not expect that I’d end up tasting century-plus-aged relishes simply because I’d finished the Beatles documentary and didn’t have any idea how to use the new free time. The odd thing is that I seem to be tearing through the stuff and I hardly have any culinary uses for it. What do you put Worcestershire sauce in anyway? Bloody Marys, cheese on toast, and cheesy beans on toast. I can’t be bothered making a Bloody Mary for myself, and besides I do not have a freezer capable of sustaining an ice tray, and cheese and beans on toast are only occasional treats, And yet, like some demented alchemist, you can find me in the kitchen, sipping first from one, then from the other. Lea & Perrins is better. No, wait, Henderson’s is better. No, wait, they’re completely different. Henderson’s lacks body but cleanses the palate. Let me not be mad, not mad,  sweet heaven.

[see also: Now I have had my ears syringed I am waiting for an upswing in my quality of life]

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage