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27 December 2016

In 2016, I’m ending the year by retreating into the past

Linda the landlady has gone, and even a stack of New Scientist magazines doesn't cheer me up. There's nothing for it but to look back.

By Nicholas Lezard

A drink at the Uxbridge Arms with my old pal Toby. It is too long since I’ve been there, and besides, I have a friend visiting from Rome and thought it might amuse her to see the inside of a proper English pub, with proper pub characters in it like Tom the Hat, Michael-Who-Is-Called-Mary and Linda the landlady. I ask after her as I order the drinks.

“She left at the end of October,” I am told, and I feel as though I’ve been punched in the stomach. How could I have missed this? This will teach me not to go to the pub. I have written of Linda before, of her iron fist in the iron glove, yet who would soften like butter on a summer’s day whenever I mentioned her and her pub in these pages. How will she know that I am writing about her now? She is not a natural New Statesman subscriber, I fear, and I do not know her address.

At least the pub looks the same. The new guvnor seems to be wise enough not to change a successful formula. Actually, Linda did that herself to some degree when she put the new seats in, which I must admit I never saw eye to eye with her about, but I kept my objections to a very low murmur indeed, expressed only when I knew she wasn’t around. She once did hear my objections, and her reaction to what I had intended as honest criticism has made me flinch at loud noises and sleep with the light on ever since. She was quite marvellous, and I am going to miss her dreadfully.

Still Toby is there in his seat, known locally as the cat basket, the beer is being kept well, and the same old crowd are there. Toby, who has had some warning of my arrival this time, has brought along about a year’s supply of New Scientist for my amusement and education. (Aren’t magazines with the word “new” in the title excellent? Apart from the New Musical Express, of course, which isn’t even a shadow of its former self.) I find the New Scientist a most soothing read, or at least I used to. It is like watching Tomorrow’s World was as a child: the future, in its pages, seems to hold no fears, beyond the heat-death of the universe, that is, or a gamma-ray burst from an exploding star frying everything on one side of the planet, or an attack by Boltzmann Brains, a concept that, I fear, I do not have the scientific chops to explain to you adequately.

Apart from these threats to our existence, and maybe one or two others that I gloss over to preserve your peace of mind (eg, the possibility the universe could suddenly wink out of existence for some reason that was explained to me at length but which I failed to take on board fully), the world in this magazine is broadly progressive, scientists Working Hard On Things to make life better and more wonderful for humanity, though the news that I have just picked up from an old issue that an extra second is going to be added to 2016 hasn’t exactly cheered me up. This is a year for shaving seconds off of, surely, not adding them on.

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But one learns so much: that there is a valley in Norway which generates huge, floating balls of light, possibly because the composition of the soil, and the sulphur run-off from an old local mine, conspire to turn the place into an enormous battery; that there are vast anomalies in the universe which are freaking cosmologists out, and may be due to the overlapping of another universe into our own; or that consciousness may be explicable by quantum mechanics. Or not.

But immersion in the back issues isn’t calming me as much as it used to. I note the dates of the magazines: they’re mostly pre-June 2016, a time when all we really had to moan about was the death of David Bowie. These pages tell of a world that is still inching forward, and not crawling back into the primordial soup. I don’t think anyone is going around thinking that Donald Trump and our own cretinous home-grown version of him are examples of humanity as Nature’s last word. Not even their supporters would make so bold a claim.

So, even as I read about the future, I retreat into the past. A few months ago, after a good lunch, I snapped up a three-DVD set about the 2005 Ashes series from the local Oxfam. This has lain unwatched on the grounds that maybe watching old cricket matches is a bit much, even for me. I’ve changed my mind and am watching them now. It’s unbearable. I can remember exactly where I was for each session of play. Everything was different then. Everything was going to be all right

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This article appears in the 13 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016