There’s something so depressing about the newspapers’ tips for sticking to your New Year’s Resolutions that to shield yourself from boredom and irritation, you may decide not to make any at all. But they can be rather romantic; the diplomat Harold Nicolson had a tender affection for resolutions, much preferring them to Christmas.
How far more delightful, how far less cumbersome, is the search for New Year’s resolutions. No careful planning is required for this catalogue; the resolutions trip merrily along together, as gay as a group of children leaving school…One should realise that the ease with which they buzz and settle implies an equal capacity for being able, in the dark days of January, to flit away. They should be treated tenderly as butterflies; smiling affectionately, one should observe their happy movements and their volatile stance; they are but the insects of an hour—let them be gay and irresponsible while their short span of life may last. I have found that, watching the movements of these insects, allowing them to settle here and there, one experiences not merely the pleasure induced by the light motion of small and transitory things, but also a sense of added and acquired virtue.
The iridescent colours of these day-dreams do not, we must admit, maintain their freshness and beauty when exposed to the hard light of day. But they are lovely and so comforting while they last…I am glad every January to see them again. It is delightful to notice how, with bright self-confidence, with smiles of moral rapture, they greet each New Year, undeterred by previous disappointment, unaware even, it would seem, that their visit must be brief. Here, with shining face, comes the annual visitor who assures me that during the course of the year I shall smoke no more than ten cigarettes a day; here, again, wreathed in rosemary and snowdrops, comes the confiding maiden who once again promises me that at future luncheons there will be no more port; and here I welcome gladly the good fairy who waves her wand so amicably and prophesies that, only in the event of illness, shall I hail a taxi more than twice a week.
Auberon Waugh’s resolution in 1988 was to drink more vintage port, which had become unaccountably unfashionable.
Perhaps this is because it is no longer fashionable to meditate about the unemployed and the poor, something which used to be encouraged at this time of year. Vintage port is far and away the best accompaniment to this gloomy occupation — so much so that I find my thoughts turning to the poor and underprivileged almost with the first sip of old port at any time of the year. In 1987 I managed to drink the famed Quinta do Noval 1931 for the first time — at lunch with Sichel’s and felt the tears running down my cheeks. I am sure it is a good thing to meditate about the poor and unemployed in this way, and we should all do more of it…[but] far from meditating about the poor and unemployed, people now spend their time brooding about health and drink-driving — even gloomier subjects, I would have thought, and without any disinterested or redeeming aspect.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Bernard was considering doing a geographical for a lifestyle change.
What of next year? Nothing changes much except for, as Dickens said, shaving the awful stranger in the morning every day. Grey stubble is not a pretty sight especially when it grows out of crevasses…But of New Year resolutions I have none. There is nothing I want to give up save this way of life, like smoking and drinking but oh the monotony and predictability of it all. My friends are pretty predictable too. I am late this morning but I know that Gordon is already on his third large Bells and that Eric, the French barman, is staring out of the window when he should be looking to see if anyone needs serving. Mary is preparing the salad, Norman is screaming at the nurses in his posh clinic and Graham is holding his head in his hands and moaning, ‘Oh no, oh no,’ time and time again. There must be something else somewhere and I shall plunder the American Express card to find it even if it is in Mongolia. Perhaps it is the same there. An equivalent of Gordon is sitting under the same old tree, a Mary is making tea with butter in it and an Eric is in his usual trance. An enormous Norman, a giant Sikh, slips a disc and screams. It would seem that there is no escape even with the help of British Airways.
Jeffrey Bernard’s successor to the Low Life column, Jeremy Clarke, came up with a more practical resolution in 2004, after cutting himself while shaving.
The amount of blood oozing out of such a tiny nick was hard to credit. I couldn’t staunch it, either. Then I remembered reading in the SAS survival handbook I was given for Christmas that cobwebs are effective for healing small cuts (as are a handful of live maggots, incidentally, for larger ones). The choice of cobwebs in my bedroom was tremendous. While making my selection I made a New Year resolution to read only survival hooks in future. In the past I’ve believed that if I read enough highbrow books I might understand something. But all the books I’ve read comparing theories about truth, or putting forward theories about why people live in groups, or arguing whether it is faith or works that determines one’s long-term prospects, I’d swap for one SAS survival handbook containing a practical use for cobwebs. No contest. I pulled a cobweb away from the ceiling, tore a bit off and stuck it to my upper lip. It staunched the blood almost immediately.
If you’re still choosing a New Year’s Resolution, other Spectator writers have suggested complaining more, not speaking to Yoko Ono and not taking things out of the bin once you’ve decided to throw them away. Some of these might pass the test of the army of wellbeing experts and behavioural coaches who are quoted so much at this time of year – after all, their usual message is to limit your ambitions as much as possible. The Spectator of 1928 would be gravely disappointed.
The virtue of New Year Resolutions does not depend on their fulfilment. Here, indeed, success is the essence of failure. To succeed in our best resolutions is proof positive that our best is not very good. Every truly great resolution is risky and courts failure. It aims at the stars and falls short, but that is nobler than hitting the ceiling… the true worth of a man lies, not in where he has arrived, but in where he is going. It is the man who is going on, and going somewhere, who keeps pushing out the frontiers of knowledge, of civilization, and of his own life. There is that in us which sets us reaching up to the stars, and to aim lower would be cowardice. The attempt to attain carries its own joy and its own reward.
Failure does not mean that endeavour is foolish or futile. The acquiescence in failure is never justified. It is the starting-point for new endeavour. As R. L. Stevenson has it: ‘Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits.’ We fall to rise again. ‘Peering wistfully along the dim pathway of a dawning year’ we resolve – nay more! – with Lincoln at Gettysburg ‘we here highly resolve.’