On December 31 each year, novelist Arnold Bennett liked to take stock.
The entry in his diary for 1899 is typical, suggesting as it does a man who considered a day not spent furthering his career as a day wasted. "This year I have written 335,340 words," he wrote. A list of his output followed, including short stories, a serial, a collection of plays and the draft of a novel. He concluded with a tally of his earnings: "£592 3s 1d, of which sum I have yet to receive £72 10s."
Bennett's tidy mind, and the precision of his calculations, inspire awe in anyone who finds it difficult enough to wring out a newspaper column, let alone hundreds of thousands words fit to print. And while his arid arithmetic is decidedly soulless, an inventory more suited, you'd think, to an accountant or a book-keeper than a keenly creative mind, one can't help admiring his courage in facing the past 12 months so unflinchingly.
In Bennett's day, diary keeping was a popular activity, a confessional and aide memoire, a source of entertainment for years to come and, at the fag end of each year, a discipline that demanded the honest writer look hard at himself.
This widespread habit may partly explain why in generations past people saw December 31 as a time to look back at the year and examine their contribution to it. Few were as consumed by their own productivity as Bennett, but it's the rare diarist whose entry for this day is taken up entirely by trivia, and more unusual still to find one without a hint of sadness.
Like it or not, Hogmanay comes freighted with meaning, much of it melancholy. Even the young are aware that it marks the passing of another milestone, a notch in the calendar that can never be sandpapered out. By middle age, it can start to become a rather grim anniversary, as the years take their toll on friends and relatives, not to mention celebrities and icons we thought would live for ever.
It's interesting, though, that despite the annual round-ups in the media of the year's big events, and their glossy lists of improbable New Year resolutions by the great and good, most of us no longer seem to feel the need to look back at our achievements, or shortcomings, of the bygone year. Do any of us ask ourselves if we kept our promises, or carried out our plans, lived well, or recklessly or, most likely, somewhere in between? Yet, as the years hurtle past, it surely becomes increasingly important to use time well, and treat each day seriously.
Of course, even to suggest a moment's reflection sounds ridiculously Victorian and pious, a concept more suited to an era of self-improvement and missionary deeds than to our liberal, enlightened and less self-critical age. Making a tally of what we've done, however, is not only good but necessary. A private audit offers a brief pause, a time for readjusting or reorienting, or simply remembering. In fact, on this, potentially the most miserable and dreich day of the year, it might actually make us feel better.
The pessimistic, gloomy or incurably Presbyterian, like me, no doubt shy away from the idea for fear of finding nothing but faults – jobs undone, emails unwritten and good intentions ditched. But this should not be an exercise in flagellation. Its purpose is purely to slow the passing of time. Because if we forget to look back, the unexamined year becomes nothing more than a blur, a single snowflake in life's dizzying blizzard. Without a stocktaking, time becomes amorphous rather than precious, and we're in danger of forgetting just how much we can achieve in a mere 12 months.
For the likes of Arnold Bennett, the yardstick of success was how hard he had worked and how much money he'd made. That his diary includes no comment beyond the bare facts and figures suggests he felt they spoke for themselves. Personally, though, I prefer the outlook of a more philosophical writer. There's no better credo for a reckoning of 2012 than Samuel Beckett's dictum: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
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