Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Year of Living Unneurotically

'Begin as you mean to go on,' the head of the Russian department told us, on the first day of our three-year university course. I assumed he meant by this that we should all work frantically, applying ourselves feverishly from the first moment and continuing in that vein for the entire degree. I decided, based on his advice, that I should learn a page of the dictionary daily and then fill every other waking minute with grammar exercises and wild efforts to read everything ever written in Russian. Needless to say after a matter of weeks - oh, all right, days (okay, a day) - my admirable plans collapsed.

What he actually meant, I now suspect, was 'Go steadily.' I suppose I might have been a reasonably good student, had I understood this sooner. Instead of beginning each year with mad intensity and then collapsing into exhausted torpor until a few days before the panic of the final exams, I might have made gradual, incremental progress, moving imperceptibly forward in the pursuit of knowledge, day-by-day. But I was in the grip of a dream of self-improvement - a dream that contained the idea that only by giving oneself a pretty tough time could one achieve anything good.

The concept of self improvement is still very much with us, even if its form is not always punishingly severe. After all, it is chiefly by stimulating the desire for self improvement that advertising has its effect. The parade of perfect families we see in the ad breaks on television - breakfasting in pristine, gleaming kitchens,  strolling along empty beaches in honey-coloured evening light  et cetera - is designed to make us feel inadequate, while offering us the opportunity to buy our way to redemption.

While in actual fact everyone in my family looks perfectly attractive, (even if, these days, when I glimpse myself in the bathroom mirror, I can't help recalling Paddington Bear's thoughts, when confronting a failed attempt at DIY*: "there was still a nasty sag in the middle, and even with the curtains drawn and the light out it was obvious something was wrong"), somehow after seeing the family that has Coco Pops or Nutrigrain or whatever it is for breakfast, it is easy to believe that we aren't quite making the grade. My hair doesn't swing like the mum's in that house, my husband's shirt doesn't gleam quite so dazzlingly, my children aren't as neat and easygoing. But I can make myself better. I can purchase my way into this world of youth, good looks and eternally spotless work surfaces. All I need is a packet of Special K (or was it Weetabix?)

For obvious reasons, new beginnings are often triggers for the self-improvement impulse - a fresh start, a clean slate, a new dawn, et cetera. Of these, none is better than the initial day of a new calendar, the first day of January, today, aka New Year's Day. This is the day people resolve to stop drinking or smoking or being mean to the hamster, to start listening to their spouses, to bicycle to work. Unfortunately, at least in my experience, this is also the day I look back on regretfully, realising in late November that it is too late to fulfil my promise to read Finnegan's Wake or relearn latin or get up each morning to exercise at five a.m.

Which is why today I've decided to take my Russian professor's advice in the way I believe it was meant to be taken. I'm not going to make some extreme, unkeepable vow. I'm not going to resolve to be tidier, when I know I will never be tidy. I'm not going to resolve to be less clumsy, particularly as the first thing I did this morning was break a wineglass, (by mistake, you understand - and no, I wasn't lying in bed, feeling  about on the floor beneath, in the hope of finding the dregs of last night's revelries; I was tidying the kitchen at the time). I'm not going to resolve to remember to take notice of where I put my keys down, so that I don't waste half the year looking for them. Instead, I'm going to resolve to accept that I do all these things, that I am untidy, clumsy and forgetful. My new year's resolution is to stop worrying that I am me.

* Paddington Helps Out,  published by Collins, 2nd edition, February 1963, page 51


  1. Well put. In fact, we like you as you are. That's why we're here. Happy New Year, Z.

  2. You've set me up for at least a couple more sets - and possibly a tie breaker, Patrick, thank you.

  3. Another great one. I couldn't agree more with your point. (And I will never, EVER, stop being mean to the hamster. He's a horrible creature.)

  4. Poor hamster, we don't have them here but in my youth in England I formed several close relationships with hamsters.