TOM UTLEY: If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that making New Year resolutions is a big fat waste of time
One year ago today, I resolved that 2020 would be the year in which I finally fulfilled ambitions I’d kept simmering on the back burner for decades.
Now that I was semi-retired, I’d have plenty of time on my hands. And with money still coming in from my weekly excursions on this page, I’d have enough to do things I’d only dreamt of in the past, when I had a full-time job, a hefty mortgage to pay and four growing sons to keep clothed, fed and supplied with Xboxes, smartphones and other such essentials of modern British boyhood.
Tom Utley hoped to travel in 2020 to places he wished to go but hadn’t gotten round to
For a start, I could do a bit of travelling, perhaps popping over for mini-breaks in Vienna and St Petersburg, cities I’d long had a hankering to see but had never got round to visiting.
Better still, I could at last honour my oft-repeated promise to take Mrs U to the United States, where she had never been and I’d stayed only once, for a long weekend in New York, paid for with air miles she’d sweetly saved up for me back in the 1990s (there were only enough for one).
If I left it much longer, I thought, we’d soon be too old to enjoy the experience fully. While we still had our health — and the wherewithal to finance the trip — this would be our year.
But I wasn’t thinking only of pleasures long postponed. On New Year’s Day 2020 I also resolved, for the second year running, that in the next 12 months I would finally get down to the irksome task of completing the brilliant best-seller whose first chapter I’d started, but never finished, shortly before the birth of our eldest boy in 1985.
Many’s the time, in the years since then, when I’ve mentally rehearsed my acceptance speeches for the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Booker. By the dawn of 2020, the only thing preventing me from being called upon to deliver them was the fact that I’d never got any further with the book than the first four paragraphs of Page One.
My final resolution for the year that ended yesterday was one I’ve made, in various forms, every January 1 of my adult life.
When I was in my 20s, I would tell myself: ‘From this day onwards, I’ll give up smoking.’
But as the years went by and self-knowledge crept in, I became less ambitious. ‘I’ll give up smoking’ became ‘I won’t smoke more than a packet a day.’ After another few years, this had become: ‘I won’t smoke more than two packets a day.’
By January 1, 2020, I had given up specific targets altogether, resolving only: ‘This year I’ll try to smoke a bit less.’
But even this modest aspiration, like all the others before it, was looking very silly by the morning of January 2.
As for my resolution to travel, at least nobody can blame me for failing to bring it to fruition last year.
It’s true that the only holiday we’d booked was a week in a chalet in Mrs U’s native Scotland, where we were to have gone in May. But Nicola Sturgeon soon put paid to that idea when she pulled up the drawbridge to visitors from England. (Am I being unfair, or is the First Minister actually enjoying, just a little bit, bossing everyone about?)
Well, that’s £600 I don’t expect to see again. Indeed, I reckon I deserve credit for my foresight in failing to book tickets for Mrs U’s first-in-a-lifetime trip to the States — or for any of my other travel plans, come to that.
At first Mr Utley wished to smoke no more than a pack a day, but as time went on this changed to ‘smoking no more than two packs a day’
Enough to say that when our passports expired in May, I saw no point in renewing them. For the foreseeable future at least, we’d be stuck at home.
Which brings me to the embarrassing matter of that book, begun in the year of the UK’s first mobile phone call, the Live Aid concert and episode one of a new soap called EastEnders. As I write this on New Year’s Eve 35 years later, my masterpiece has advanced not a word further than paragraph four. I can hardly blame the pandemic for that.
Oh, how millions of the rest of you have put me to shame during the lockdown. If we are to believe a survey this week by StoryTerrace, a firm described as a ‘personal biography writing service’, no fewer than 750,000 Britons made use of their unexpected spare time in 2020 to write a book.
Meanwhile, 2.2 million learned a new language and 900,000 took up a musical instrument. Some 1.1 million ran five kilometres for the first time, eight million lost weight, six million completed a ‘long overdue renovation project’ and five million achieved an ‘exercise personal best’.
That’s not to mention the year’s heroes — NHS staff, supermarket workers, hauliers, delivery drivers, energy suppliers, Brexit negotiators, charity volunteers and the rest — whose workload multiplied, under tremendous burdens, in their efforts to serve the rest of us.
When I look back on my own achievements in 2020, by contrast, all I can think of is walking the dog, completing countless crosswords, sinking industrial quantities of wine, breaking my own record for cigarette consumption, putting on half a stone in weight and watching an awful lot of TV, most of it pure rubbish.
True, I’ve also read a few books (which is much less effort than writing them). But this has only made me feel more inadequate. At the minute, for example, I’m working my way joyously through my colleague Craig Brown’s new biography of The Beatles (One, Two, Three, Four: The Beatles In Time).
‘When I look back on my own achievements in 2020, all I can think of is walking the dog, completing countless crosswords, sinking industrial quantities of wine, breaking my own record for cigarette consumption, putting on half a stone in weight and watching an awful lot of TV, most of it pure rubbish’
As one of the most prolific newspaper columnists of our age, popping up everywhere from this paper to Private Eye, where on earth did he find time to complete a meticulously researched account of the Fab Four phenomenon — with something funny, insightful or simply astonishing on almost every one of its 656 pages?
All this and Ma’am Darling, too, his sublimely original biography of Princess Margaret. How the hell does he do it?
Next on my reading list is Richard Osman’s whodunit The Thursday Murder Club, a Christmas present from our youngest. Here’s a man who never seems to be off the telly, whether co-presenting Pointless or Richard Osman’s House Of Games or appearing on almost every panel show you care to mention.
Yet still he has found time to tap out a novel that shot straight to the top of the bestseller lists. As Catherine Tate’s Derek Faye might put it: How very dare he?
All I can say is that men such as Craig and Mr Osman are living proof of the adage: if you want something done, ask a busy man.
I draw some comfort, however, from figures this week that suggest I wasn’t entirely alone in failing to make the best of a bad year. Compiled by the retail analysts Nielsen for The Grocer magazine, these show a massive surge in demand for so-called sin goods during 2020, with sales of lager up £792 million, table wine up £717 million, rolling tobacco up £684 million, spirits up £566 million and red meat up £439 million.
This seems to suggest that while the rest of you were writing books, learning languages and musical instruments and going for long-distance runs, quite a few like me were tucking into bacon sandwiches before sinking into a haze of tobacco smoke and supermarket plonk to dull the boredom of lockdown.
As for this year’s resolutions, I know myself well enough by now to realise it would be utterly pointless to make any at all, only to break them before the week is out. So I’ll confine myself to wishing every one of you a happy, healthy and, if possible, prosperous 2021.
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