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Talking to the year 2017

It’s been a troubled year around the world. THEO PANAYIDES looks 2017 in the eye to reflect on a year gone by

I’ve never profiled a year before. I didn’t even know such a thing was possible, but you’re trained to expect the unexpected in the newspaper business. A colleague’s wife happened to meet the year 1933 – a dapper, stylish gentleman in top hat and tails – at a cocktail party and, after a few too many dry martinis, ’33 let slip some important information. Not only do all the various years exist in flesh-and-blood form like himself, he confided, but there’s actually a secret hangout somewhere in Cyprus where they like to vacation after their retirement. Armed with this startling information, I duly made some phone calls and eventually gained access to the club in question – my mission being to profile our current year, 2017, in the last few days before his successor takes over.

The place itself is simple enough, a roomy, luxurious bolthole somewhere in Limassol (I can’t be more specific, for obvious reasons). From the outside it looks like a private home, albeit one with an unusually high wall and unusually spacious garage where limos come directly from the airport, depositing the various years. I give the password, which changes every day (it was ‘Eternity’ on the day of our interview), and find myself buzzed in to a kind of old-fashioned gentlemen’s club, with ornate Victorian furniture and a fireplace in the corner. Waiters circulate discreetly, bearing trays with various libations. Ranged around the room are the years themselves – reading, playing cards, fiddling with their phones, or just sitting in pensive silence.

The years are a motley crew – though all-male and mostly white, as befits our received version of history. Most of the older members have a gruff, military bearing – war has always been a powerful force in the shaping of human affairs – though I also notice 1968, a long-haired youngish guy in sandals and beads. Skulking in a corner is 1974, who (I later discover) very seldom comes to Cyprus, fearing for his life if news of his presence gets out. The years look invariably weary, Time and the pressures of the job having taken their toll on them. I note seven battle-hardened men in soldier’s fatigues sitting round a table, talking animatedly of tactics and the spirit of the Blitz – and recognise 1939 to 1945, the WWII years.

2017 shouldn’t be in this company, of course. He’s still on active duty, at least for a couple more days – but he’s here on a visit, just to check the place out in anticipation of a well-earned retirement, and you can’t really blame him: it’s been a long year. I find him at the bar, a florid, bombastic man in ill-fitting clothes, eyeing me suspiciously as I sidle up beside him. He looks angry, even before I say anything; his whole body seethes with anger, coming off in waves and crackling in the air between us. I can see it’s going to be a tricky interview.

“I know what you think,” he spits out irritably. “You think it’s been a year of conflict and unpleasantness.”

Well, I shrug – hasn’t it?

“Fake news!” snarls 2017, shaking his head. “The mainstream media make me out to be a monster, but it’s all fake polls and negative reporting. People were happier in 2017 than in any other year, but the fake-news industry only reports the unhappiness. Sad! Look at my hurricanes, we had wind speeds of 185mph. I have the best hurricanes. We’re making hurricanes great again.”

That’s not really something to brag about, though, is it?

He recoils at the question – and, to my surprise, a subtle change seems to come over his features. The belligerence turns to a hurt, defensive expression, as if a switch has been flipped. He still looks angry, though.

“Check your privilege!” snaps 2017. “What do you know about the experience of being a year? Are you part of the year community? Have you ever felt the pain and humiliation of latent year-ism? Your offensive question triggers distressing memories and enables systemic oppression. I demand an apology.”

For a moment, I think about calling the whole thing off and finding some other New Year’s Eve article; it seems clear that any kind of reasonable dialogue will be impossible. Then again, I’m also aware of the circumstances which have shaped my bad-tempered subject – not just the ongoing curse of social media and online interaction, but also the peculiar circumstance of having to follow in the footsteps of his notorious predecessor. 2016 was a flake, an obvious lunatic; I actually glimpse him in the club for a moment, a bug-eyed individual with frizzy hair and frantic body language, babbling madly to a quiet, phlegmatic fellow who just listens patiently (this turns out to be 1866, an undistinguished year nobody remembers). Not only did he take away many of our most beloved entertainers, from Prince to David Bowie, but he also presided over two seismic events – Brexit in the UK, Donald Trump’s election in the US – that still create ripples of controversy. And of course 2017 had to deal with the fallout.

No wonder the man at the bar is so touchy and defensive; his tenure was marked from the start by anxiety and bitterness. Nor is it just the embarrassment factor of being ‘2017’, a dysfunctional year for other years to gawp and laugh at; there’s also the fact that, despite his braggadocio, 2017 feels every hurt and injustice that occurred during his term – not just emotionally, but even physically.

An exhausted Rohingya refugee woman touches the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border

He can brag about hurricanes, but in fact hurricanes (like all natural disasters) leave a mark on his body. “This is Harvey,” he admits grimly, lifting his trouser leg to reveal a yellowing bruise on his calf – “and this is Irma,” he adds, lifting his shirt to show me a long, ugly scar across his stomach. The earthquake in Iran that killed 630 people in November appears as a welt on his arm; the one in Mexico where 370 perished is an evil-looking lump that still gives him pain occasionally. Nor is it just disasters; man-made atrocities, too, leave a literal blemish. During the course of our conversation he shows me Syria, the bombings and famine in Yemen, the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, the Las Vegas shooting, the truck bomb in Somalia – all of them reflected in bumps, lesions and scars which pockmark his skin. (Syria also gave him the worst IBS, he adds dolefully.) This is par for the course with years, and explains why so many end up being traumatised, often turning to drink or drugs; in a back-room, on my way to the loo, I catch a glimpse of 1990 in baggy pants and backwards baseball cap, seeking oblivion by popping Es and listening to the Happy Mondays.

2017 is quiet for a moment, thinking of the pains he’s experienced. “Where did you say you were from?” he asks me suddenly.

“I’m from here,” I reply. “Cyprus.”

Crans Montana

“Cyprus…” he repeats meditatively, and thinks for a moment. “Yeah, you guys are here too,” he tells me – then takes off his shoe and lifts his foot to show me the Cyprus problem, which appears as a mildly ingrown toenail. It doesn’t really hurt, he assures me, and doesn’t seem to get any worse either; his predecessor had it too, “and so did 2015, for all I know”. It gave him quite a twinge in July, he recalls, around the time of Crans-Montana, he even thought of going to see a doctor – but the pain disappeared, and hasn’t been back since. “I think the problem might be over,” he says with relief, happy to talk about something that isn’t such a big deal for a change.

He checks his watch, and orders another drink. I’m glad I decided to go through with the interview; 2017 might be hard to get along with, but it’s not entirely his fault. He’s a man in an impossible job, buffeted – like all of us – by epochal forces beyond his control.

I’d hoped he might be able to explain our confusing world, but it turns out he’s just as confused as anyone. “How do Bitcoins actually work?” I ask at one point, and 2017 nods very seriously, embarking on a long explanation involving blockchains and network nodes – but halfway through he loses his way, stammers for a while, then simply shrugs and admits that he hasn’t a clue. “What about Kim Jong-un?” I ask. “Is he a madman?” 2017 shows me a small bruise near his shoulder, caused by the whiplash of global fear when North Korea launched a missile test over Japan in September. That doesn’t really answer the question though, I point out, and he huffs defensively, lapsing back into angry mode: “I have the best explanations – but you fake-media journalists want to make it look like everything is puzzling and hard to explain. Sad!”.

I give him a conciliatory smile, wondering if it may be time to make my exit – but an audible buzz suddenly ripples through the room, prompting us both to turn around. Someone is standing, rather hesitantly, at the main entrance – a new year and indeed the New Year, 2018. Some of the other years scowl at the newcomer. The WWII group fall silent, then mutter glumly. 2018 is young, still unmarked by the rigours of the job – but she’s also a woman, the first female year to join this historically all-male club! Her colleagues cast unhappy looks in her direction; 1893 (the year when women first won the unconditional right to vote, in New Zealand) tries to start a round of applause, but no-one joins in.

2018 walks in rather slowly and self-consciously, avoiding eye contact. She walks across the room to the bar, then extends her hand to the grumpy gentleman beside me. “I just wanted to thank you for a year well done,” she says, “and I wondered if you have any tips for me?”. Her voice is high and steady – and miraculously free of anger, at least so far.

2017 grunts in response. On the one hand, I can see that he’s flattered by the young woman’s attentions – but her question also brings out the worst in him, all the pressure and frustrations of the past 12 months. “You have no clue what you’re letting yourself in for,” he growls gloomily – and begins to tell her of the many, many things that could go wrong in 2018. More terrorist attacks. More bluster and violence. More floods and earthquakes. More refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. Fear of war in the Middle East. Fear of new recession in the EU. Fear of nuclear strikes. Fear of people being even more divided than they are now, sitting in the dim light of laptops spewing outraged invective at each other. Fear of robots taking all our jobs.

I listen to this litany, feeling more depressed by the second – but the New Year doesn’t seem to care, or at least she doesn’t falter. She’s full of hope; everything is still new and glorious to her. She waits patiently for 2017 to finish (in the end he runs out of steam trying to list things, and just glares at her darkly) then she nods, and extends her hand again. “We’ll do our best,” she replies very simply, with immense dignity – then, having shaken hands, turns on her heel and walks out again, past the assembly of old, troubled years.

2017 looks down, touched by the New Year’s response. For the first time, I sense his anger ebbing away – maybe because he knows his time is up, and he’ll soon be able to spend eternity playing cards and whiling away the hours with his predecessors, but also because he now knows that anger is never the end. Human beings keep hoping, even (or especially) when things seem overwhelming. I accept his offer of another drink, and raise my glass in a toast with our soon-to-be-old year: “To a new start!” he says, and smiles tentatively.

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