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2016: Worst. Year. Ever?

LONDON — Some of you may have noticed that it has not been a great year. Disasters of disease and disruption; disasters violently compounded by our inability to temper our wishes and tolerate our differences; and, finally, death upon death of treasured talismans of better times.


Randomly, incompletely: Syria, Zika, Haiti, Orlando, Nice, Charlotte, Brussels, Bowie, Prince, Ali, Cohen. Not everyone was delighted by the results of important votes in the United States and Britain, either.


In such circumstances, Leonard Cohen was always one of my go-to men. But then, he checked out — just after the presidential election, and just after recording his last album, “You Want It Darker.” He left a typically bleak message behind — “A million candles burning for the help that never came” — to complement an older line, from half a century earlier: “Follow me, the wise man said, but he walked behind.”

在这种情况下,莱昂纳德·科恩(Leonard Cohen)总是我可以依靠的人之一。但接着,他也离世了,就在美国大选结束之后,在他刚刚录制完自己的最后一张专辑《你想让它更黑暗一点》(You Want It Darker)之后。他留下了一条照旧十分阴郁的信息——“一百万支蜡烛燃起,需要的帮助始终没有到来”——与半个世纪前一句更老的歌词相呼应:“智者说,跟我来,但他却走在后面。”

Thanks again for that, Leonard. But there are those who would say that 2016 was not just darker, but their darkest ever. Or as they would more likely put it: Worst. Year. Ever.


Well, that is quite a contention, is it not? I can think of worse. There was 1958, for example, when that spark from the bonfire sent all our fireworks up at once. Or 1989, when my rugby league team, the mighty St. Helens, succumbed in the cup final at Wembley to our bitter local rivals, Wigan, by 27 points to absolutely none at all: zilch, nada. That, my friends, was a truly bitter cup to sip, in silence at our end of the stadium while their fans were going mad at the other. Like election parties, only closer.

嗯,这个观点值得商榷,不是吗?我能想到更糟的。比如1958年,篝火里溅出的火星把我们所有的烟火同时点燃。或者1989年,我们的英式橄榄球联赛队伍、强大的圣海伦斯队(St. Helens)在温布利球场举行的总决赛中,以0比27输给了我们的死对头、当地的威根队(Wigan):一分没得,零分。我的朋友,那才真是一杯难以下咽的苦酒啊,体育场里我们坐的那一头陷入了沉默,对方的球迷则高兴疯了。就跟选举派对一样,只不过距离更近。

But perhaps I should cheer us all up by mentioning some years that you would definitely not want to swap with 2016 — even putting to one side the modern conveniences of an occasional hot shower, Nordic fiction, low-fat meal options and never being more than a shout away from a ground coffee bean and at least 4Gs.

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To begin at the beginning, the year Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden could not have been an easy one — the ultimate reality show, you might say. Nor did things improve much soon, what with one son murdering the other and the rest of it. At some point, about 75,000 years ago, any idyll our early ancestors were enjoying was rudely interrupted by the supereruption on Sumatra. (In modern times, the fallout from a smaller eruption, on Mount Tambora, produced in 1816 the Year Without a Summer, as it was known, in Europe and America — with crop failure, famine and a general gloom that was unabated even by the admission of Indiana to the Union.)


Fiddling nervously with one’s toga while awaiting the arrival in Rome of the Visigoths (in 410) or the Vandals (in 455) wouldn’t have suited me much. Some historians argue that neither sacking was as bad as it might have been, but that surely depends on your tolerance for rape and pillage.


A similar revisionism has been applied to the Vikings, who nowadays are mostly characterized as traders with a forceful negotiating manner. But I’m with the monk who, around 800, wrote, “Since tonight the wind is high, the sea’s white mane a fury, I need not fear the Hordes of Hell coursing the Irish Channel.” And there was probably little time for ambivalence in 1200 when your neighbor ran over to tell you that Genghis Khan was coming.


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The truth is that people in every age find reason to believe that their best times are behind them, and all that remains is decline and despair — that note of lament Cicero hit in 63 B.C.: “O tempora, o mores!” But far from uttering a generalized moan, the orator was castigating the corruption of his age as expressed in one man, Catiline, the author of a plot to seize power in Rome. The historian Sallust described Catiline as “reckless, cunning, treacherous, capable of any form of pretense or concealment. Covetous of others’ possessions, he was prodigal of his own; he was violent in his passions. He possessed a certain amount of eloquence, but little discretion. His disordered mind ever craved the monstrous, incredible, gigantic.”


Historians can be so judgmental. I’m sure Catiline just wanted to make Rome great again.


That should remind us of the large part that forebodings play in perceptions of our present plight. Sometimes, our worst fears do not, in fact, come to pass. Catiline’s power grab, for example, was foiled by a brave lawyer: none other than Cicero. To beat off those 2016 blues, we should recall others who found themselves in seemingly desperate positions but still survived to triumph: Alfred the Great, Robert the Bruce, Washington before the Delaware. (My remorseless journalistic quest for balance, however, compels me also to mention: General Custer, the Light Brigade, and Laurel and Hardy.)

这应该提醒我们,我们对目前困境的感觉中有很大一部分只是不祥的预感。有时,我们最糟糕的恐惧实际上不会成为现实。例如,喀提林攫取权力的企图就被一名勇敢的律师挫败了:此人正是西塞罗。为了驱散2016年的沮丧情绪,我们应该回想一下那些曾经似乎陷入绝境却依然坚持取得胜利的人:阿尔弗雷德大帝(Alfred the Great)、罗伯特一世(Robert the Bruce),以及特拉华战役之前的华盛顿(不过,作为记者的我无休止地寻求平衡,迫使我还要提到:卡斯特将军[General Custer]、轻骑旅[Light Brigade],以及劳雷尔和哈迪[Laurel and Hardy])。

The best of times, worst of times thing also depends heavily on which side you’re on: Consider, again, 1776, and 1066, 1815, 1865, 1918, 1945 and, of course, 1492. I’ve often thought, as well, that it couldn’t have been much fun being either inside the Massachusetts Bay Colony or outside putting up with it. Which takes us to some more bad years, the Commonwealth in England under Oliver Cromwell: long on sermons, short on fun, with maypoles and general frolicking severely frowned upon. They even tried to abolish Christmas.

最好的时代和最坏的时代这个问题,很大程度上也取决于你的立场:再比如,1776、1066、1815、1865、1918和1945,当然还有1492。我还经常想,不管是身处马萨诸塞湾殖民地之内还是之外,应该都是不太好受的。这让我们想起一些更糟糕的岁月,奥利弗·克伦威尔(Oliver Cromwell)统治下的英联邦:大道理很多,乐趣很少,五朔节花柱和寻常的嬉戏会引起强烈不满。他们甚至试图取消圣诞节。

You know, on the whole, I think we’re probably better off with 2016. At least, there’s not much of it left. What could possibly go wrong?




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