Bowie, Prince, Brexit, Trump. It’s safe to say that 2016 has been a difficult year, and as we approach the new year, many people are looking forward to waving it goodbye and embracing 2017 with open arms. I can sympathise with that idea, but it leaves me with a rather grim thought: why should 2017 be any better? What if this is just the way that things are now?
There were a lot of dramatic, shocking, upsetting and just plain weird news events this year, but it’s not like they happened simply because it was 2016. Geopolitical events, wars, humanitarian crises and celebrity deaths happen and they don’t obey the logic of the Gregorian calendar. The year is a useful organisational tool, but it shouldn’t be expected to be anything more than that.
This desire to create groups of things and then expect the boundaries around those groups to have magical powers is extremely common. It’s not just years, but decades. Think of a phrase like “seventies music”. It’s a common enough phrase, but completely meaningless. What is seventies music? Is it Life On Mars or Mouldy Old Dough? The Winner Takes It All or Gertcha? Anarchy In The UK or I Feel Love? The concept of the decade can’t be used in this way.
In Joe Moran’s wonderful book Reading The Everyday, he explains this difficulty in relation to postcodes:
Postcodes are unstable, contentious signifiers not just because they arbitrarily overlap the ‘natural’ divisions of local councils or neighbourhoods, but because they are interpreted inexactly. Estate agents, valuers and insurers concentrate all the symbolic weight on the outward code (the first part, which shows the broad destination of the letter) and ignore the inward code (the second part, separated by a space, which guides the letter from its final sorting office to the individual address). The inward code, which can pinpoint streets and groups of houses, would actually be a much more accurate indicator of class and status in the cheek-by-jowl divides of London neighbourhoods. Implicitly acknowledging that this emphasis on the outward code imposes a false coherence on residential patterns, the director of a leading property consultancy has argued that there are ‘clean’, ‘confused’ and ‘polluted’ postcodes, depending on the extent to which they are infiltrated by downmarket neighbourhoods. In this strange estate-agent speak, the codes themselves take on anthropomorphic qualities. The postcode’s instability means that its meanings have to be reasserted ever more forcibly by interested parties.
There’s an extraordinarily audacious sense of entitlement in thinking of a postcode as ‘confused’ or ‘polluted’ just because it doesn’t match-up exactly with an entirely unrelated pattern. The London postal system was developed to help mail go to the correct local sorting office in the 1850s. It’s not surprising that it doesn’t work as a fool-proof guide to property prices a century and a half later.
So as we prepare for the new year, let’s try not to think too badly of 2016. Yes, a lot of bad things happened and are continuing to happen, but 2016 wasn’t to blame. It’s just an arbitrary period of time, not a malevolent curse.