When time speeds up


TheLastStraw: I welcome the news that 2006 is to start late. In this crazy speeded-up world, we could all do with a pause for reflection. And although the extra second that scientists are adding to 2005 will hardly be long enough to say "Tempus fugit", it's better than nothing.

Of course, it's only our lives that have sped up. The actual world is running a bit slow, due to the effects of tidal friction on the planet's rotation: hence tonight's adjustment of Co-ordinated Universal Time (readers are reminded that atomic clocks should be put back at 12am). Slight as they are, these occasional adjustments are apparently essential. Otherwise, in 1,000 years, the earth would be up to an hour slow. Try telling that to your boss when you arrived late for work.

Apart from the welcome extension to 2005, it would be no harm if the "leap second" also reintroduced us to the concept of delayed gratification. We've grown so used to anticipating events now that we're constantly ahead of ourselves. Halloween starts in August. Christmas starts at Halloween. The January sales are all in December.

Hell, even the release of State papers under the 30-year-rule has been brought forward. Traditionally, historians and journalists had to wait until New Year, like children counting the hours to Christmas morning. This year the files were made available three days early. Watching the innocent joy on the faces of newsroom colleagues as they unwrapped 30-year-old mysteries and played happily for hours, you couldn't begrudge them. But it still seemed wrong.

That unfortunate jockey who threw away Tuesday's big race at Leopardstown was a cautionary tale about the dangers of enjoying things before their time. I realise a 14-day riding ban is enough punishment without this column turning him into a metaphor. But his premature celebration of victory in the Paddy Power Dial-a-bet Chase was the modern Yuletide experience in a nutshell.

The run-in to Christmas is long and slightly uphill. Under pressure, many of us mistake the office party for the finishing post, forgetting that there are still several weeks to go and that we'll be seeing our colleagues again, sober, in the morning. Yet even if you weren't standing up in the saddle and punching the air two weeks prematurely, the closing stages of the December Handicap can wear you out, so that by the time the actual holiday arrives, you can't enjoy it.

I'm writing this on what used to be the fifth day of Christmas, in an era when the Twelve Days of Christmas was more than just a song about poultry. After St Stephen's Day now, you're embarrassed to mention the C-word any more. People have moved on. Shops are selling off decorations at half-price. And unless you can fake the date-stamp, you know there's no point sending any more cards because the recipients will know you didn't think of them in time.

Even so, I have a sentimental attachment to the fifth day of Christmas, at least since I brought the family to a seasonal celebration in the National Concert Hall last week.

Fearing my kids might not retain their interest as far as the finishing post, I had taken the precaution of booking cheap seats. This meant that we were up behind the orchestra, facing the audience. And when the English conductor - a man of mischievous, medium-to-dry wit - chose the Twelve Days as an encore, and decided to break the audience into sections, each of which would sing a day, with actions, I began to wish we'd left earlier.

Ours was a sparsely populated section. There was another family and us, in total, so that we were by far the smallest choir. Awarding us the song's poultry-free fifth day, the conductor dubbed us the "O'Trapp Family Singers", to laughter. But as we sang "Five Go-oh-old rings" repeatedly, with gestures, to the entire hall, I realised this would define Christmas 2005. My kids will never forget it. Without proper counselling, neither will I.

The point, insofar as I have one, is that you should always try to live in the (Christmas) present. Which brings me back to tonight's celebrations. I've never understood the insane optimism of December 31st, as we rush into an uncertain future shouting "Happy New Year". It's human nature to think things will only get better. Yet I'm reminded that when a British think tank devised a new human contentment index a while back, which measured progress in more than economic terms, it found that our neighbours' "gross national happiness" peaked 29 years ago, in 1976.

Maybe next year's State papers will shed new light on what was so good about life back then. We have only 365 days (and a leap second) to go before finding out. I can hardly wait.