OUR memories of momentous times can be marshalled by numbers alone, the sum of a pivotal year reflected in history's shorthand: 1788. 1914. 1939. 1968. 1975. 2001. And then there are years like 2012, ending unmourned and with a question mark - adding up to nothing much at all, handed on to history as a mess in search of meaning.
Not, let it be said, because the year was dull, indeed far from it. There were so many distractions that 2012 often seemed nothing more than a series of diversions, with Britain punching above its weight in this regard. Look, they cried: A Diamond Jubilee! Our Olympics! A royal baby! Simple, ancient certainties.
But in matters of greater moment, the year is a muddle in the mind. We followed plots that thickened and solutions that beckoned, but turning points came with strings attached. Rupert Murdoch was humbled in 2011, but looked far from it in 2012; we watched as Syria bled, and bled, and still it bleeds; we watched Barack Obama win again - but even hope and change come with a question mark nowadays and a fiscal cliff still looms.
In very different ways, it was the year of living dangerously for the great and the good - for men like Murdoch and Obama, who rolled the dice on their futures and their legacies, and for British Prime Minister David Cameron, who tap-danced across a tightrope all year, batting off Murdoch-related scandals and a grim economy, while glad-handing Olympic winners and grinning Windsors. Indeed, if you wanted a snapshot of what powerful men look like under pressure, this was your year: Cameron turning purple at the Leveson media inquiry; Obama, out to lunch in a presidential debate; or Alan Jones trying to grasp the meaning of an apology.
Partly courtesy of Jones, and his brutish assessment that Julia Gillard's father had died of shame, it was in Australia that you had the best seat for unbroken observation of how a powerful woman reacts when the blowtorch is applied. It played out in ways not foreseen when the year began, the only certainty then being that for Gillard, a year of living dangerously was to be assumed in advance.
Barely a month into the year, the image of a PM under siege by Aboriginal Tent embassy protesters and being dragged to safety by security staff set the mood. That was January 26, Australia Day - and as nasty as it was, it was also pretty much the last civilised moment we saw all year. Gillard had been at a function with Tony Abbott, and when things turned hairy she told her security staff to make sure he was being taken care of too.
But civility was fleeting, and not just between the two rival leaders and their parties. When the protest incident flared into a wider controversy - whether a Gillard staffer had pointed protesters in Abbott's direction - it reinforced the perception that the government was a gang that couldn't shoot straight at anything other than its own feet. This, by and large, was the media narrative. If you considered that unfair, the best that could be said instead was that this was a gang cursed by remarkably bad luck.
Misfortune or dysfunction? We got an answer surprisingly swiftly. Four weeks later, Kevin Rudd at last made his long-rumoured move to wrestle his old job back from the woman who had deposed him. He did it in typical Rudd style - dramatic, if misguided in hindsight - resigning while abroad on diplomatic business. He then rushed home to plot. This largely meant plotting media appearances, trying to tap into public support to overcome his unpopularity in the party room.
When Australians look back on 2012, they'll remember well the feeling of being witness to events that turned their stomachs. The Rudd challenge was where the nausea set in, as we witnessed a brutal assault on the former prime minister, his character, his abilities. His colleagues declared him unfit for the office. It may have been cathartic for the party. It was ghastly for everyone else, and achieved little beyond Rudd's public humiliation: he never stood a chance anyway, Gillard thumping him in caucus, 71 votes to 31.
Gillard declared the matter resolved once and for all, an assessment even her media tormentors generally shared. And after the brutal dispatch of Rudd, she had a further rare win when she quietly engineered one of the more startling cabinet manoeuvres in years, importing the former NSW premier Bob Carr to the Senate to take over as foreign minister. In March, another Queensland annoyance was removed when the state Labor government was finally put out of its misery. It was annihilation, but at least it was over and done.
Labor optimists hoped at last they had a shot at ''clear air'', a phenomenon of political atmospherics unknown to the Gillard government in its almost two years in office. And voters could be forgiven for sharing this longing for some time absent amid the dreadful din from Canberra.
March brought the start of the footy season, with the AFL and the NRL kicking off seasons that ended seven months later in a manner entirely befitting a year that made no sense. The AFL sent its premiership cup north in the hands of a stern Sydney Swans; the next day the Melbourne Storm swiped the silverware for the south. That was all a long way off in April, a month marked by a triumph more predictable. But it was no less thrilling for that when Black Caviar broke the barriers of racing immortality: 20 wins from 20 starts.
Caviar made the nation smile and swell with pride. Canberra made the nation scowl and swear, and fret about the carbon tax, still three months from taking effect and still the totemic issue for the relentless Abbott.
The Liberal leader delivered us of but one surprise this year: the revelation that he was reading the publishing smash of the year, the ''mummy porn'' page-turner, Fifty Shades of Grey. The rest of the time he was as predictable as a kid on cracker night: he knows you get more bang for your buck firing a penny bunger from a bike pump than you do from a Catherine wheel, and Abbott is unapologetically not in the business of putting on a pretty show. Even as polls suggested voters found his bang-bang style of leadership a turn-off, crucially and persistently they also seemed willing to hand him the Lodge whatever their misgivings.
He had the carbon tax, the Craig Thomson scandal and the general perception of government dysfunction in his kit. Then, in April, came the grubbiest scandal of all, the murky mess surrounding sexual harassment claims against the Speaker and Liberal defector Peter Slipper. Where this scandal came from remains unclear - but with a Federal Court judge suggesting James Ashby's lawsuit may have been part of a Liberal Party plot, at year's end the bigger question is where it may end.
Whatever the outcome, it was the Slipper scandal that gave the political year its one moment of clear passage to the history books. It was an unlikely twist, down the tawdry path of a parliamentary debate over demeaning language used by Slipper in private text messages. Abbott railed that the nation's first female prime minister was supporting a man whose many sins now included misogyny. What came next was a shot at the heart of sexism that was heard around the world - even if not, at first, in Canberra itself, where the press gallery found itself bewildered by the reaction to a moment it had either barely noted or criticised in their broader coverage of the day's events. But on YouTube, people watched Gillard in isolation, and shared it with others who did the same. Within a day, it was global news, a moment many considered a landmark.
Undeniably, it represented a raw triumph for Gillard. And for the media it was simply another twist in a familiar narrative: a reflection, critics declared, of an industry out of touch with the country at large; of an industry shocked to find its own chosen narratives - about Gillard, for instance - rejected and replaced by a vocal populace empowered by social media; of an industry hard-pressed to admit it is ever wrong. As that debate raged, the year presented the media with existential concerns of more immediate import: this was the year the digital revolution secured its inevitable triumph over the printing press and hundreds lost their jobs at newspapers and in TV newsrooms.
So it was that when the London Olympics came in July, Australians consumed what publishers declared the ''digital first'' Olympics - a line in the sand if ever there was one, the greatest of sport's big set-piece events redefined for a new age, where live TV might come to you on your phone or tablet while riding the train to work. But the biggest surprise of the London Games had nothing to do with that. The story was that London not merely pulled it off, it delivered what even parochial Australians agreed was an event that outdid the Sydney Games of 2000.
It was possibly London's greatest summer. The sun shone, and it rained gold medals. Andy Murray, pipped at Wimbledon a few weeks earlier by a resurgent Roger Federer, delivered a triumph many decades longed for in the Olympic final. All this came after the nation had celebrated the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. So grateful was Her Majesty, she pretended to jump out of a helicopter with James Bond at the opening ceremony.
Across the Atlantic, Obama had more serious matters on his mind. Oh to be a head of state whose only task is to make people feel good. For Obama, re-election while presiding over an economy still hurting from the crash of 2008 should have been a very tough task, and when he turned in the worst performance of his life in the first presidential debate it looked like it might be impossible. But, helped in part by the Republicans' choice of the hard-to-love Mitt Romney, in the end it was a romp.
Now for the hard part: governing again with an opposition-controlled Congress as intractable as the one that stymied his agenda at every turn in his first term. And then there are the moments no leader can plan on, when history springs a surprise. The end of the year brought Obama one such moment - the mass shooting of 20 schoolchildren and six teachers at Sandy Hook, in Connecticut - and suddenly the prospects of how history will judge him have shifted again. The massacre stunned the world, then left it bewildered as Americans once more wrestled with the question of gun control.
The tragedy of Sandy Hook was among the saddest days of the year. Closer to home, we shared our grief as violence took an innocent woman from her young husband. The story of Jill Meagher shocked us at a time when not much does, but the horror of a young woman simply vanishing on her way home from a Brunswick pub raised questions about our city and society that had no easy answers.
In Meagher's memory, people took to their streets in their thousands. She was a stranger, but her death united us in mourning.
The passing of those we felt we knew prompted more traditional observances. For pop star Whitney Houston, there was the standard shock and scandal along with the sadness.
For a Hollywood legend such as Larry Hagman, it was a time to summon 40 years of TV memories.
For national treasures - Margaret Whitlam in March, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch in December - we paused to offer grateful thanks. These women were a reminder that heroes matter, as was Neil Armstrong, whose giant leap for mankind made 1969 one of those years with a significance that needs no explanation.
Upon Armstrong's passing in August, millions of eyes were raised to the heavens rather than downcast in sorrow - the only fitting tribute to a man many saw as the last great American hero. And as the year drew to a close, millions looked to Africa, united by concern that 2012 might also claim the world's last hero, the monument we know as Mandela.
Braced for sadness, we were instead delivered of an unexpected grace note two days after Christmas: the great man had been sent home from hospital to see in his 95th year. Welcome news indeed: 2012 - that mess in search of meaning - closes on a blessing to be counted.