Mandelson’s Pleasure Dome
It gets me every time. That hallucinatory instant. Da da da da da, da da. The Pearly Queen drill of the EastEnders signature tune, as the map spins and the known world is stood on its head; what you thought was the blunt lingam of the Isle of Dogs is revealed as the East Greenwich peninsula. That vertiginous, and slightly desperate, readjustment of consciousness is what you face as you emerge, high on diesel fumes, road rage and subterranean paranoia, from the tiled bore of the Blackwall Tunnel. Nobody crosses water without paying a price, the ferryman’s wages. The peninsula, marshlands giving way to the toxic debris of the South Metropolitan Gas Works, is represented on maps from the Seventies (which now appear positively antiquarian) as a radiant blank. Polar nothingness bordered by custard-yellow feeder roads steering over-ambitious voyagers back to the tunnel and the distant prospect of a return to civilisation.
This pilgrim’s progress is a familiar one for card-carrying Cockneys, a way out, a trip into the unknown. Musician and long-distance pedestrian Jan Wobble recalls his sabbatical as a minicabber, ferrying striped faces south of the river for regular bits of business, cash drops. These heavy suits would sit, white-knuckled, fingers digging into the scarlet leather, until they made it safely home to Poplar. They piled into the nearest boozer and pitched back the doubles until they could lift a shot glass without spilling half of its contents.
The ride to the tunnel haunts Kray foot-soldier Tony Lambrianou like a psychogeographical nightmare. The route he drove that fated night is a mantra he can never stifle: Evering Road, Lower Clapton Road, Narrow Way, Mare Street, Cambridge Heath Road, Commercial Road, East India Dock Road, Blackwall Tunnel. The site which has been nominated, after outflanking a rival proposal from Birmingham, as fitting turf for the New Millennium Experience, was once the resting place for the carpet-wrapped cadaver of Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie. This sinister wasteland, first left out of the tunnel, marked the limits of Lambrianou’s imagination. And the close of an era, if not a millennium, of creative alliances between showbiz, disorganised crime and bent politicians. An era so thoroughly documented by parasitical photographers that it has never been able to escape the attentions of serial sentimentalists and untenured social historians.
But, using for the moment an orthodox interpretation of time, all that is forgotten and forgiven. This is now. The grievously harmed marshes, their carcinogenic venom apparently neutralised, have received the blessing of Tony Blair and New Labour. This slightly foxed field of dreams is where it will happen, the New Millennium (compulsory capitalisation) will be celebrated in a fitting manner by the biggest tent show in the universe. As the Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, asserts in a document issued by the Cabinet Office: ‘millenniums only come once in a thousand years.’ Or at approximately the same interval as Labour governments with a mandate to do whatever they want, with absolutely no come-back, in the wake of the Conservative meltdown and the dismissal of the sorriest rump of chancers, carpet-baggers and self-serving apologists ever inflicted on a passive democracy.
The relish with which I looked forward to my site visit was seasoned with a nip of low-level guilt. Everything I knew and everything I had found out about the New Millennium Experience confirmed it as the sort of mistake which would haunt a government for generations. The very name had the authentic whiff of disaster: like the South Sea Bubble, the Stavisky Affair, the Profumo Scandal. But on a much grander scale, gonzo hubris. They’d dragged time itself into the equation. The short-termism, the waste, the lack of vision, was so obvious. This well-protected rubble meadow sang of paradox: boasting of ecologic benefits while signing up for an indestructible PVC dome (later downgraded to Teflon), rabbiting on about the river while ensuring that Thames walkers have to make a massive detour, banning cars while clogging the Blackwall Tunnel with lorries. A people’s park, a celebration for the millions, that was guarded like Alcatraz. And as bare of visible human presence as the Gobi desert. Could anything that had been so universally and repeatedly ridiculed by the media be all bad? Was there some creepier anti-Mandelson agenda abroad? Anybody who wasn’t a fully paid-up conspiracy freak in these pre-millennial dog days wasn’t trying. How could it be that the London Evening Standard, which had once operated as a puff-sheet for Docklands, folding in up-beat supplements even as fiscal thunder-heads loomed over Olympia & York, now rarely produced an issue without a fresh millennial squib? (The broadsheets can’t dodge the subject. Journalists don’t have to leave their desks in the Canary Wharf tower to see the red dust rising from the 300-acre building site on the other side of the river.)
I’d worked my way from the ‘media enquiries’ desk at the Cabinet Office to English Partnerships’ own answering service. It was hard to find a good day to talk. First there was the business with the dome. Greenpeace had run a canny media campaign alerting us to the fact that the skin of the dome would be manufactured from PVC, and to make it even more sinister, this was German PVC. ‘Softeners’ which might also be ‘hormone disrupters’ were mentioned, as well as stabilisers of cadmium or lead. A trip to the tent might be more millennial than we bargained for, gifting us with an interesting catalogue of tissue-destroying mutations. The hint was loud: if we didn’t go home with webbed feet we’d been shortchanged. So PVC with its lethal dioxins was now replaced by Teflon, the housewives’ friend. A mere seven or eight million quid would buy off the Germans and the fetishist’s umbrella could be safely domesticated. Mandelson, the Kubla Khan of New Labour, who had been eloquent in his defence of the original choice, was now equally enthused by its substitute. Once that little hiccup was out of the way everybody could get back to deciding what the Big Idea was going to be, the secret of the tent within a tent, a ‘Drum’ that would hold ten thousand spectators. Who would be privileged to watch ... nobody was quite sure what. Perhaps the erection of a giant hat in memory of Jack.