All change. This train is cancelled

Iain Sinclair tries to get to the Dome

Panic on the peninsula. Outrage in North Greenwich. The gas-holder, familiar to motorists skirting the perimeter fence of what is now the site of The Millennium Experience, set ablaze. Flames visible across the river from Beckton Alp to Parliament Hill. ‘A man said to have a slight Irish accent said: “This is the IRA. We have planted bombs at the southern entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel. For goodness sake, do something about it. We want the area cleared.”’ So Gareth Parry reported in the Guardian of 19 January 1979. Bomb-carriers, from The Secret Agent to Paul Theroux’s Deptford-based urban terrorists in The Family Arsenal, have delighted in targeting Greenwich domes. There is something in the nature of the place, a residue of royalty and privilege and congenital self-satisfaction: the old dockside dowager has painted herself up for the punters, while revising her lurid past in amnesiac tourist brochures. Clap sores revamped as beauty spots. PR operatives delight in being both economical and spendthrift with the truth. Acceptable glories – the knighting of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Francis Chichester, visits by Samuel Pepys, location work for the latest Jane Austen or for Harrison Ford (more bombs) in Patriot Games – are trumpeted, while the dark history of the Greenwich marshes, a decayed industrial wilderness, is brutally elided.

The tongue of poisoned land, a couple of miles to the east of the Royal Naval College (film set, banqueting hall for hire, weddings a speciality), that is being prepared for its tent-show apocalypse, has never previously been part of the Greenwich story. The peninsula, if you check it out on a 19th-century map, is a vestigial tail, a pre-amputation stump known as Bugsby’s Marshes. Contemporary hand-colourists, or fakers of the type that now congregates in Greenwich’s covered market peddling artfully distressed pages ripped from antiquarian volumes, have tended to leave the peninsula well alone. Out there, reality was always in need of a little cosmetic enhancement. Design buffs on the Millennium Experience payroll see the sorry isthmus with its muddy horizons, its earth-movers and excavators, its razor-wire fences and surveillance cameras, as an Arcadian grotto. They have no problem with deferred pleasure. They read the future like a transcendent comic strip. Old Thames is rejuvenated in a Mediterranean blue. There are avenues of potential trees, future forests. Docklands is a garden city, clean, broad-avenued, free of traffic and peopled entirely by vibrant ink-spots. But the 19th-century colourists, busy with windmills, with miniature orchards on the Isle of Dogs, golden sandbanks at the mouth of the River Lea and deepwater docks of a celestial blue, baulked at Bugsby’s Marshes. The swamp defied their imagination. Its karma was too terrible. They knew that any proper human settlement needed its back country, its unmapped deadlands. The peninsula was where the nightstuff was handled: foul-smelling industries, the manufacture of ordnance, brewing, confectionery, black smoke palls and sickly-sweet perfumes. The cloacal mud of low tide mingled deliriously with sulphurous residues trapped in savage greenery: the bindweed, thorns and dark berries of the riverside path.

The peninsula thrives on secrecy. For as long as anyone can remember much of this land has been hidden behind tall fences. Walkers held their breath and made a wide circuit. Terrible ghosts were trapped in the ground. On the west of the peninsula, now captured by the Teflon-coated fabric of the Dome, was once the Execution Dock. The gallows and iron cage moved here from Wapping, when the sensibilities of that district, much closer to civilisation, were elevated by the mansions of marine speculators and the better class of sea captain. Executions and bloated bodies washed over by three tides were less of a public spectacle (a Mortality Experience) than a ritualised necessity. Distance and difficulty of access blunted the mob’s appetite for blood. But the inhabitants of the peninsula were feral inbreeds comfortable with the maggoty underside of history, the prison hulks, the ammunition manufacturers, the skull-hammering intoxification of the South Metropolitan (later East Greenwich) Gas Works. Much of this land, then as now, was compulsorily purchased to be held in stock for ‘future possible expansions’. The Molochs in workers’ cottages and burrows, unacknowledged by the rest of Greenwich, mutated as they came to terms with the by-products of the gas industry: the tar, the sulphate of ammonia, the trains, the phenol, the never-ending noise (grinding, thumping, whistling, clanging). Smells that have mixed and mingled for generations in increasingly complex chemical combinations gift unwary tourists with stomach-churning hallucinations, flashbacks to ancient horrors, dizzying premonitions of catastrophe.

In a sense, it was very perceptive of the Millennium Experience promoters to settle on Bugsby’s Marshes as the site for their monumentally expensive folly. Where better to greet the millennium (even if the nominated date is meaningless) than this ravished swamp with its history of plague, pestilence and pillage? The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, appearing against the sunset on the rise at Woolwich Road, would look like refugees from a donkey derby on Margate Sands. The millennium is nothing to do with bemused civilians, badgered into celebration and rehearsed spontaneity, being shepherded through zones sponsored by multinational pirates. The millennium is fire and terror, the rising of the dead, judgment before revelation. How tactful of the government planners and their commercial allies to shift the Dome site downriver, away from centres of population, contacts with culture. How cunning to choose a place that is impossible to reach by any existing means of transport, other than the crawl through the Blackwall Tunnel (where a single misdirected lorry, trying to pick up time in the fast lane, can get trapped by prophylactic stalactites, and bring London to a standstill).

I’d been to the Millennium Experience site in the early days, before the tent was erected, and I was intrigued, a year on, when the LRB offered me the chance of a second visit, to see how work was progressing. I duly reported my shoe size (which hadn’t changed much since the previous trip) and the registration number of my car (nobody penetrates the security barriers on foot), and looked forward to my Friday afternoon appointment at Gate 1A. It had taken weeks to set this up, but I wasn’t surprised when, a couple of hours before I set off for the Blackwall Tunnel, the tour of inspection was cancelled. Deferred satisfaction. Future bliss. That’s what this gig is all about. It’s a Calvinist package. Suffer now, the worse the better, and paradise will follow. We are being asked to endure the noise, dust, pollution of a 24-hour building-site as the justification for the heavenly pleasure park that is, just, around the corner. It’s a long ‘just’: long enough to give the advertisers and image-enhancers time to whet our appetites, convince us that this Disney World trade show is something we can’t live without. Meanwhile, we must tolerate railways that don’t work, public roads with private security barriers, river paths that run up against plywood fences, naked dirt from horizon to horizon, and a quadrophonic Serbian soundtrack.

Denied my excursion, I decided to find out – it was late January, a year before the Dome would open to the multitudes – how the journey across London would feel. This was no epic, a mere five or six miles as the seagull swoops; Hackney to Greenwich, you’d walk it in a couple of brisk hours. (With another hour thrown in to detour recent excavations, schlep the peninsula path and cross the odd motorway.) How long could it take on public transport? The Millennium Experience copywriters spoke with breathtaking self-confidence of a ‘12-minute’ ride from the centre of town (by helicopter presumably). The diggings on the peninsula (a mantle of poisoned soil dumped as landfill in Bedfordshire) promised to act, the promotional folders told us, as ‘the catalyst for massive investment in new transport services’. By this they meant the Jubilee Line, the completion of which was promised for 1996, then 1998, then spring, summer, autumn and now late December 1999. An interesting white-knuckle ride for the politicians. The line has soaked up, so far, around £3.3 billion, but its apologists (cursing critics as spoil-sports) speak airily of how all major construction projects come in a whisker over budget. Look at the Channel Tunnel, the Limehouse Link. Look at any of the enforced from above, late-century civil engineering achievements. Look at anything deriving from the key icon of the era, Margaret Thatcher, hard hat perched on hard hair, giving her blessing to Paul Reichmann, as they gloat over a scale-model of the future city of glass.

My spirits were high. The Dome (or ‘Doom’, as displaced locals spoke of it) was a Bunyanesque target, a revivalist tent show on the far side of a swamp. There was nothing original about this structure, it was a quotation from the Festival of Britain, the Dome of Discovery tricked out with bright yellow – ‘Van Gogh cornfield’ – cocktail sticks. Now I appreciated the concept of the Millennium Bug. Here it was, a white spider-crab quivering on the foreshore. A video-grab from Spielberg’s Close Encounters: an invertebrate alien protected by security fences, strange lights in the night and interplanetary muzak. What the Dome offered was a destination in the deadlands, a magnet for suicide cultists determined to crack the riddle that asks what exists inside nothingness?

In the mood for a jolly, I risked the Docklands Light Railway. This funfair ride to Canary Wharf and Docklands had been constructed as the cheapest and flashiest of transport options. It was a slightly longer, and much less efficient, version of the trip between the South Terminal and North Terminal at Gatwick Airport. As a visionary experience, it had nothing on the long curves, smooth elevations and courteous, disembodied voices of Chicago airport’s shuttle service. Instead of perpetual motion and a vista of freeways with stretch limos, gargantuan car-parks, incoming planes, the DLR offered a stop-start stutter of the unexpected, a preview of bucket-shop time travel.

I walked to Bow Church, where I tried to buy a ticket for Island Gardens (I wanted to cross under the river through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel). The ticket machines were not working. And Island Gardens was no longer on offer as a destination (deferred satisfaction again). All trains stopped at Crossharbour. Or they would if they made it that far. The carriages in this unmanned operation (more ghost than bullet train) were occupied, mid-morning, by ticketless school kids who stayed on board for the duration, self-educating through travel. The bonus lay in the aerial views across water to the distant Dome: heavy skies pressing on the spiked Teflon cake. The Dome’s achievement, it struck me, was to look definitively unfinished. It would remain a work-in-progress until it was dismantled or sold off as an ice-rink or storage facility. Seen from Canary Wharf, down the length of a wet grey street (containing nothing but a cab rank and a couple of security men in scrambled-egg vests), the Dome was a spacecraft standing in for all the missing liners and cargo boats from nostalgic black and white photographs. It was an unoptioned metaphor with its own poet, Simon Armitage, hired to knock up a thousand-line tribute.

Time drifted. The 12 minutes of the virtual reality journey in the brochures was actually the time between trains, the time spent enjoying the strange termini in which potential travellers are marooned. We were held, without warning, at picturesque viewing spots. This was fine with me. I was in no hurry. It was pleasant to be able to indulge a good view without the compulsory commentary. Like the school kids, I was reluctant to leave the train when eventually we reached Crossharbour. There was no one around to take our non-existent tickets. A bus link carried passengers on to Island Gardens. I didn’t have time to wait. I walked. A couple of old ladies, huddled against the cruel zephyrs and down-draughts that swept through this alien architecture, remarked, ‘You see plenty of those bleeders,’ as yet another empty bus met the train. Meanwhile, they were left waiting, half an hour or more, for the standard Island-inhabitants’ service.

I saw, very soon, why the service terminated at Crossharbour. The railway line at Mudchute, looking like the post-detonation bridge on the River Kwai, dropped into an abyss. More pneumatic drills, more compressors, more yellow dust. More present inconvenience to facilitate the great millennial morning. Travel, for the moment, was a brutal obstacle course, which we must endure as our contribution to future bliss. The Island Gardens station, which would in a few months be awash with excited tourists, was now a depressed frontier post with little to offer but smudged photos of the dead on commemorative mugs: Freddie Mercury, Laurel and Hardy, Princess Di. ‘Small dolls £1.99.’ The afterburn of celebrity as a memorial ashtray.

Greenwich is deeply ambivalent about the whole Millennium Experience scam. Most of the place – the area around the Cutty Sark, phase one of the Dreadnought Library of the University of Greenwich – is a building-site. And the rest of it is a film set, cranking out heritage for export: crinoline frolics and The Madness of King George. I’d barely set foot outside my first secondhand bookshop when I was pounced on by a two-person television crew doing a vox pop on the Dome. There was a man hefting a DVC camera and a woman with a clipboard. After a morning trying to tease a story from inertia and clinical depression – ‘What dome?’/ ‘I’m from the Netherlands’/‘Is that part of Bluewater?’ – they were delighted to hit an apocalyptic ranter who didn’t actually have foam bubbling from his lips. I let rip in the knowledge that this was a World Service training film and would never see the light of day, even if, as seemed unlikely, this pair ever found their way back to Central London.

Greenwich, on the cusp of its new prosperity, and ready as ever to exploit any opportunity to cram more visitors into a small riverside settlement that is already coming apart at the seams, had tottered towards the kind of New Age, under-the-flyover-Portobello-Road colony that belongs on the South Coast – in Hastings or the warren of junk-peddling back streets around the station in Brighton. The warning signs never change: cards in newsagents’ windows advertising Tarot readings and patchouli-oil massage leavened with a rash of charity shops and a plague of cheap books. Here are the dump bins of literacy, ‘all for £1’ caves where publishers’ failed inspirations can crawl to die. Greenwich was stuffed with copies of Anna Pasternak’s Princess in Love. Dealers in the semi-authentic antiquarian bookshops groaned as hustlers with bulging golf carts and child buggies lurched in off the street. ‘We’ve got books. Got ‘em all. Cellar’s full. Sorry.’ Book graveyards are all that remains of Greenwich’s punt at culture. The theatre, in want of a few hundred thousand pounds of Lottery money, has been closed down and repackaged as Landy’s Bar.

The river walk, east towards the Dome and the peninsula, begins at the Trafalgar pub. This was where the famous whitebait feast enjoyed at the close of Parliamentary sessions took place. They still do a whitebait platter – if you can stare without flinching at those cold grey eyes. I am not talking about the fish, but the ranks of inscribed black and white photographs that line the walls of the dining-room: Harold Wilson, Derek Nimmo, David Steel, Jeremy Irons, Clement Freud, Norman Tebbit, Barbara Castle, Elaine Paige, Cecil Parkinson, Nigel Lawson, Robin Day. It’s like being compulsorily inducted into a dinner party from hell, a nightmare mix of half-forgotten careerists and political dinosaurs who can’t switch off. But there’s a great view of the Dome, beyond the bend in the river, a shape that gives purpose to an inadequately defined horizon. On the wall of the pub is a map of the area from the pre-Dome period: a Guide to the Thames (by Catamaran Cruises). This improved landscape cuts directly from the Royal Naval College to the Thames Barrier, so that the peninsula is not merely occulted, it doesn’t exist. Geography shifts to suit the strategic needs of the mappers. Territory belongs to those who sponsor the means of transport. If you have to visit the Dome, the local politicians imply, the best way to do it is to stay in Greenwich proper. Enjoy the facilities, the tea-rooms, the historic palaces, the locations where notable films were made. Forget the horrors of the journey to the east, the sluggish, overfull buses, the windswept slog through the industrial wastes. ‘Discover the Millennium Experience’ by dropping in on the Visitor Centre. (The singular case is accurate. I was on my own in what I took to be the reception area, until I discovered that a desk and a few computers was the entire pitch.) Play with the virtual reality machines. Purchase the badge or the sweatshirt. Gasp at the scale model. Blush at the hubris of the promotional displays. Giant blow-ups of ‘Richard Rogers’s original sketch of the Greenwich Dome’ are twinned with ‘a sketch design for a dome by Sir Christopher Wren’. The puny scale of St Paul’s Cathedral is set against the enclosed acres of the tent on Bugsby’s Marshes. ‘This awesome structure dwarfs the famous domes of history.’ But, walking around nautical Greenwich, the first thing the visitor notices is a plethora of domes. Who needs another one, however sonorous with millennial whispers? The pregnant curves of the shadow-catching glass dome at the entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and the twin domes of the Royal Naval College shame Richard Rogers’s shallow dish. It scarcely deserves to be called a dome. It is, in fact, a ‘cable-net tent’, suitable for a trade show or temporary exhibition. Something to throw up fast, without fuss, before getting the caterers in. It’s a disposable with ideas beyond its station. So the jobbing artists who have been hired to set-dress the project have found themselves labouring to manufacture a dome that looks like a dome. One of the more sinister tourist knick-knacks on sale in the borough’s gift shops is a Millennium Countdown Calendar (published in Tower Hamlets, printed in Hong Kong) with illustrations by Peter Kent. Kent has adopted all the standard tricks – colour enhancement, elimination of the funnel that carries away the exhaust fumes from the Blackwall Tunnel, weird perspectives promoting the status of the peninsula – but he can’t do much to put a proper curvature into the Dome. It still looks like a heap of icing sugar with 12 match-ends stuck in it. Kent’s sketch for ‘The Millennium Dome as viewed from the heart of Maritime Greenwich’ cannily plays down the local domes to allow Rogers’s distant hiccup its glory as a poached-egg sunset. And all the time – time being the hook – the ‘quartz countdown clock mechanism’ that has been attached to the calendar ticks away, devouring the remaining days: 286, 285, 284, 283 … A terrible progression for a writer, deadlines vanishing before your fascinated gaze. The mechanism in its complacent little box is as remorseless as Edgar Allan Poe’s tell-tale heart and as silent as Conan Doyle’s dog that didn’t bark. It’s the silence that drives you mad.

A second site visit was arranged. A second site visit was cancelled. Indulging my native paranoia, I believed that they must have something to hide. I could imagine some opinion-forming quango picking my earlier account of a trip to North Greenwich out of the files and reaching for the red stamp: ACCESS DENIED. It was no accident that the peninsula, with its manned security gates, its boiler-suits and hard hats, its earth-moving machinery, its gangs of workers performing a mime of activity, its sirens and flashing lights, was organised like the final, formulaic act of a James Bond movie. Another mad scheme for world domination revealed. Another doomsday weapon defused. Bond movies, up to now, were way beyond North Greenwich’s ambitions. The old gasworks had featured in the odd episode of Dr Who and even, curiously, as the set for a British version of The Trial. And now, with all this heavyweight sponsorship in the air, the latest Bond epic, The World Is Not Enough, would include a ‘high-speed boat chase’ along the Thames to the Dome. ‘Gorgeous Maria Grazia Cucinotta’ (a.k.a. Cigar Girl) would feature in a product placement orgy, pursued by every means of transport (including the air-balloons that are already drifting across the skyline), to a nail-biting conclusion on the roof of the Dome. A brief episode that would budget at around a million pounds.

More mundane methods of transport concerned me. My first excursion concluded with a walk along the river path from Greenwich to the Dome. Maybe that’s the Big Idea: persuade enough punters to get their heads down against the cold wind and swallow the rich mix of ammonia and hops and phenol and tar and sugar, the conglomerate from the overhead derricks. A couple of miles of this and they’ll be as high as kites, heads ringing from the constant din of drilling, the howling of generators, the fizzing of bright blue Hazchem canisters. Anything, any respite, will be a false paradise. Take in all those rabies notices and the scarlet graffiti left by Russian sailors. Notice the daub that represents Princess Di in tiara outside the alms-houses that shelter in the lee of the Greenwich power-station. Look back at each turn of the river on the charming nautical town, the sun setting across the mud. But forget any notion of keeping to the path. The Dome site finishes all that. A security gate blocks the route towards the Thames Barrier. The West African who guards it can suggest no viable detour. A single pub, the Pilot, stands in the middle of all this dereliction, servicing the work-force. Old maps were useless. I sat with my pint and plotted another attempt on the Dome. I would take a train from Hackney to North Woolwich, cross the river on the free ferry, walk to the Barrier and then join the famous river path that runs, so we are told, all the way to the Cotswolds.

The question becomes: is it possible to reach the Dome by public transport without help from Thomas Cook, a limitless budget and a posse of native guides? At Hackney Central it looked iffy. Hackney, it strikes me, is one of those zones that can’t claim a centre. Hackney simply happens. It’s caught. Like impetigo. I’m one of those eccentrics who has actually purchased a ticket. The others on the platform live there. A gang of youths, confident in the non-appearance of anything resembling a train, take off down the tracks. And they are right. Masked carriages, stacked with nuclear waste or whatever, rattle through at high speed, but passenger trains are a rumour. There is only speaking-in-tongues feedback from the public address system. The occasional word could be picked out of the acoustic froth: ‘apologise … special bus service … customers’. That’s what we are, ticket-holders or not, customers. But the transport system in Hackney is on a par with the post. You forget about timetables and learn to be grateful if it happens at all. At the end of the last century, it was possible to get into the City in ten or 12 minutes by train or tram. Now there are only mobs waiting for phantom buses. There’s a culture of waiting. Coming down from Lewisham to Greenwich, I discovered people whose lives were based around the time they spent at bus-stops. They reminisced, they moaned. They discussed various ailments and fantasised about their chances of ever reaching a doctor’s surgery or out-patients’ clinic. Then they went home.

Time passed quite pleasantly in deciphering faded anarchist slogans. The announcer broke through my reverie to alert us to the fact that there had been ‘a sighting in the Dalston area’. Something muddy and wretched, a Balkan troop transporter, or Chernobyl surplus stock, limped in. It was signed for North Woolwich but was only going as far as Stratford. Stratford is good. It’s one of the grandiose Albert Speer-type temples of the Jubilee Line. Architect-in-Chief Roland Paoletti has come up with a fabulous glass windbreak, a thing of future walkways and ghostly reflections, that has for the moment been abandoned on a clapped-out railway station, where all the metal benches for the convenience of customers-held-in-transit have been lobbed over the fence onto waste ground.

‘All change. This train is cancelled.’ By the time a relief train arrived, my journey had taken about half an hour longer than if I’d walked to Greenwich. ‘This train terminates at Custom House.’ They love that word: ‘terminates’. And use it with the relish defence spokespersons give to ‘degrade’. Don’t think I’m whingeing. It’s great. There’s been nothing like it since the high days of the Eighties. Total craziness. Lunatic decisions delivered from the top down by a chipmunk with a consensus haircut. Captain Smirk at the controls of the Starship Enterprise Culture. ‘I am determined to do all I can to ensure that the Dome stands as an enduring legacy for the future,’ Chairman Blair announced. A legacy like the South Sea Bubble. The landscape was so strange, so alienated, that you were practically deafened by the noise of J.G. Ballard licking his lips. All the old radicals were clawing their way out of the earth to get at it. Fiction was back on the menu. As in a Ballard novel, something like The Atrocity Exhibition, language itself begins to slip. Nouns lose their self-confidence. Proper names dissolve and reform. Dome becomes ‘doom’, ‘dune’, ‘dame’, ‘done’. A slow drip of millennial sound-bites, repetitions of meaningless statistics. Tyranny by consensus. Send us your ideas and we’ll tell you what you want.

The fictive 12 minutes of the brochures should be read as 12 hours. A family outing to the Dune is a three-day affair. And that’s if you live within the sanctuary of the North Circular Road. Building a Holiday Inn on the tip of the peninsula is obviously a smart move. Nobody will be able to get away. They’ll be begging for shelter in riverside dives, pitching their tents in toxic ditches, burrowing into brownfield. Even the free ferry was slow, a single boat operating at weekends instead of the constant shuttle of the working week. But I reached the Barrier without incident. The ‘Source of the Thames’ was promised as a legitimate destination. ‘You are now on the Thames Path National Trail … The Path follows the River Thames for 180 miles from its source in Gloucestershire, through peaceful watermeadows, past historic villages, into the City of London and ending at the Thames Barrier.’ Which is a nice promise, but, after a glimpse of the Dome framed between the silver copes of the Barrier, and a half-mile stroll, the connection with the river is broken, and the unwary pedestrian is cut loose on the wild fringes of the peninsula. Behind the Hope and Anchor pub is a vast storage depot and distribution centre for Sainsbury’s. Blue Circle Cement have colonised the stretch that leads to the Dome. Of course, one day, in the dawn of the New Millennium, the Thousand Year Reich of New Labour, the path will be open to all. But for the moment it is fenced off, forcing walkers to detour into the mud and traffic of the building-site, where they will be warned off by stern notices: GAS ESCAPE, GAS RELATED EMERGENCY, ELLIS & EVERARD CHEMICALS. There are pictures of ferocious German shepherd wolf-dogs, red cone roads, and a vista of churned slurry (future parkland). In a few short months, just imagine, all this will be leafy avenues, multi-choice entertainment complexes and eco-friendly superstores. Sainsbury’s are already excavating the base of the peninsula for a Shopping Experience that will come with its own massive car-park, convenient for Dome visitors and for motorists on Watling Street, the A20, and all roads from the Garden of England and the Channel ports. The store will open at the same time as the Dome. So, although cars – other than official vehicles, cabs putting down fares, Holiday Inn transients – will be forbidden access to the Dome site, shoppers will be parking in their hundreds to enjoy the benefits of state-of-the-art cargo culting.

Will it work? Of course. Will it be ready in time? Certainly. Probably. Maybe. The Government is prepared to throw as much money into the hole as it takes (around £758 million and rising). They can’t fail. This is their Big Idea. The vision thing made manifest. A celebration of that which is to come (with heavily edited highlights of whatever has been achieved in the last thousand years of human history that is not offensive to BT, Manpower, Marks & Spencer, Sky, Tesco, McDonald’s and anybody else prepared to chip in the odd £12 million). It’s still not too late to buy your own zone. The Mobility Zone will, it appears, be funded by Ford (‘product category exclusivity’), whose factory on the other side of the river, in Dagenham, is having to introduce short-time working. National Identity has been entrusted to Marks & Spencer, a declining retail outfit struggling (now that there are no longer Eastern Bloc diplomats bulk-buying underwear) to introduce cut-price designer clothes to the high street. The Spirit Zone has been nothing but trouble, with nobody knowing how to define or exploit it, and meddlesome clerics of all persuasions piqued that they haven’t acquired the sole franchise. Spirit has been left to the Official Millennium Poet. Simon Armitage, according to Chris Meade, director of the Poetry Society, ‘seems just right to us because he has lightness of touch and has written recently about the universe and the stars’. Essentially the Dome is showbiz. Old showbiz, resting showbiz, between projects showbiz: David Puttnam, Michael Grade and sparky Floella Benjamin. Disney World on message. The critics have been taken care of with nicely weighted sweetheart deals. The Mail, along with the London Evening Standard, which had combined its anti-Jeffrey Archer campaign with a series of squibs aimed in the direction of the Dome (Tory revenants both), were offered the contract to market the Millennium Dome news-sheets. Associated Newspapers will produce a four-page Dome supplement which will be wrapped around its own publications. Opposition from the Sun has been muted since its sister company BSkyB chipped in £12 million to sponsor an auditorium which will be sited next to the Dome.

I couldn’t wait to get down there, to see what was happening behind the smokescreen of rumour and grey propaganda. Proposals became more fantastic by the day. We were entering the mindscape of Versailles and San Simeon, last-ditch extravaganzas by despots and cortex-collapsing, syphilitic emperors. ‘Freeze the Thames.’ Call up the barrage, hold back the outgoing tide, create an After London lake (without acknowledgment to Richard Jefferies). Ice and fireworks. ‘As the last spark dies,’ one of the visionaries told me, ‘the new millennium will break – and, with any luck, lights will go out all over London as the computers crash.’ Flood risks and ecological catastrophe have been brushed aside in the thirst for Krug and circuses. I began to feel uneasy about all this. Back in the late Eighties I’d written a wildly improbable novel, Downriver, in which the railways were privatised with unforeseen consequences, prison boats were reintroduced and, climactically, the deepwater docks behind the City Airport were frozen for a historic pageant, a floodlit storm and blood ceremony. This baroque fiction now reads like secondhand journalism. It was spooky to find myself in the same nest of conspiracy theorists as the former DJ and TV chat-show host, Simon Dee. Dee, one of the invisibles whose bulb went out as soon as he was nudged from the magic rectangle, spent years brooding on his fall. Reinvented as an architect, a designer of domes, he settled in Winchester, where he was visited by the journalist Brian Viner. Viner discovered that his luncheon companion was in the grip of ‘paranoid delusions’. ‘He thinks,’ Viner wrote, ‘that the British secret service, and possibly the CIA too, tapped his phone, worried by his interest in the assassination of President Kennedy.’ After that it got weirder. Dee, it appeared, was commissioned by the Moroccan Government to design a dome. The Moroccans refused to pay up and the contract moved to a cabal of Swiss bankers, who later broke contact and disappeared. Dee’s concept was revealed to the world, years later, as the Millennium Dome. But, like his namesake Dr John, the Elizabethan magus and imperial geographer, Simon Dee was exploited by the Secret State and then abandoned to provincial obscurity. Now it can be told: the Dome represents the consciousness of the lost years of Simon Dee.

Finally, on Friday 12 February, it happened. The photographer Marc Atkins and I were signed in for a site visit. The low-ceilinged reception area was chaos. Dull blow-ups and parched greenery. One girl fielding all the calls, trying to find taxis to get impatient suits out of there, back to the outskirts of civilisation. Flash geezers with metallic briefcases (and matching hair) hung about like arms salesmen in Saudi Arabia. The tour groups were shuffling through like a Comic Relief conga who had misplaced their red noses and sense of humour. They had fancy dress (hard hats in electric blue, gooseberry fool smocks like an infant-school painting class) and talked in hushed voices. They wanted to respond with the proper emotions, with wonder, and a pertinent interest in the technological statistics – the canopy of PTFE-coated glass fibre, the 72 paired radial cables and the seven circumferential rings – but the noise, the dust, was overwhelming. Our guide was too weary to shout. The keener element in our party clustered around him, notebooks at the ready, shorthanding the boasts (‘second biggest, widest, longest … land Concorde on the roof … 12 million visitors’) and trying to get their minds round the concept of the Millennial Trinity, how one company could also be three companies (construction, operation, leisure).

We were a low-key, second-division assortment of sub-media parasites. The photographers, quickly realising that there was not going to be any defining image, no Independent colour spread, took to following each other around. If Atkins dropped back to shoot a sign that announced NATIONAL IDENTITY, one of the others shadowed him. Our guide was impatient with these hireling aesthetes who insisted on going off-piste and holding up what should be, if he cranked it, a twenty or twenty-five-minute gig. I asked the other photographer who he worked for and what was his brief. The Mirror, he confessed, employed him on the understanding that he stuck to ‘people and nothing arty’. If he wanted to be flash, he could do it in his own time and hassle one of the design magazines. Most of the other journos were obviously in rehab or on their way to meet it, trembling burn-outs or novices with biro smudges instead of lipstick. One young enthusiast, still notetaking ten minutes in, worked for the Wharf (‘Canary Wharf’s Exclusive Weekly Paper’). Her brief was simple: ‘There’s a lot of politics involved down here. Don’t upset anyone.’

The usual scenario is that critics of the Dome, Dome wets, will gasp with admiration once they get inside. ‘I had my doubts, but seeing this, well, I’m gobsmacked. It’s awesome. This justifies everything.’ I was prepared for that, the Dr Who experience, finding the laws of time and space in suspension, beauty locked beneath an unpromising carapace. But the building site was everything I had anticipated: all the excitement of a slightly dirty circus tent, without the sawdust and the smells. A dull ring with blockhouses at regular intervals which would in time contain refreshment areas and toilet facilities. There was also a solitary red double-decker bus. (So that’s where they’ve got to, I thought.) We plodded around the circumference, trying to form a narrative out of a few workmen walking about with bundles of steel rods on their shoulders. The exhaust funnel from the Blackwall Tunnel was masked off, in purdah, its lip emerging from a hole in the net ceiling. Otherwise there was nothing to focus on, nothing to read beyond a collection of red and white noticeboards, hammered in at regular intervals: M,7 WORK/LEARN … M,5 BODY … CONTAMINATED AREA: PROTECTIVE CLOTHING MUST BE WORN … YOUR HEALTH, YOUR RESPONSIBILITY. The big millennial show would take place in the middle of all this: Peter Gabriel and a bunch of trapeze artists. This was what we were paying our Lottery taxes for: a bald shell stretched to its limits to accommodate anyone prepared to kick in the necessary millions for a trade stand. Boots the Chemist would dominate the exhibition space with their genetically modified giant figures (who appeared to have been sculpted from condoms stuffed with glittering sand). Figures that belonged in Las Vegas, soft-selling casino culture.

When it was over, Atkins and I mooched around the river path, walking towards the Thames Barrier to get a few decent photographs. Inside the Dome, the skinhead photographer had lost interest. The light was dead. The visit had climaxed with an ascent onto the roof of one of the blockhouses. The experience had been profoundly depressing. And our attempt at driving back through the Blackwall Tunnel was worse. Even now, in the dog days, the drift of workers leaving the site brought the north-flowing traffic to a standstill. It was backed up from the tunnel entrance as far as we could see: to the heights of the Old Dover Road and beyond. Millennial stasis. The silence after the breaking of the Seventh Seal. Feeder roads across the wasteland were also blocked. A few rogues lost their nerve and mounted the kerb, skidding off into the muddy paddocks. We followed them, edging and creeping east towards the Woolwich Ferry.

I brooded once again on the bad karma of this site, the sinister back story. Stick a compass in the Dome and make a sweep across the ground, from Deptford to Eltham. It was like a black museum: the death of Christopher Marlowe at the riverside, his bones in St Nicholas’s churchyard. Lewisham Station with its straggle of travellers’ caravans was offering itself, as I discovered, as one of the gateways to the area. This was where the family thrown off a flight to the Caribbean after a riotous mid-air brawl lived. Seeing the place, you couldn’t blame them for spending £15,000 on a winter break. Dogs, men in groups patrolling the yard, occasional enterprises in the black stuff. The single word, RUBY, sprayed on a brick wall. The real Greenwich. Banks of TV monitors on the station platform and a nostalgic red postbox outside with a black and yellow ribbon across its mouth: NOT IN USE. On the scarlet pole of a surveillance camera is another notice: SECURE YOUR VALUABLES NOW! THIEVES OPERATE IN THIS AREA. As indeed they do. Just down the line in Catford, Mr Smith’s Club was the location for the affray that led to the death of Richard ‘Dickie’ Hart, the arrest of Frankie Fraser and a spiral of revenge beatings and killings that led to the eventual break-up of the Kray and Richardson gangs. Lewisham, as an exhibition of photographs by Jim Rice at the Museum of London reminded me, was where Blair Peach died, truncheoned while opposing a British National Party rally in 1979.

As I walked this dark semicircle at the back of the peninsula, head aching from noise, fumes, overload of facts hoovered up at the local history library in Mycenae Road, it soon became evident that the bus shelter was an outmoded concept. On the long drudge up Shooter’s Hill there were no structures offering protection from the weather while you waited for a theoretical bus. The current designs were austere, minimalist, frames surrounded by shimmering ice-puddles where the glass had been punched out. Citizens were frightened, even on this aspirant-suburban avenue, to wait alone. The gaunt barracks of Brooke Hospital was closed down, ‘a prime residential site’ offered for sale. As I turned down Well Hall Road towards Eltham, the regularly spaced bus-stops took on a more threatening aspect. Where else would you find one protected by a yellow-smocked policeman? A government employee deputed to patrol a black memorial slab set into the pavement, surrounded by a heap of floral tributes. This tidy dome of cellophane, plain paper and pink paper funnels, marked the spot where Stephen Lawrence was murdered. The protection of a tall pole, topped with a (fake) surveillance camera, had proved inadequate. The memorial slab had been vandalised. Hence, in these sensitive times, the slow-moving policeman on his tight circuit.

What had happened, I wondered, in the year since my first visit, to the Dome’s early champions? The designer Stephen Bayley had resigned, done the interviews and the book, and was now critical of the whole operation. The great New Labour figure most closely associated with the project was the Dome Secretary and so-called ‘single shareholder’ Peter Mandelson. What was that share worth now? How had the master manipulator allowed himself to be marginalised by something as trivial as a bit of social climbing in Notting Hill, some petty cash borrowed on gentlemanly terms from a wealthier colleague? Would the Big Idea, the idea which is no idea, a skin with no pudding, deflate without the genius of its most powerful fixer? Stuck in the late afternoon traffic, unmoving in the darkness of Bugsby’s Marshes, I began to understand. Mandelson was always months ahead of the game. He could sniff a millennial disaster before the first whiff of the old gasworks crept through the foundations of the Holiday Inn. Mr Dome identified himself with the early energy, the reclaiming of dead land, the glorious launch of a fraudulent and boastful folly, but was smart enough to see the extent of the sewage that was about to hit the air-conditioning system. Better to be on sabbatical. Mandelson’s break from the stress of government was the equivalent of John Major’s convenient toothache at the time of the shafting of Lady Thatcher. A leak here, a hint there, a little gentle self-outing and Mandy was out of the limelight, picking up the sympathy vote, at the very moment when the monster he had unleashed, and gloried in, was about to come spectacularly off the rails. When the dust settled, who would be there to pick up the pieces? Who would oversee the sell-off? No. This must never happen. The Dome must succeed. As soon as I got home, I would put in for a couple of family tickets. I would clear a week or two for the journey, lay in supplies of water, rations of pemmican, and hope for the best.