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.
Mr Terence Gibbons, the media facilitator deputed to show off the non-sights, was affable, and on time. He’d warned me about security. Simply having ‘your name on the gate’ was no guarantee of access. During earlier expeditions I’d been turned away by a one-eyed gateman who had strayed from an underfunded production of Macbeth. Today a cheery West African contented himself with sending me back to produce a car. The ownership of a vehicle was the only proof of serious intent. There was no question of walking. He stared at the tarmac as if he expected it to bubble and sweat in confirmation.
Lifting the barrier at Gate 10 he warned me to drive straight ahead, without deviation, looking neither to left nor right. I’d find Mr Gibbons waiting at Gate 3A. (It was comforting, while cruising this reclaimed Tarkovsky end-zone, to see that ubiquitous boards for the big construction firms doubled as counter-cultural prompts. Laing and Nuttall. Covert sponsorship for anti-psychiatrist Ronnie and Renaissance man Jeff.) In leather jacket, dark glasses, mobile at the ready, Mr Gibbons was already in place.
Kitted out in celestially blue hard hats, Tweetie Pie waistcoats, we were travestied for a photo opportunity that would never arrive. As we picked our way over the impacted dust, the hot conglomerate, I wondered if I’d been a bit hasty in turning down the rubber boots. Too late. I’d forgotten my Geiger counter. The problem was, that if you weren’t here for the snapshots, there was nowhere to go and nothing to see. The key icon of the Thatcher era was the pinstripe suit and hard hat ensemble, construction site chic; the getaway limo just out of frame. And, clearly, this was another idea eco-friendly New Labour had seen fit to recycle. Millennium (The Newsletter of the Millennium Experience), a kind of ersatz theatre programme, features Sir Cameron Mackintosh on one cover and the reservoir dogs of the Labour front bench on the other. Uniform dark grey suits (no pinstripes), blue plastic helmets, heavy-duty wellies and – apart from John Prescott – full zip millennial grins. Showcased by a long-focus lens that tactfully blurs the background of industrial dereliction. Britain is Working. Handson management. Optimism. Good humour. That stuff. A cross between a hobbled moon walk and Neil Kinnock’s famous tumble on Brighton beach.
Here’s the pitch, according to Mr Gibbons. Employment. Plenty of jobs for locals in a depressed area. The Jubilee Line extension. Life returned to the river. The defiant and cavalier spirit of free enterprise. They said the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace was a waste of money. They said the Festival of Britain wouldn’t pull the punters. This is a signal to the world: we can convert vision into actuality in the shortest possible space of time. You come up with the bread and we’ll give you the circuses. In 28 months, from desert to Barnum and Bailey showground. ‘And the vision is?’ I asked. ‘Er, time,’ Mr Gibbons replied. I understood: millennium, zero longitude, Greenwich. Prospects for future Olympic games. Berlin in the Thirties, if you like. Two hundred million pounds of lottery money is small change when set against the conceptual brilliance, the dynamism, of this proposal.
You can almost believe it. The site is buzzing, the great yellow struts on which the dome will be erected are lying on their sides. Piles are being power-driven deep into the earth. There are more caravans than on Canvey Island. The inconvenience of the white funnel that disperses the fumes from the Blackwall Tunnel will soon be disguised. Mischievous journalists have suggested that the dome will envelop the funnel, turning the tent into a dystopian killing zone; a voluntary euthanasia facility. Now that would be in the spirit of the millennium, of the suicide cults, the comet-watchers waiting on the Book of Revelation. But, alas, it’s not so. The fat white mouth will poke clear of the Teflon. You won’t even see it in the official portraits, the pristine virtual reality handouts.
But you’ll smell it. An unmannerly belch of black fumes. A brewery pall that hits you as soon as you emerge from the tunnel: oasty, hot in the throat, disquieting. Like griddled bird shit. The world through a sepia filter. Gravy browning dust-storms. Iron filings in a furious wind that scrapes the cornea. Noise you can taste. The thump of generators and jack-hammers that refuse to synchronise with your heart-beat. Headache preambles. The torrid promise of Peter’s Savoury Products. Yards set-dressed with Hazchem drums in the same virulently up-beat blue as the millennial hard hats. The peninsula is also the home of Amylum UK (Glucose, Starches, Proteins). Sheltering in Dreadnought Street, bent against back-draughts of tailgating traffic, you can admire a startling Ballardian dreamscape of auto-fetishism, chemical alps, and an ever-changing hoarding that dwarfs Dorrington’s, a mock-Tudor pub. The hoarding salutes a new film release: Conspiracy Theory. The pub forecourt, ankle-deep in broken bottles – Liebfraumilch Pflaz, Olde English, the Original Strong Cyder, Becks Beer, Omega Extra Strong White Cider, Dragon Stout – promises nights given over to ‘playing Garage, Speed Garage, Deep America House’. Silver funnels hiss. Pipes spit red smoke. The graffiti on walkway walls catch the mood: ‘Disorientate Yourself. Reappropriate Your Surroundings.’ This is truly a place of transformation, shape-shifting, metempsychosis. Protein soup (courtesy of Hays Chemicals) in which new life-forms can breed and take shape. The perfect rehearsal for apocalypse.
I got along quite well with Mr Gibbons, as one does with someone paid to show you a good time. Someone you’ll probably never see again. He guided me to a viewing platform, one of those temporary structures that look as if they’ve been erected to take the salute at a passing out parade. I gave him my card. It says: ‘Used Books’. And is handy for securing discounts in secondhand book-pits. A few days later, he was on the phone. They were searching for a copy of Bevis Hiller’s A Tonic for the Nation. A little creative plagiarism was in order. Checking out the Festival of Britain copywriters. And standing on the viewing platform you could see that the project needed all the help it could get. It was a building site under pressure, pressure of time, the millennial clock (‘Mean Time by Accurist’) moving remorselessly towards countdown, zero hour at zero longitude. So, in the way that confidences pass between two men leaning on the parapet of a bridge, staring down into the maelstrom, Mr Gibbons let slip his notion of what the Big Idea might be. A party. A cusp of the millennium show. The Spice Girls. Oasis. Negotiations were already afoot. Who could turn down a gig at the end of the Reich? (He hadn’t considered the scull-splitting KLF class war anthem, ‘Fuck the Millennium.’) Perhaps dizzied by the fumes from the Blackwall Tunnel ventilation shaft, I began to see what he meant. This was an alternate universe, virtual reality. The place as it stood before me, as it appeared to mundane consciousness, was nothing. What counted was the brochure version, the sheaf of brilliant images that Mr Gibbons would package. A shimmering blue Thames that took London back to its tropical past. Canary Wharf, elegant – but somehow scaled down, distanced. Computer truths. The world as it should be, if we could rid ourselves of our conditioned reflexes. Lottery reality. Unscratched skies like the dawn of time, turning the malign peninsula into Cape Canaveral. Millennial lift-off. Stanley Kubrick and his designers (some of them borrowed from Wernher von Braun) had successfully converted Beckton into Vietnam, but this was more ambitious than that. This was 2001: A Space Odyssey in Bow Creek. A radiant city of the future. Grey to green. Sludge to pearl. An alchemy of computer-generated wonder. No pollution, no weather. No humans. The worship of the silver dome, the Teflon Hedgehog, with its circumference of ant-egg bubbles. In one audacious black and white print, the dome is reflected in the water, so that it becomes a resting saucer, an alien spacecraft bringing us whispers of futurity. Lit from within. Perfectly still, serene, self-sufficient. An idea with skin on it. A glimpse at some almost ungraspable concept that we, grounded in prejudice, are too coarse-grained to receive.
In these situations it’s always easier to believe the hard evidence, the photo-packs, than to trust your own weary eyes. Peter Mandelson has assured us in the first line of his Cabinet Office handout that ‘the Prime Minister went to Greenwich, personally.’ Instead of taking the pleasanter option and doing it in virtual reality? The whole project had that sleight-of-hand aspect. Now you see it, now you don’t. Was he here? Or was that also a computer-generated image based on a poster for The Wild Bunch? Was Mandelson himself a replicant? His title stressed the negative: Minister without Portfolio. A positive discrimination amputee. But the media jackals kept suggesting that it wasn’t the portfolio that had been chopped off but the prefix. ‘Prime.’ That was the scurrilous propaganda. It was really Mandelson who was running the show, taking the stretchmarks out of the Blair grin. But the New Millennium Experience would sort all that out, it would shaft him, this brief he’d inherited from that other nearly-man, Michael Heseltine.
New Labour had so much riding on the tent show, but it was beginning to assume the triumphalist aspect of the Sheffield rally that did for Neil Kinnock. The decision taken, to ride with the decelerating Tory pitch, there was no way out. You could, if you were twisted enough, see this as a nicely laid trap, a long-term strategy to destroy the incoming government. The Conservatives knew they were washed up, and apart from lunching their way towards enough directorships to keep the wolf from the door, they had to landmine the rotten edifice that New Labour would inherit. What better than to drop them in the millennial swamplands? A meaningless theme-park exercise that would, with luck, provide jobs for some of the faithful, who would be only too eager to re-invent themselves; a folly that would soak up limitless funds and go absolutely nowhere. East Greenwich was, if you like, the big Tory idea. Which is no idea. The Zen art of packaging empty speech-bubbles. Archer-speak: denials released to the media before any accusation has been made. A frame around nothingness. A blank cheque surrounded by a perimeter fence, bristling with surveillance cameras. Welcome aboard: McAlpine, Laing, Nuttall, Saatchi. Welcome: Mark McCormack (of IMG Associates), percentaged fundraiser, to head up the cosmeticians of cash, money make-over quangos. Welcome to the nouveaux aristos: Lord Rogers, Sir Cameron Mackintosh. Welcome, masters of spectacle: the designer Stephen Bayley and Ken Robinson (who Bayley glosses as ‘in charge of lavatories, parking, visitor flow’). Jobs for those who missed out on Channel 4, Arts Council panjandrums, reality benders. A seat on the board for Bob Ayling, Chief Executive of British Airways. For Ian Ash, British Telecom’s Director of Corporate Relations. For David Quarmby, Chairman of the British Tourist Authority and the English Tourist Board. You get the picture. A kind of mega musical set on a desert island (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tempest). Something so new and adventurous and breathtakingly original that it can’t be described in language. That can only have a virtual existence. Existence as its own contrary, as non-existence. But what had slipped their mind, in the rapture of contemplating this provisional future, was that there is already a major bug in the system. On the big day, at the precise instant when all the clocks on Greenwich Hill click up the first nanosecond of the new millennium, it’s all going to go horribly wrong. Because, as an old computer programmer, now an osteopath, pointed out as he worked some damage limitation into my wrecked knee, that’s when many computer systems will go ape. ‘Don’t fly.’ he said. ‘And don’t, for God’s sake, submit to surgery.’ Pensions, direct debits, quadruple bypasses, flight control, tax: chaos. When the dials go back to zero, they won’t know how to behave. Memory banks will be wiped. A new beginning (like the tag on the side of the tourist riverboats chugging downstream to Greenwich, promising to carry ticket-holders ‘to where Time begins’). Colourwill bleed from the computer-enhanced visions. Crocodiles will emerge from the blue river. Subterranean albino apes will lurch from the ventilation shafts. Time will warp and bend.
This will be the moment to re-address Norman Cohn’s bedsitter Sixties classic, The Pursuit of the Millennium. We’ll understand that hitting the curve on a new thousand-year cycle is a moment of awe and terror. The end of a millennium is not to be casually celebrated in a productless, Disney-Albanian trade fair, nor exploited in underwriting canny land speculations that will tart up poisoned ground for a future sell-off when property prices in the neighbourhood have gone through the stratosphere. A lacuna, a period of shock, fear, preparation for encountering the unknown. The study of the skies. Suicide cults. Bombers. Riot Paranoid television. Ghosts. Alien visitations. The re-invention of history. We could find ourselves spinning back into some atavistic nightmare or testing the rhetoric of the Christian apocalypse; Cohn speaks of the unprivileged masses turning towards Sibylline oracles (such as Mandelson’s obscure Cabinet Office pronouncements). ‘The Johannine tradition,’ he writes, ‘tells of one warrior-saviour who is to appear in the Last Days, the Sibylline tradition tells of two, but both traditions agree that in those times there will arise an archenemy of God, the prodigious figure of Antichrist ... His wickedness, though absolute, will be most cunningly masked and this will enable him to establish a tyrannical rule of great strength.’ Which is pretty much how the press represents the Blair/Mandelson combo in their New Millennial manifestation.
The Millennium Experience scam is a misjudgment out of keeping with the masterly way (in terms of PR) that most of the New Labour operation has been handled. How can Blair, who emerged so powerfully, a discreet and sensitive manipulator of national emotion, from the week of public mourning for the Princess of Wales, have been persuaded to give his blessing to the Teflon Hedgehog? Letters poured into the correspondence columns before the first bids were received for the tangled wreckage from the Paris underpass. The two most unpopular concepts in the country were the royal family and the Millennium Dome. The consensus was: scrap the first and turn the second into some sort of shrine to Diana. (Could the secret of the tent be a preserved Snow White cadaver? A waxwork that would be a place of pilgrimage, a Soviet/Catholic relic in a glass box? The ultimate example of performance art, topping Tilda Swinton’s public dreaming in the Serpentine Gallery?) Take all the money that was being sucked into a black hole in the Greenwich swamplands and give it to the cult of the White Goddess. Build a hospital. Rechristen the Severn Bridge. Do something. The disaffection for this unthemed, post-Thatcherite, virtual reality brochure was twinned with an unprecedented mourning frenzy.
It now seems obvious: the millennium can’t be pre-programmed. Whatever happens has to be spontaneous. Time was never going to behave as if it were the nominated victim of the final privatisation – with Peter Mandelson as (one of his self-awarded titles) ‘the single shareholder’. Time can’t provide fat cat salaries for its managers: the well-protected cabins of the English Partnerships have been sited alongside a granite monolith, a memorial to the gas workers who died in the Great War. The borough of Greenwich, the old town, is already prostituting time with an efficient walk-through museum and heritage complex. Foreigners can learn how to queue, before being confronted by a rack of copies of Dava Sobel’s Longitude. You can pay a quid to have a machine tell you what time it is and where you are. Thus removing yet another of the hereditary duties of the British bobby. You can watch the ghostly millennial peninsula glide across a circular table in a darkened camera obscura chamber (the ancestor of virtual reality). You can put your eye to a telescope fixed along the line of zero longitude and see giant satellite dishes on the north shore, see how the line fails to pass directly through the skeleton of the millennial tent.
In a space dedicated to the celebration of time, the Teflon dome is not going to enjoy much of it. Around twenty-five years is a common estimate. What I hadn’t grasped, until I was given this figure, was that the dome would be no more than a serious budgetversion of the Rachel Whiteread house. ‘A mute memorial,’ as the artist said, ‘to the pathos of remembering’. It is a structure, an installation, made to disappear. A tolerated obstruction. There is no need for anything to be inside it. Like the Whiteread terrace in Grove Road, it has no inside. It is a visible skin, a caul stitched from cloud and water. It is the ultimate Thatcherite artefact, existing only as a proposal. To realise it is absurd, an unnecessary vulgarity. This is pure performance. The visitors should be there now, watching the building work, watching the helter-skelter construction; admiring the colour-field vistas, the purity of the yellow supports, the green of the Nuttall sign-boards, the white funnel of the ventilation shaft.
Because, for the rest of us, newsprint grazers, the millennium is all used up. It happened when it was least expected, on a drowsy Sunday morning. The theatre of the century simply occurred. Nobody planned it. A life that had been lived in photographs, ended in photographs. The heavy gloss of a bullet-proof Mercedes was reduced to vegetable pulp. The harshly-lit metallic tangle looked like stitched leather, like a cruel Oldenberg; Like those necrophile prints that so exercised Andy Warhol. Disasters of the Peace. A season that had seen the deaths of the Beat Generation visionaries, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, the folding-in, through reminiscence, of troubled minds, now delivered an icon that provoked a week of subdued hysteria. The extinction of a century that seemed increasingly self-conscious, feeding on its own entrails, penning obituaries as christening presents, over-rehearsing public funerals. The crash in the underpass, after Ballard and Cronenberg, after the hagio-graphies and exposures of James Dean, Jayne Mansfield and Princess Grace, is the arche-typal late-century event. A cocktail of déjà vu and prophecy; not so much an intimation of morality for television subscribers, but a reality fax. The shrill bleep of a mobile phone sending tremors through a carapace of indifference. So that the people, or large sections of it (especially those from Essex and the estuary), took to the streets, reclaiming chunks of Whitehall, Secret State holdings, privileged real estate. A cellophane moat around inert public buildings. Dying floral tributes heaped against the railings of Buckingham Palace in a gesture of soft rebellion.
That’s how it happens. The millennium is pursued in the wave-patterns of mass hallucination. An illusion of freedom, suspended time, stomach sickness. A world in slowed motion where everything happens very fast. Flashbacks, repetitions. And now it’s been done, written out, experienced. We can get on with the business of survival. Forget the millennial trumpeting, tear down the fences, open up the river frontage, and return the poisoned land to use. No circuses, no tent shows, but the kind of workaday fields that once existed outside the walls of the city. Somewhere to practise archery, to operate market gardens, to listen – as entertainment – to the threnodies of hucksters, hedgepriests and visionary madmen.