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How not to mark a millennium

Boz magazine, 68: 14, May 2000

Brian J Ford

Lots of places (Peterborough being one of them, I see) plan to celebrate the millennium this year, rather than last. As their plans reach fruition, I so hope they learn a few lessons on how not to do it. London provided the perfect example of what to avoid.

Long before we set off from Kew that night I could picture the scene. Merry hot-dog merchants plying their wares, minstrels gaily serenading the waiting throng, sushi stalls and hamburger sellers vying for attention with people selling hot saveloys and cool cans of drinks. There would be souvenir stands, bunting everywhere, and happy, singing souls munching chicken satay and doner kebabs as they waited to welcome the dawn of a new era.

It wasn’t like that. Three million people stood staring at the Thames from eight in the evening until the first fireworks went up at midnight. There was nothing to eat, nothing to drink and nowhere to go. Mind you, where we were based – right opposite the London Eye – we did have cabaret. Thames Water had a stage with some fine salsa music from a wonderful band called Buzzburdle (at least that’s what it sounded like from where we were standing). There was even some audience participation when a lecherous oaf in the crowd started feeling up the women nearby and was severely trounced by the husband. He disappeared at speed towards Hungerford Bridge, helped on his way by a blast of air from an entire family roaring imprecations.

Youngsters were climbing statues. Others struggled up trees. One puffed and panted as he heaved his ample form up the trunk towards the first welcoming branches, only to find fingers slipping into his waistband. Every youth’s fantasy – except that these fingers belonged to a policeman who hauled him down to earth. It’s probably just as well: those trees cannot really support weights above a quarter of as ton at the best of times.

No sooner had we found our position than a loudspeaker burst into life. ‘In the event of a surge, please move dahn the Embankment in a heasterly direction, towards Blackfriars Bridge, fangyew,’ it said. This was great. We had communication.

That was all we heard. The Prime Minister arrived at his booth to trigger the piddling little laser that set the London Eye into action. Nobody noticed, because there was no public service announcement of the event and no feed from his microphone for the public to hear. He was seen on television, though, and that’s what counts. People were convinced that the wheel wasn’t working, but it rotates only twice an hour so it’s hardly moving at all to the naked eye. It did come to life several times, and then stopped again; but few of the crowd seemed to realize. They had all heard that it couldn’t carry passengers because safety tests failed – the day before. Typical.

Nobody noticed when the illuminated barge chugged up river to collect the Queen, nor when it returned half an hour later with the royal party on board. Not a sound came from those costly loudspeakers. Down river, tens of thousands of celebrities were jammed in the tube and in the approaches to the dome. Some were stuck for the best part of three hours, and when they arrived there wasn’t any food left for them, either.

Bacardi Breezer had promised to pay for tube tickets after the fireworks display, and I still cannot see why. Everyone who’d come by tube had a travelcard or a return ticket, and the only people who would benefit from free travel were those given a lift to the West End and dropped off. In any event, the police closed the tube stations because of the risk of over crowding. At Victoria we squeezed our way in, when the gates were opened for a minute or two, only to find uncrowded platforms and deserted trains.

And was it worthwhile? Of course! Here we were entering (if you are a religious literalist) the year in which Jesus Christ celebrates his 2,000th birthday or (if you are a fervent agnostic) the moment when we start writing a 2 on cheques where we have been writing a 1 for a thousand years.

Meanwhile, a chance for a vast street party was lost; some 20 million worth of business was thrown away, and millions of people went hungry. The huge rows of toilets were largely neglected, partly because none of them had proper signs, and also because nobody could find anything to drink. The huge crowds and the colossal delays were a shameful example of mismanagement by a major city. Nobody is responsible, of course, and the organisers will all collect their vast bonuses.

It took us ten hours to watch a fifteen-minute firework display. Let’s hope that this year’s lot pay heed to last year’s cock-ups, and entertain everyone all night long. That would give us all something to tell the children.

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