A touch of melancholy over the millennium

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The Independent Culture
New Year used to be one of my favourite times. It was sentimental but uncommercial. In Scotland, in the 1950s and 60s, there was a trade in whisky, steak pies and shortbread and that was about it as far as selling went . People had a duty to be friendly, shaking hands randomly in the street, welcoming strangers into their house, but the liquid emotional spasm of the English Christmas, spilling from its hard shell like a broken egg, was absent. From our house, at midnight, you could hear the locomotives whistling in the freight yard over the hill. In Glasgow, ships hooted on the Clyde. And then, having watched Andy Stewart on the television, you went out with your bottle and walked to the houses of people you thought would be pleased to see you, as they usually were until about five in the morning. I can remember very few arguments - strange but true - and absolutely no sex, both of which are the cartoon hallmarks of the family Christmas and the office Christmas party (as I knew from the Giles annual, but had not then ever experienced).

No doubt: a festival produced by a repressive culture and one only half- liberated from that repression. But frankly I miss it. Watching that confected jamboree in Edinburgh, fireworks, the adolescent crush of wasted New Zealanders in Princes Street, is a poor substitute. Usually I'm in bed by one o'clock and thinking of the time when to walk across the black inner suburbs of Glasgow singing "The Wild Rover" was the peak of fun and excitement. This year this curmudgeonly behaviour doesn't look a realistic option. Now that summer has gone, the autumnal question is: what are you going to do at The Millennium?

My answer is a common one. I shall try to get excited, I shall try to participate: champagne uncorked, fireworks gasped at, the Millennium Dome visited. I'd like my children to remember it. But deeper down there will be a melancholy and vain thought about the passing of my century and my subsequent categorisation, among my family if not in some small cultural footnote, as a 20th-century figure. Human lives don't live neatly within centuries but their personalities and achievements seem to. If history is anything to go by, anyone now older than 40 will be lucky to be thought of as "belonging to" the 21st-century. By 2010, they will begun to be known as "typical" of the 20th. By 2020, they'll be figures from the comedy of the past, like Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians.

I've been trying to prove (and, more cheerfully, disprove) this theory by consulting biographical dictionaries. Was there anyone aged 40 and over in 1900 who could be considered as belonging to this century rather than the 19th? Among politicians and militarists there are few made famous by the First World War, and infamously blamed for their 19th-century ideas. H H Asquith (48 in 1900), H H Kitchener (50), Douglas Haig (39 but we'll allow him in). Baden-Powell (43) didn't invent the Boy Scouts until 1908, so he belongs to the 20th-century, as does, among technologists, Rudolph Diesel (42) and Henry Ford (37, but never mind). Among musicians there is Edward Elgar (43, and most of his best work still to come), but not Richard Strauss (just too young at 36). Among writers, both Joseph Conrad (43) and Rabindrinath Tagore (39) get in, because their fame arrived later, when Tagore won the Nobel Prize and Conrad published Chance in the successive years of 1913 and 1914. As a final act of generosity. we might also include Churchill, who was 36 in the first year of the century.

Elsewhere the guillotine comes down. Lives span centuries, but reputations stick in one or the other. A 21-year-old might look up at the fireworks on December 31 and, bright with hope, remember that Einstein was the same age in 1900. Anyone over 40 should lie back and think of Baden-Powell.

The monthly Prospect magazine prides itself as a journal of ideas; "politics-essays-argument" runs the rubric on its cover. The October issue has several exemplary articles. John Lloyd writes about how Britain's intelligentsia and the Blair government have fallen out. Michael Ignatieff tells us why the Enlightenment still matters. Illuminating, well-written, important stuff. We all believe, I hope, that ideas matter and that the free exchange of them slowly, imperceptibly, affects they way we think and behave. Easily the most influential piece in the new issue, however - and for my money the most influential piece the magazine has ever published - is not an "idea" at all, but a personal story by a former editor of this newspaper, Ian Hargreaves, about his vasectomy.

Hargreaves had his operation at a clinic run by Marie Stopes International. He believed, as we are encouraged to believe, that it was a simple snipping job - quick, with no lingering pain or side effects, back at work the next day. In his case, not so. "The next morning I was black and blue across my entire groin area, bleeding spasmodically and walking like an extra from a John Wayne film." Both pain and potent sperm were still there five months later. Returning to Marie Stopies, he is told by a doctor that some people experienced post-operation pain for the rest of their lives, but that the number is small, 0.1 per cent. Seeking a second opinion at another clinic, a doctor tells him the incidence of chronic testicular pain is 4 per cent.

As Hargreaves points out, compared to the dangers women face from sex and reproduction, vasectomy is hardly a big deal. On the other hand, prospective patients are ill-informed about the pain risk and the time it may take for sperm to be finally subdued (in his case, a year). Men are in some ways to blame, "preferring the maximum in jokes and the minimum of useful conversation in these matters". The other fault lies with clinics in their dual role as propagandists for the vasectomy cause and providers of the operation.

I read Hargreaves's account and winced. At home, we have often talked about vasectomies, or rather a particular vasectomy. "A chance in a million," my wife said (women are so brave), but I wasn't reassured and I don't think many men will be. With one article, Prospect has probably caused a slight increase in the birthrate and the shares of condom manufacturers. Very few pieces of journalism have such direct effects. Penile sensitivy, penile mythology: perhaps they're absurd and to be regretted, but, as the late Mrs Indira Gandhi learned to her cost, they are forces to be reckoned with. Vasectomies were chief among the reasons she lost power in 1977 and have ever since made birth control in India an almost unmentionable political topic.

I'm writing this to the sound of rain. I can hear it hitting the roofs, gurgling in the down-pipes, swishing in the gutters; a perfectly common series of sounds, but never in my memory taken to such extremes, at least in Britain. In a city like Calcutta you can wake up to sheets of water pouring down, as though a reservoir in the sky had been smashed. The monsoon has come. The streets will be flooded - now all those high pavement kerbs make sense - and taxis and buses marooned. It would be dangerous to liken the new British rain to the stuff that drenches India every year in late June, but clearly it's tending in that direction. If 1987 was the year we realised what damage the wind could do, far away from its usual provenance in the Bay of Biscay, then 1999 will be marked out for the strange ferocity of rain. It comes through our skylight and our slates. More cunningly it sneaks in through the front wall and drips down from the bedroom ceiling. Arranging the buckets, I remember how many Indian rooms need to be whitewashed once a year, to cover the flaking damp left by each monsoon.

Another symptom of a changing global climate, I suppose, though I can't remember reading this in the pieces that predict vines in Yorkshire and malaria in Blackburn. Perhaps we should be thinking in altogether different terms: paddy-fields in Essex, stock options in umbrella firms (as well as condoms).

Some months ago in this column I wrote about Jimmy Gregory and his life in the London piano trade, which Mr Gregory had joined as a boy in 1933 and knew a great deal about. This week his daughter wrote to say that he had died suddenly in his office at J Reid Pianos, Tottenham. He had been pleased by the piece and displayed it in his showroom.

At one time - a confession - I think the idea of pleasing people by writing about them would have struck me as journalistic anathema. If you pleased them, there was something wrong. In some way, you had failed in your perception of them (and you, the young journalist, had such snotty and interesting perceptions to deliver). Quite a few people need displeasing, of course, but many others are simply unlucky in finding themselves in the line of sceptical fire.

I'm glad that I pleased Mr Gregory. I met him entirely by accident in the course of trying to buy a piano. He was interesting and vastly informative, a very pleasing man. As his daughter says: "There wasn't another person in the country who knew the piano like he did."