What a swell party we need

The Millennium Festival should be as unforgettable as the Great Exhibition of 1851. But prevarication and penny-pinching do not a celebration make. Jonathan Glancey asks the Commission to think big
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The Independent Culture
Once upon a time, a very long time ago or so it seemed, committees of clubbable men and headmistressly women in prim suits spoke reverently of their mission to create a giant festival in Britain to celebrate the coming (or passing) of the millennium. Some said a festival should be held in Birmingham, former workshop of the world and geographical heart of England (if not Britain); others said it should be held in Greenwich, where time present meets time past on the meridian line that slices through this London borough and its incomparable gathering of Renaissance palaces.

The ladies and gentlemen on the grand committees wined and dined one another, chatted to ministers and grandees, and sometimes pontificated on the issue of the great festival. But, days turned into weeks, weeks into months and, even though the millennium itself drew ever closer, nothing much happened.

After all, it would be frightfully unpolitic to favour London over Birmingham or Birmingham over London. The best thing (or so it seemed to outsiders) would be to do as little as possible (let sleeping millennia lie) and hope that the public would become bored of the whole idea (they have: the millennium, its festivals, grand projects and vague promises of heaven on earth is in danger of sending us the way of Rip Van Winkle).

This might sound a little unfair, cynical even, yet it does seem sad that English prevarication (the desire neither to offend, nor to take risks) has meant that as the winter turns to spring 1996, the Millennium Commission and the government has yet to make up its mind where it wants a millennium festival to be held.

In recent weeks, news of a decision has waxed and waned liked the phases of the moon. A decision, however, is needed now, so that those charged with creating what could and should be the greatest festival witnessed in a thousand years can set to work. They do not have a long time, particularly if the year-long festival is to lead to imaginative new buildings and the regeneration of large tracts of urban wasteland.

In fact, there is every indication that the Millennium Commission, under the direction of Jenny Page, has already made up its mind that it wants Greenwich as the site for the festival. Despite the ritual ire of those living outside London whenever the capital appears to benefit unfairly from some vast new cultural investment, Birmingham lacks glamour and the pulling power of London.

London does not exist solely for the benefit of Londoners; it is the British capital. It is also a world capital. It remains a place where millions of people (Brummies, Scousers, Mancunians included, if they are honest, want to go, - if not to live, then to enjoy).

Greenwich itself is almost magnificent. The festival site sounds unpromising at first - a vast plot of polluted land owned by British Gas, the nation's least popular company - yet it leans on a great bend on the River Thames and - connected, as it could well be, by tram, train, bus, cycle and a long pedestrian avenue - will link directly with the undisputed magnificence of the Royal Naval College (the future of the college still lies in the balance due to prevarication and cupidity of ministers for whom Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor mean about as much as Heidegger's Being and Time or Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge).

Once the choice of Greenwich is made, as it surely must be soon, the Millennium Commission must use its clubbable charm to insist that money is spent lavishly on the festival, and that even more is spent on developing the site at Greenwich into a showcase of what Britain can achieve in terms of new architecture, design, transport, landscape, homes, gardens and ecology.

The terrible temptation of government (whether the current Tory administration or the Labour regime that is likely to see Britain into the millennium) is to do little, spend little and thus achieve nothing at all worthwhile.

Taking risks is something fewer people and even fewer governments are willing to do. A puritan and miserly streak in the British mental make- up could well mean that the festival will prove to be something of a damp squib. What it needs to be is the equivalent of the greatest fireworks display ever dreamt up.

This will cost a lot of money, but this is the one time (through the National Lottery, even though, privately, Virginia Bottomley disapproves of this tawdry way of raising cash) that we can afford to spend on a lavish scale.

Yet, if you tune in to Radio 4's Today programme any morning of the week, you may well hear some pompous minister or Enterprise Culture fat-cat droning on about their "vision" (today, everyone has a "vision"; these used to be the preserve of saints, seers and poets of the calibre of William Blake), a vision of a "customer-oriented facility-style Britain in which all customers will benefit from an increasing choice of ever cheaper goods and services".

Here lies a big part of our problem with the millennium, its promised festival and aftermath. Because we are no longer citizens, but customers of these islands, (ie we have been trained over the past 15 years to think in terms of our getting, on demand and like spoilt children, a mind-bending choice of poor quality "goods" and services on the cheap), we cannot imagine investing money long-term in beauty, quality and magnificence.

Where are the Royal Naval Colleges of today? Where are the patrons and politicians willing, or daring, to pump money into an unfathomable future? A nation that treats the Royal Naval College, Greenwich as any other slice of pocket-lining real estate, is a nation that has given up trying to advance itself culturally or intellectually.

The best things in life are not cheap; equally, they are never free. Fresh air is no longer a given, neither are fritillaries, dormice or dragon- flies. Everything that has made Britain great or worth fighting for over the past thousand years has been costly. Costly either in terms of hard cash (our cathedrals, parish churches, ancient universities, our museums, galleries, railways, the reclamation of the Fens... add your own to the list) or costly in terms of human endeavour (the poetry and paintings of poor Billy Blake, for example, priceless today and gawped at by millions in the Tate Gallery; the prose of John Bunyan; the preaching of John Wesley).

Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the party. The Millennium Festival must be brilliant, expensive and unforgettable. If it is to be costed on the same basis as our millennial railways, power supplies and other "customer facilities", we ought to forget it. After 50 years of ration books, austerity, stop-go economics, of cheapskate railways and transport systems, appalling social housing and the triumph of pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap superstore culture, we should encourage the government and the Millennium Commission to spend generously. Perhaps no politicians wants to be seen spending on a heroic scale, in case anything goes wrong and they go down in history books as the wastrel spendthrift of the millennium.

There should be sufficient safeguards in Britain to ensure that huge sums of money lavished on the greatest of all parties does not line private pockets with silk. There is enough skill and imagination in Britain to invent and realise a memorable festival and one that everyone from philosopher to check-out operator will thrill to.

Many of the things we say we care about most cost well over the odds: our cathedrals (and their maintenance), Victorian bridges, and even the dear old Houses of Parliament. Real imagination - no "visions", no pandering to opinion polls or market research - will be needed to make the Millennium Festival at Greenwich shine in just less than four years' time. Even greater imagination, drive and passion will be needed to turn one of the least lovely, but best sited, tracts of urban wasteland in Britain into a place Londoner, Brummie, Scouser and Mancunian will fall over one another in the rush to set up home there. A home for the future.

If, however, the Millennium Commission and the government continues to prevaricate, and if their "vision" is informed by the spirit of Silas Marner and Scrooge rather than that of Blake or Prince Albert (the power behind the Great Exhibition of 1851), we might as well abandon the Millennium Festival and all that it could promise in terms of new architecture, design and delight and settle instead on 1 January 2000 in front of the pay-as- you-go telly with your choice of nice 'n' tasty takeaway pizza (one free for every millennial UK plc customer) and a shrink-wrapped pack of fake German lager from the local hyperstore.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Millennium Commission, Ginny Bottomley and your opposition successor, please act quickly and think big.