Comment: Hedgehogs versus handmade books

Does the obsession with the millennium indicate a profound lack of national self-confidence?
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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS mixed millennial news for the Eastern counties last week. A public meeting set up by the Diss Chamber of Commerce to review appropriate end-of-year celebrations was attended by a total of seven people: six members of the chamber and a local journalist.

Berating the community for its lack of interest, the President of the Chamber, Ken Wells, described the millennium as "the biggest event most of us will experience in our lives". Meanwhile a fund-raising appeal for the event organised by a local supermarket has produced a total of pounds 10 in two months - a sum which compares unfavourably to the pounds 700 raised last month for a nearby Hedgehog Rescue Hospital.

On the brighter side, money for the "Haverhill Face of 2000" has now been confirmed, according to a breezy newsletter from Eastern Arts. The plan is for 2000 Haverhillians to photograph one another and for the results to be cybernetically morphed into one face: a lovely idea and doubtless worth every penny of the pounds 25,378 of public money that it is going to cost.

With this and other such projects, including The Changing Face of Luton (pounds 29,520), Bedfordshire's 200 handmade books "to document women's attitudes, hopes and aspirations for the new millennium" (pounds 14,881) and multicultural carnivals in Peterborough and Essex (pounds 23,616 and pounds 29,520), a total of pounds 620,480 will be spent to "bring communities together, create new artistic work and celebrate the identity of communities across the region". By an unhappy, if telling, accident of timing, all these exciting plans were overshadowed by an event which did rather less for these admirable aims.

With breathtaking ineptitude and callousness, Eastern Arts and local councils withdrew funding from the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich a few days before the start of its amateur season. On the region's TV news, teenage members of the Wolsey Youth Theatre, whose adaptation of Roald Dahl's Boy was due to open this week after seven months' of rehearsal, were seen sobbing outside the closed theatre.

Doubtless we shall be told that the situation at the Wolsey was complex, that the rescue plan, although overseen by Eastern Arts, was not working, that it is inappropriate to compare the pounds 322,750 spent on the theatre last year to a one-off grant, almost double the amount, being given by the Lottery's millennium fund to the Peterborough carnival, the Changing Face of Luton and the rest. The money comes from different sources. And, of course, the millennium is the biggest event most of us will experience in our lives.

Yet behind the justifications and rationalisations, there's a grim consistency to it all. Visit most medium-sized towns across the region - indeed in any agricultural part Britain - and you will find the identity of communities being celebrated in a peculiar manner. Crass, short-sighted planning has allowed greedy supermarket chains to leech the life-blood from the centre of towns. Those worst affected, as is ever the case, are teenagers too old to play on swings and too young to escape by car. In an atmosphere of boredom and despair, rural crime and vandalism is on the increase.

Those who sit plumply on committees, whether in councils or on arts boards, invariably ignore the problem. When a prime building-site became available on the outskirts of Diss recently, there was a widely supported campaign by town residents for a cinema to be built there. No prizes for guessing what is on its way - a supermarket to join the other three which have done so much to destroy the town.

No wonder that local worthies and arts administrators seize on the millennium with such glee. What better way to distract attention from real challenges and opportunities, to provide a flashy, fake illusion of community spirit than with a morphed face or a multicultural knees-up? Producing 200 handmade books may cost over pounds 14,000 (pounds 70 a volume? Surely that can't be right?) but it has the advantage of requiring no follow-through, no embarrassing scenes of distraught, disappointed teenagers on the evening news.

What does it all mean? Does this official obsession with the millennium indicate a profound lack of national self-confidence? To judge by the relatively sane behaviour of other countries, there's something peculiarly British about the desperate yearning for spurious historical significance.

But, if Diss and Ipswich are anything to go by, those outside the committee rooms are not fooled. For them, celebrating local identity involves long- term decisions rather than one-off gimmicks. As for the millennium, they would prefer to save their money for the hedgehogs.