Boring facts first: we live in a prosperous and stable democracy enjoying low unemployment, low inflation and a booming stock market. But forget that stuff. Pre-Millennial Tension is aimed at driving us all mad. It stretches from despair over the war in Europe to shock at the killing of a much-loved television presenter on her own doorstep in broad daylight. PMT finds echoes in the massacre by schoolchildren of their fellow schoolchildren in a Denver suburb, followed by a copycat shooting in Georgia this week. We have been unnerved by bombs in London aimed at black people, Asians, gays and, in the end, pretty much all of us.
This combination of grim events has led Cardinal Basil Hume to wonder whether at the end of the millennium the world is sinking into a new age of barbarism. But even that cheerless prospect barely scratches the surface of PMT Britain. We have become obsessed with doom.
As a country, apparently, we are falling apart. Hardly a day goes by without some PMT enthusiast proclaiming The End of Britain with all the wide-eyed certainty of those strange men in faded clothes who carry sandwich boards warning of Armageddon. Nato, of course, is also supposedly doomed, whether the war in Kosovo is won or lost. So is the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States. The food we eat - well, what can I scare you with that has not frightened you already?
Perhaps, in the words of the old comedy act, it is being so cheerful that keeps the British going, even if Pre-Millennial Tension extends way beyond even our gloom-laden shores. In the past month in India there were predictions that a peculiar alignment of the planets would bring disaster. India, I am delighted to report, continues to survive.
In Japan a lingerie firm announced the introduction of the Armageddon Bra, which alerts the wearer to incoming missiles. I am not making this up. Perhaps Britain should demand that Marks & Spencer reclaim its place in the high street by launching a new line in Early Warning Y-Fronts.
Among PMT British newspaper stories this week came the oldest of old chestnuts: whether the prophesies of Nostradamus foretold World War Three beginning in the Balkans. Then there was the report, in sober London newspapers, that a giant asteroid could strike the earth in the year 2038. It could indeed. A three-legged goat could also win the Grand National, though the chances of the asteroid strike, statistically one in 10 million, make the goat look like a safer bet. Nevertheless the asteroid called, pre-millennially, 1999 AN10, could "cause a catastrophe", the reports said, if it were to hit Earth directly. The world's population would end up starving or freezing to death.
In a more realistic bout of PMT, the International Institute of Strategic Studies predicts that terrorism is changing for the worse in the new millennium. Remember those lovely, cuddly terrorists of yesteryear? Well, according to the IISS, the new-model millennial terrorist could well be a fanatical loner "more indiscriminate and more lethal" than the usual suspects. The IISS foresees more Unabombers, unhinged individuals pursuing arcane grievances, and perhaps with access to nuclear bombs. You know we are gripped by PMT madness when a highly respected defence think-tank complains of slipping ethical standards among the mad bombers.
Of course, nobody does PMT better than the Americans. If Nostradamus were reincarnated today he would be an American tele-evangelist, futurologist or Millennium Bug specialist. These are the people who tell us that, in what they incomprehensibly call Y2K, the telephones won't work, air traffic control will falter, planes will fall out of the sky, and water purification and the production of electricity will be impossible. And that's just the good news. As those American thinkers about the future, Alvin and Heidi Toffler, put it cheerfully: "America faces a convergence of crises unmatched since its earliest days. Its family system is in crisis, but so is its health system, its urban systems, its value systems and above all its political system."
This may all be true. But Vice-President Al Gore, a man who is to politics what All-Bran is to gourmet dining, is running for Y2K president.
If Gore is the US election choice, you can be sure most Americans will remain stubbornly comatose throughout their millennial "convergence of crises". Yet research by Dr Philip Lamy, in a book entitled Millennium Rage, indicates that the US will be gripped by other kinds of terror. Survivalists, according to Dr Lamy, white supremacists and the kind of cults that brought us the killings in David Koresh's Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, will show a marked increase in their activity leading up to The Big 2000. "The potential for future Oklahoma cities," Dr Lamy warns us, referring to the bombing that killed 169 people, "is almost assured."
But even the doom-ridden Dr Lamy is a ray of optimistic sunshine compared to hardcore millennial prophets such as the former Republican presidential candidate and tele-evangelist the Reverend Pat Robertson. Mr Robertson suggests we may be close to the biblical End Times of the Book of Revelation. The Second Coming of Christ could be at hand. In his novel The End of the Age, about a giant meteor destroying much of the Earth, Mr Robertson indicates that if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse don't get you, then there will be plenty of religiously minded volunteers with their armalite rifles in one hand and copies of the Old Testament in the other willing to give God's Will a helpful little shove towards Armageddon.
For me, almost as bad as the gloom of Pre-Millennial Tension is the expectation of millennial excitement. Britain's lofty pleasure Dome - oh! be still my beating heart! - cannot quite compete with the television programmes that instruct us how to conceive the first baby of the new millennium. But since, even in Y2K, the sun will still rise in the east, my confident prediction is that the first baby of the new millennium will be born in Tonga, followed rapidly by Japanese and then Chinese, Indian and Russian millennial babies. Unless Britain is relocated before New Year's Eve quite a bit closer to the international date line, the first British millennial baby will be an also-ran in the millennial roll-call. Sorry.
But through all the PMT nonsense, this week came the first real sign of pre-millennial cheer. A British report on the millennium bug told us how bad this computerised cancer could be. After exhaustive research the report found that a handful of police and ambulance services may or may not be able to get their Y2K communications to work. Speeding tickets may not be issued on time. There could be glitches in CCTV cameras. Well, I'm sorry, but this is not what was advertised. Like millions of British PMT sufferers, I want either Armageddon or my money back.
The writer is a presenter on BBC News24. Fergal Keane is on holidayReuse content