Leading article: Rejoice at the eclipse of millennium hype

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THERE IS a certain pleasure to be had from contemplating the pounds 5,000 hotel rooms going empty on 31 December, the pounds 8,000 weekend offers left unheeded, the pounds 500-per-person meals remaining uneaten as the new millennium chimes in.

Like the eclipse, the millennium was heralded as a once-and-for-all experience for which, if you didn't book early, you would be left forlornly out of the action. Only, like the eclipse, it now seems as if there aren't going to be the crowds, or not in the numbers that would enable hoteliers and tour operators to charge the exorbitant prices that they had in mind.

Bully for the punters. Too much sudden wealth has made the market overeager to concoct venues of exclusivity for which high prices are part of the bait. If the customer has balked, it only goes to show that, even in a once-in-a-thousand year opportunity, there is a maximum price people are prepared to pay.

But it is not just for that reason that one welcomes the half-booked tours. It is a sign of maturity, surely, that the public, having been whipped up to a fervour by millennium hype, seem to have decided that it's not that big a deal after all.

Rome will be full of a million or more pilgrims making something of the religious significance of the date, even if the Vatican admits that the true moment is at the end of next year rather than this and the Pope would prefer Christmas to the New Year as the day of jubilation. But for the rest of the world, the rest of us, it will be a New Year not so unlike others, with perhaps a little bit extra; a time for a party, surely, or an evening with family and friends, or, for some, of being on call at the office in case the computers do finally fail. The young can earn extra from waitressing and waiting at the Dome. The doctors can chafe at not being offered much extra at all. The drunks will end up in the Thames, while the Archbishop of Canterbury dithers until the last moment before deciding whether to attend the ceremony. Yet across the country even the bells will not interrupt the usual flow of normal New Year revelry.

And that is as it should be. At a time of unprecedented change, when technology and society alter not from generation to generation but from decade to decade, time is also steady. The world will not be so very different next year from this. Nor in all likelihood will we. You look to the past when you fear the future and you look only to the future when you cannot face the past. The comforting feature of this millennium, judging by the bookings, is that people feel the need to do neither - just, perhaps, to draw a little closer to each other.