Millennial angst: a user's manual

THE AGE OF ANXIETY ed Sarah Dunant & Roy Porter Virago pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Remember how it used to feel as a child when the milometer on the family car clocked up an almost perfect row of noughts? Logic told you it was no big deal, that one mile was much the same as another, that it had happened before and in 10,000 miles would happen again. But logic had nothing to do with it. The experience was magical, even mystical. You wanted your dad to stop right there and not move another inch.

The coming millennium casts some- thing of the same spell: a row of 000s, the promise of a fresh start. But rather than excitement, the chief feeling it seems to generate is anxiety. Palpitations, night sweats, a tendency to insert words like Armageddon or fin de siecle into your speech, an unnatural preoccupation with natural disasters, a need to plan several years ahead exactly how you will spend the evening of 31 December 1999 (or, according to another school of thought, 31 December 2000): if you suffer from any of these symptoms you should get yourself checked over at once. It could be you have millennialitis.

Alternatively, you can consult this book of essays, whose contributors, rather than frothing apocalyptically, strive gamely to put a name to all those nameless fears. The editors, in their introduction, point out that we've been here at least once before, quoting a French monk called Ademar on the plagues and omens that gripped the world at the end of the tenth century. Their message, on the whole, is reassuring rather than alarmist: yes, we've a lot to worry about, but equally "we have come a long way in 1,000 years".

The soothing note is struck in the very first essay, by Geoff Mulgan, who - writing about computers and the Internet - reminds us that technological innovations have rarely been as life-transforming as either optimists or pessimists have predicted. The same note is heard again in the penultimate essay, on science, by the excellent Geoff Watts. He doesn't underplay the absurdist and blackly comical scenarios with which science circa 2000 faces us (among them, the prospect that, "by transplanting the ovaries of an aborted foetus into an infertile woman it will be possible to give birth to a child with the genes of a woman who has never lived"), but who emphasises the benefits - not least those of awe and exhilaration - which science can bring.

In between these two pieces, Linda Grant valuably and vulnerably worries away at violence and at why our fear of it seems to exceed the relevant statistics. The late Oscar Moore writes of Aids, sexual pleasure and "fatality rites", and claims - a last desperate whistle in the dark - that "the threat of death has led to a heightened sense of life, for me personally, and for the gay community in general". Fred D'Aguiar shows why slavery is still a vital issue in an age which wants to repress it or pretend it's "history". And Michael Neve, in one of the liveliest and most bravely personal pieces, writes as a divorce in defence of "happy untraditional families" and discredited, Sixties, Laingian ideas.

Susie Orbach, Michael Ignatieff and 17-year-old Bidisha Bandyopadhyay also have their say on what's causing all this end-of-the-century angst. But the last word should go to the philosopher Mary Midgley, who, in an essay on our worry about the environment, makes a useful distinction between panic in the 1990s and earlier crises of faith, such as those prompted by the Napoleonic wars. Then, she argues, belief in God and the book of Revelations made people passively accept the end of the world as "an outcome that could not possibly be affected by human action". Whereas now, the possibility of global disaster is something for which we hold ourselves responsible, and which we feel we should be able to do something about. Anxiety, looked at like this, is not an illness but nature's way of keeping us alert and energetic.

There are, it has to be said, more pressing worries than the end of the millennium. Just getting through the week is enough of a problem for some. And for most of us, the imminence of three noughts pales into insignificance alongside the fear of our personal nought, death (the big O of oblivion), which can't be so confidently dated. But if 2000 does feature on your dread-list, the consoling message of this book is that you shouldn't feel anxious about being anxious. Stay uncool. Don't chill out. Anxiety may be the best hope of being around to see the millennium in.