Monday Book: Mean times in the black hole of Greenwich

Regeneration: The Story of the Dome by Adam Nicolson, (HarperCollins, pounds 19.99)
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The Independent Culture
TAKE THE New York subway out to Flushing Meadow, and you come to where the 1939 World Fair was laid out on swampland. In Europe, people worried about Hitler, but here a stripper by the name of Yvette Dare had trained a macaw called Einstein to remove her bra to the sound of tom- toms from the fair's Seminole Village.

The Millennium Dome has been so wrapped in solemnity that it's easy to forget, as Adam Nicolson points out, that its predecessors were often anything but solemn. When Jacques Chirac saw a model of the Dome in 1998, he asked what it was for. "It's for a nation's confidence," a New Millennium Experience Company apparatchik replied. "Chirac harrumphed and turned on his heel," Nicolson reports. The French president's bullshit detector was in good trim.

Nicolson entertainingly chronicles the Dome story, from its faint beginnings in John Major's 1992 election manifesto - at which point the idea was to hold "an international trade fair" - up to October 1999. He tells of two struggles. On the one hand, the struggle of designers and promoters to get the Dome built and kitted out. On the other hand, his own struggle to prise information out of the company. He speaks feelingly of his "heavy encounters" with Jennie Page, its chief executive, and quotes (I think with glee) one Labour minister's description of her as "a cross between a porcupine and an armadillo."

The Dome, of course, has had critics from the start; and why not, given its enormous cost? It met them with "hatches battened down." Nicolson unbattens them. He traces the often comical hesitations and stumblings as the Millennium Commission, like Yeats's rough beast, slouched towards its Jerusalem to be born. The tensions were ferocious. Even at the top, "meetings of the commission were never convivial." Lower down, the unfortunate designers faced a vacuum of creative leadership. "You sent stuff in," one of them said, "and it was like sending it into a big black hole."

From the start, the Dome's big man was Michael Heseltine, "by far the hardest hitting of the commissioners" (and one, of only two, who had the guts to talk to Nicolson). The Dome is where it is, and this book has the title it has, on account of Heseltine's long-running quest to regenerate an East London destroyed by the collapse of traditional blue-collar work. The borough of Greenwich was dropped from the remit of his London Docklands Development Corporation at the last minute. The Dome was a way to bring it back into the fold. Unfortunately, the hunt for a site came to take precedence over the hunt for an idea.

Nicolson gives due credit to Heseltine's ambitions, but they don't excite him. He prefers the personal and aesthetic tussles. The heroes of his "biography of an embryo" are the architect and engineers of the Dome itself. They overcame the hazards of a poisoned landscape with nothing higher than 200 feet between it and Finland. Anyone who went into the finished but empty Dome - a huge circus tent, really - will agree that it deserves a place beside the work of the great Victorian engineers.

When the architect, Mike Davies of the Richard Rogers Partnership, designed it, the prevailing idea was, very vaguely, to celebrate the meaning of Time. In a recent seminar, Davies said: "It is no accident that the Dome has twelve masts and is 365 metres across." It wears all such symbolism lightly - which is as well, because no one, these days, mentions that particular time factor.

In every other sense, however, time became what the Dome project was almost entirely about. It had an absolute deadline. "It would not have happened," Jennie Page says, "without the mobile phone." But it's notable how often, in Nicolson's pages, a deal was struck after an accidental face-to-face meeting in Pall Mall, or on a cruise ship, or wherever. The New Information Age hasn't yet arrived.

The curtain is still to go up on this production. But Nicolson's backstage saga will retain its value. Eventually, also, we shall get the Chorus at the end of Act Five, in the un-Shakespearean shape of the Public Accounts Committee, asking its awkward fiscal questions. Was it worth all that cash? Was it as much fun as the macaw called Einstein? Did Greenwich really get much regeneration out of it? The audience, and the jury, await.