The ticklish problem of a zzzzz and two noughts
Go on, I challenge you all to think of a major event which happened at the change of a century
Tuesday 19 January 1999
We were having a pub discussion on the effects of the Millennium. The man at the bar said that after 2000 we would be badly affected by not having the Millennium to look forward to any more. I could see his point. I myself have been hoping the Millennium will go away for years. And it will go away, very soon, at the end of this year, just by happening. But what, indeed, will there be to look forward to after that?
"Are you saying that our present Queen is hanging on till the end of the century in the same way?" said the man with the dog. "And that she's going to abdicate when 2000 is safely over? Or even snuff it?"
"Or that the Queen Mum is planning to go out with the century?" said the lady with the Campari wickedly.
"No," said the man at the bar. "I'm not saying that. Even if I thought that, I wouldn't say it. What I'm saying is that I take exception to what our friend here with the dog is saying, when he said that 1899 was not much different from 1901. I'm saying that the end of a century has a paralysing effect on people. There's a sort of shift of gear and for a year or so, while you're changing gear, nothing much happens."
"How can nothing much happen in a year?" said the lady with the Campari.
"Easily. And here's the proof. Nothing important ever happened in a year ending with two noughts. Nothing historic ever came to pass in 1600 or 1700 or 1800 or 1900. The changing year of the century is a blank. A breathing space. Half-time, suck slices of oranges, listen to team talk, but nothing happens. Go on, I challenge you all to think of a major event which happened at the turn of any century."
There was a magic silence in the pub as everyone within earshot tried to think of anything that had ever happened in a year ending 00.
"Well..." said the resident Welshman, and we all started. The resident Welshman, being an ex-teacher, was good at pub quiz questions even if he was bad at life generally. "Well, I can't think of anything that happened in one of these turn-of-the-century years, but I have to say I can't believe Oscar Wilde did outlive Queen Victoria. Surely he would have had the grace to leave the century before the century's curtain fell?"
All eyes turned to the landlord, and the landlord turned to the great volume which he kept behind the bar to settle such disputes, the Guinness Book of Pub Arguments.
"Oscar O'Flaherty Fingal Wills Wilde, Irish dramatist, wit and writer," he read, "who revived the flagging world of British comedy..."
"Yes, yes," we all cried, "but when did he die?"
"1900," said the landlord.
It was an impressive moment. The resident Welshman nodded as if it proved him right. The man at the bar nodded as if it backed him to the hilt. But the man with the dog glared at the man at the bar and said: "You're wrong, then! You said that nothing momentous ever took place in a year ending with 00!"
"Nothing momentous about that,"said the man at the bar. "Oscar Wilde hadn't written anything for years. He was a forgotten exile by then. He was just declining gently. He was probably just working on his dying words."
"What were his dying words, anyway?"
All eyes turned to the landlord again. He got down the Guinness Book Of Famous Last Words. He turned to Oscar Wilde.
"Apparently he was the only famous author who provided two famous last words. One was `I am dying as I have lived - beyond my means', and the other was, `Either that wallpaper goes or I do...'"
There was a small round of laughter, which wasn't bad for jokes that were a hundred years old, and then the man with the dog said: "Well, what about all the other famous Victorians? Gilbert and Sullivan, for example?"
"Arthur Sullivan," read out the landlord. "Died 1900."
There was an awestruck pause.
"There you are," said the man with the dog, the man at the bar and the resident Welshman in unison.
It's always a nice moment when everyone thinks they've won an argument, so we changed the subject to Mrs Robin Cook's new book, which nobody had read and which we could therefore talk about freely.
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