This modern life's all Dome and gloom

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The Independent Culture
THE FLIGHT from Rome had begun auspiciously enough, with a mad woman complaining at the boarding gate. "Why," she demanded, "was this flight called for four-thirty and we did not start boarding until ten to five?"

The airline man shrugged in a non-committal Italian way.

"And," said the mad woman, "why can you not board by seat number? Everyone at once! And we are travelling first class."

"No. A really?" said the airline man.

The mad woman turned to his superior, a suave and saturnine man. "This man has been insolent to me," she said.

The saturnine man looked at her benignly. "Oh dear," he said; "I shall have him flogged."

"Are you being facetious?" said the mad woman.

"Flogged," said the saturnine man, firmly, "and put on bread and water."

The mad woman paused for a moment, checked in her stride.

"I suppose you think you're clever," she said. "I would like to know the reason for this lamentable state of affairs."

"Ah," said the saturnine man, "I suppose it is because we have simply not got our act together."

"Well how would it be if everyone was like that?" said the mad woman.

"Disgraceful, " beamed the saturnine man. "I entirely agree."

It was done with such utter suavity, such unexceptionable courtesy of absolute malice, that the mad woman was annihilated; there was no response she could make. She stamped aboard the aircraft, snarling and tutting at what seemed to be her unfortunate son and daughter-in-law, and minutes later we were dancing and jolting upwards through an unstable frontal sky towards Elba.

London was locked in beneath minatory thunderheads. Westbound out of Biggin, we broke through the clouds and bounced our way through the rain towards Heathrow. I peered out of the window to get my bearings, just in case the pilots had buggered it up and were forced to come through the cabin seeking directions. The Thames lay like a greasy snail-trail through the desuetude of east London, and there, like a squat mushroom, white as a tumour, was the Millennium Dome, in all its fatuity. The day before, in the carnal Roman heat, I had walked around the circumference of the Emperor Caracalla's great baths, out beyond the Palatine hill. The guidebooks give you the clean-limbed version - healthy Romans splashing in the steam like jolly primeval water-creatures, before enjoying a game of volleyball in the palaestrae or a nice improving read in the libraries. But it was not like that at all. The scale of the baths is unimaginable if you haven't seen them. Like everything else of ancient Rome, they are simply bigger than anything has any right to be. These were the people who invented power, and although we may have got nicer since then, we have also shrivelled.

It's a walk of about a mile around the outside of Caracalla's baths, and the front elevation was once covered in glass mosaics, which would shimmer and blaze and beckon in the afternoon sun. Inside, 15,000 people could go to disport themselves, and once the clothes and jewellery were off, everyone was equal. It was an unrestrained perpetual Saturnalia; whatever you wanted could be had or bought. Even today, whores - pallid Albanians and Brazilian transsexuals - tread the same paths they have haunted for almost two thousand years.

I wanted to have known it. I wanted to have been there, to have had myself a libidinous senator's wife, no better than she should be, held down, oiled and naked, upon a marble slab by her complicit handmaids. I wanted to have wandered out into the golden evening light, composing satires denouncing the very vices in which I had been wallowing, as - bathed, drenched with hyssop and perfumed with post-coital satiety - I ambled towards the Circus Maximus to enjoy the terrible hypnotic conflation of sex and death.

But instead I was a modern man, reasonable, continent and relativistic, juddering through the wet vaporous undergrowth towards the runway, Mr Mandelson's Millennium Dome dripping beneath me and shrivelling my soul with its thin-blooded fatuity. It acknowledges no gods, that dome, neither ancient nor modern. Its scanty opportunistic energies travel downwards into the earth, anchored by steel fetters. It will provoke neither cries of lust nor terror and certainly not of joy, merely the dutiful, swivel- necked, package-tour murmurs of "Ooh look, Marge," and "It's a big person, just like us," and "Shall we see the telecommunications exhibit?" and "How about a MacDonalds?" and everyone will be comfy and there will be a smell of wet leisurewear and Dad will worry about the cost of everything and, in the car, on the way home, the kiddies will be sick.

It's a monument to a public-relations initiative. Nobody cares about the Millennium. It's no more than a big version of those stupid Awareness Weeks that everyone is so tired of that I hear there's going to be an Awareness Week Awareness Week to revive our interest again. The Dome celebrates those hideously English gods, the purse-lipped airport madwoman gods of all-right-for-some and I-suppose-you-think-you're-clever and two millennia hence, nobody (if there is anybody) will wonder what we were like and wish they were us, because there will be nothing there except a few scraps of plastic and the odd inch-ravel of guy rope.

But is it too late? Can't we, even now, just pretend we are Masters of the Universe, and celebrate our power and our appetites and our inevitable death? Can we not fill the Dome with baths and steam-rooms and libraries, with side-rooms and triforia and public orgy-rooms; staff it with dancing- girls and muscular youths, fill it with music and statues and bright gaudy mosaics? Can we not make it a place of free resort and carnal equality atop a dark and secret Mithraeum, a perpetual Saturnalia where the laws do not run? Isn't that what we'd all secretly like best?

Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps we're happier like this. I am the People's Ozymandias, market-researched; look on my works, ye ordinary, and feel vaguely good about things. !

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