Real style: Here comes the Y2K bride

Crashing planes? Computer chaos? No, the latest pre-millennial panic is the race to find a partner by the new century. KATE WORSLEY reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Jane was holding it all together, until friends came round for supper in the back garden one evening. Her old friend Tim announced that he had decided, in a businesslike fashion, to find a partner by the end of 1999 by joining a dating agency. He mentioned the fee he had paid for its "premium" service. Jane realised then that, although she had been saving since April to join the same agency, there was no way she could save that much in time.

"I just burst into tears, and couldn't stop," she says. "The thought of going into a new century on my own is unbearable. I always have a lovely time with friends at New Year, but it's not having a stable loving relationship that really hurts. And this year I'm dreading it more than ever."

Jane has now given up on the dating agency idea. "That was going to be my let-out clause, to solve what had been a big ongoing problem for me, but I just can't afford it. I know 2000 is only a date, but you can't help but let it shape things."

The year 2000 is an artificial deadline (how many times have you been told that 2001 is really the start of the new millennium?) and it's a ridiculous deadline. After the overhyped anticlimax of the eclipse we should be feeling more sceptical than ever about the big cycles of time and space. But when you're looking for a date, when your biological clock is ticking, dates on the calendar take on an undeniable significance. Just look at Tara Palmer-Tomkinson who recently felt compelled to find Mr Right by the millennium - albeit to no avail.

Jane and Tim are not alone in their anxiety to find a partner before the end of the millennium. An Association of British Introduction Agencies news release reports a record 35 per cent rise in applications this year, and ends with the stark question "Who will you be with when the millennium dawns?"

"This time of year is usually pretty quiet for us, but we've been busy right through the summer," says Samantha Shaw, senior consultant at Drawing Down the Moon (pounds 695 plus VAT for 16 introductions). "It started in March/April and hasn't stopped," says Heather Heber Percy, who runs Country Partners. "People mention it all the time: 'I want to walk into the future with someone on my arm'. I am a bit surprised, to be honest. At the end of the day it's only New Year's Eve. It's not something tangible, it's just a date on the calendar. But after all," she drops her voice, "there is an awful lot of loneliness out there."

Agencies expect the real rush to start in September - just when, incidentally, at least two plan to raise their membership fees. Dateline's fee jumps by pounds 51 on 19 September to pounds 150, while Sirius's pounds 445 plus VAT goes up to pounds 475 on 15 September. "Join now, and beat the deadline!" intones the literature.

Money-grabbing agencies, sad singletons - it's easy to mock. But the counselling organisations are taking the prospect of a millennial excess of misery among the loveless seriously. "We are expecting an increase in the number of calls we receive," says a Samaritans spokeswoman. "The hype around the millennium and the very fact that it is a significant date and time will only add to the stress people who are alone then will feel."

And as Julia Cole, a counsellor with Relate points out, the millennial deadline touches those already in relationships too. "There will be ten times the number of parties, and chances are that couples and individuals who are struggling will feel ten times as miserable. We often get a lot of calls after Christmas, and in the second or third week of January, when the children have gone back to school and couples think, 'We've got to do something'. My guess is that the millennium will only magnify that rather sober feeling that one gets then: 'What do I want for the future?'"

Church-worker Pippa Allott, 28, took the millennial deadline so seriously that she vowed she would become a nun if she didn't meet someone before New Year's Eve 1999. "If I wasn't destined to have a partner, then I had to decide what I was going to do with my life," she explains. "I was frightened to death of becoming a selfish old woman. I said a prayer in January and just got on with my life."

It turned out God didn't want her for his own. Only weeks later, in February, she met Jonathan Nash, 31, in the pub. "God was definitely involved in that." They will be getting married next May. He suits her, stops her going to extremes. "We have no special plans for New Year's Eve," she says, a little sadly. "I was planning to go to Leeds city centre for a wild time. Now we'll probably go to the pub."

Getting married in the year 2000 exercises a particular fascination. When the countdown to the big day is a crucial part of getting married for so many, arranging your wedding day so the rest of the world appears to be living to the same timetable can be intoxicating. "We are seeing quite a big increase in interest in readers' letters," says Jane Anderson of You And Your Wedding magazine. "People who have been together a while want to mark it in some way. Choosing this year does that." With magazine coverlines like "Best dresses for the bride 2000", and a National Millennium Wedding show coming up in October, the wedding industry obviously knows how they feel.

"To have the date 2000 on your wedding licence seems to be the thing," says Anderson. "And you get your anniversaries spinning out from it too." It's 2005, so it must be our Wooden Anniversary. Simple.

Registry offices are indeed busier than ever, although much of this can be attributed to the greater choice of licensed venues on offer in the past five years. Sue, 31, married William, 35, in June this year after being together for three years. "I wanted to go into next year with everything settled," she admits. Married, the future looks more manageable, bound together by their vows like a sailor lashed to the mast as a storm approaches.

There was a rush to get married before the dawn of the 20th century too, with the number of weddings taking place in England and Wales rising by eight per cent from 242,764 in 1896 to 262,334 in 1899. There were nearly 5,000 fewer the next year, only 257,480. Will we see the same sort of phenomenon this time around?

Victor Herzig, 50, and Julie Esposito, 38, are spending pounds 20,000 to get married in the Seychelles at 5pm on New Year's Eve, with ten friends and family including two children each from past marriages.

"It's going to be my last marriage, I assure you," says garage owner Victor. "I didn't want to get married again, but it tidies things up when you have children and a business; there are no loose ends if anything happens." They have been together four years, and booked the whole thing two years ago "when no one was thinking about it". Victor breaks off from talking about his first marriage to say "I bet you can still hear the bitterness, can't you?" He hopes 31 December 1999 will wipe the slate clean. "It will be a new start," he says with relish. "A new century."

"All of us have the desire to dump our pasts, but the truth is, we are the sum of our pasts," says Julia Cole. "People will come saying they want a clean slate. It's probably not possible to do that, but an option is to come to terms with it, and not deny the past; to think of it in terms of having read certain chapters in a book and now starting a new chapter, with those chapters still in mind.

"People like to think of redemption; after all, Christianity is founded on the idea, and it is important to Sikhs and Hindus. It's something built into us all."

David Baker, a highly sociable 35-year-old gay man who has been single for a year and a half, disagrees. He dismisses anxieties about entering the next millennium alone as ridiculous. "It's no big deal. I don't believe it's a good idea to expect to be with someone then. It's much more exciting to be open to meeting someone than going out and looking." But in the next breath he admits: "Of course, I feel like that too. It just bugs me when I do feel it. But it's something you can learn not to do." Repeat after me: new chapter, same book.