Bunhill: Millennium is all in a spin
Sunday 31 August 1997
Then there's the theory that the whole planet will acquire a supercharged atmosphere in the time it takes the clock to move from 23 hours 59 minutes and 59 seconds to midnight. As long ago as 1993, for example, Tim Boswell, then under-secretary of state for further and higher education, remarked: "The country faces the challenge of the coming millennium when a world- class workforce will be required." And since then there's been a surfeit of speeches from politicians and business people combining the words "world class" and "millennium". Workers, products, infrastructure, cricket teams, coffee tables, cream teas - you name it, they've all got to be ready to take on Mars, or the 21st century will leave without us.
Finally we've had the furore over the Millennium Exhibition, a project castigated as a "white elephant" as it soared towards the pounds 1bn mark and which recently hit the headlines yet again as the New Millennium Experience Company (for it is they) became embroiled in a compensation claim from German builders when their contract for the Greenwich dome roof was cancelled.
So that's quite enough of the millennium, thank you ...
But there again, with the clock fast approaching the year 2000, we should perhaps reflect on the last time all the digits changed on the calendar. Admittedly they only had 100 years to look back on at the end of 1899, and what with the propensity of clocks to tick rapidly and count down, that's no time at all. However, it may at least confer some perspective on the Government's spending plans for the millennium; after all, those were the glorious days of empire, and surely the Victorians knew how to throw a party.
Well, as the newspapers for 1 January 1900 noted, what a swell party it was. "Thousands of people spent the last minutes of 1899 and the first of 1900 in places of worship," said the Daily Mail. "The Queen's New Year's gifts to the poor of Windsor were presented at nine o'clock this morning ... a very thick fog prevailed during the distribution of beef," gushed the Evening News, presumably implying that the diners had gone hungry because the waiters couldn't find them.
And that was about it: a nice bit of smog-flavoured beef but no comfort at all to Messrs Blair and Mandelson as they try to justify spending so much on the big bash. So why this surge of sobriety as 1899 turned to 1900? There's a good reason and a pedantic reason.
The good reason: Britain was caught up in the Boer War - or, as the Daily Telegraph put it at the time, a conflict started by "a stubborn breed of Dutch peasants revolting against the just sovereignty of the Queen". Despite this apparently unequal struggle between military might and hewers and drawers of water, the Boer War dragged on till 1902.
And the pedantic reason? A flourishing but arcane dispute on whether 1900 represented the start of a new century or the last year of the old one. The Evening News reported that it had been overwhelmed with correspondence on the issue, among which was a letter penned by one WG Grace: "I am of the opinion that the twentieth century begins on January 1, 1901. A cricketer does not score a century until he has completed it."
Apart from providing a terrifying insight into life without TV or radio, the debate did highlight the oddity that historians began the modern calendar at 1AD not 0AD, and back in 1900 the official line was that the century was incomplete. So there's comfort in historical precedent for Peter Mandelson: if the Millennium Exhibition isn't ready on time, it will still be ready on time - it's the easiest bit of spin doctoring he'll ever have to do.
There were no such quibbles in Germany where, as the Daily Telegraph noted alliteratively, the Kaiser had directed New Year's Eve "to be brilliantly celebrated as the close of a century which has raised the German race from the abject mire of poverty and prostration to the pinnacle of prosperity". So struck were the Germans by this mix of disaster and regeneration that they went through the same process all over again, twice.
Finally, those people in the City who are planning a date with oblivion on New Year's Day 2000 might wonder what their predecessors were up to in 1900. A yard-of-ale contest, or a three-legged hostelry crawl? No, "500 volunteers equipped by the City of London" were enrolling at the Guildhall to fight in the Boer War - giving a whole new meaning to the concept of going liquid. So take your pick, stocks and shares or South Africans with an attitude problem; why not resist the lure of the laager and have another beer?
congratulations to the retail prices index: you've made it through to your 50th birthday despite a traumatic life in which you've experienced a 20-fold rise in prices. In real terms, then, adjusted for inflation, you are exactly 1,000 years old.
Sadly, we're not allowed to celebrate this momentous event as it would trigger a jump in the cost of living - but here's to a New Millennium Experience all of your own.
IT lives in unreal times
Information technology is an alien world to me as I scribble with my quill pen, but my colleagues like nothing better than to surf the Internet - and what mines of information they are. For instance, the home page of software firm Display.IT tells of its new application that lets users collect prices and financial information from the crowded information superhighway. Its news page boasts a glowing series of achievements. "Real time financial data and news available via the Internet, using Display.It," crows one. "BT director of corporate clients joins Display.IT's board," boasts another.
Curiously, it omits some recent developments: the suspension of its shares on Ofex six weeks ago, and the resignation of its entire board and all its advisers. What value the shares now? Simon Cawkwell, who did a spot of bear trading (in the argot) on his view that at pounds 100m, the company was grossly over-valued, believes they're worthless.
Display.IT isn't the first, and is highly unlikely to be the last company to come a cropper trying to make its fortune out of the Internet. But if this is its idea of "real time" information, its clock must have stopped.
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