Tunnelling our way to history: The hole beneath the Channel will change far more about Britain than we can imagine

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WITH the Queen and President Mitterrand about to open the Channel tunnel, now seems as good a time as any to return to some unfinished business of my own regarding this hole. In December 1990, when conflict between Transmanche Link (TML) - the contractor - and Eurotunnel - the client - was at its most bitter, I was smuggled down the hole by TML.

It was the day when British and French miners finally met in the middle, and I was to be the agent of a small public relations coup. The contractor had provided the newspaper to which I then contributed with a scoop, in that there were no other national papers to witness the scene. In return, 'TML' was stamped in big letters on my hard hat and the photograph and story of the breakthrough - primarily as an amazing engineering feat by the contractor - was all over the front page.

Looking superbly natural in my orange overalls and hard hat - well better, at least, than Malcolm Rifkind - I became, as I put it at the time, the First Hack through the Hole. This is where the unfinished business comes in. Subsequently, a certain construction magazine challenged this claim. Their man said he clambered over the rubble of grey chalk marl before me. Well, he didn't; I was first. Having kept my counsel until now, I just thought I'd get that straight. I will not have my grandchildren claiming I fibbed.

But the point is that both I and the Second Hack through the Hole cared: something that happened 36 yards beneath the Channel bed seemed to matter. Even I shed a tear as the crowd of miners roared and Graham Fagg, the chosen tunneller on the British side, jackhammered his way through the last membrane of rock and shook hands with Phillippe Cozette on the far side. It felt like history, rather big, flashy history, something along the lines of The End of Our Island Story or, maybe, Europeans At Last] Or perhaps it was just a Pathe News item: Astounding Feat of British Engineering]

Except, of course, back on the surface the excitement faded into as much of a muddle as the ranks of miners' Portakabins. And still, up here, with the Queen about to follow in my footsteps, it does not yet feel like history.

For a start, even the Astounding Feat of British Engineering line doesn't quite hold up. Construction cannot fire the popular imagination as it did that of the Victorians. When Brunel launched his ships or built his bridges, the thrill was in the uncertainty, the distinct possibility that they might sink or fall down. Engineering then was out there at the edge - high risk, big fun, big history - now it's routine. We blandly assume we can do anything we like with computers, lasers, steel and concrete; we assume there will always be experts around to solve the problems. They need not be heroes or artists. If it goes wrong, they're to blame; if it doesn't, we certainly don't want to know their names. They're not rock stars, they don't fit into any of our 'famous' categories. And, besides, can't the Japanese or Koreans do all this better, cheaper, faster?

So, whatever the heroic truth of its construction, the Channel tunnel was always just a job as far as the British were concerned. Once somebody decided to do it, we knew that, technically at least, it could be done. That left all the uncertainty in the political and financial realms. Our relentless insistence on keeping public money out of it seemed to suggest that we were not real believers; this was not a statement of national pride or faith, it was a deal. The financing meant that, instead of applauding the miners foot by foot, we focused on the bankers. Even the genuinely heroic engineering efforts to overcome unstable chalk on the British side were noted only as a cash problem.

And then, when it came to TGVs streaking unhindered through Kent, the national will fell apart completely. Did we want this thing or didn't we? Well, yes, but then again, no; not, at any rate, in these Tory backyards, rattling the repro dressers and the leaded lights.

Now the spectacle of supertrains racing through northern France only to potter awkwardly through Kent has become an emblem of national feebleness to be employed, in cartoon form, on the credits of Have I Got News For You alongside an unemployed Royal Family and a dysfunctional cricket team. The Channel tunnel was just one more British embarrassment, a further sign that we couldn't cope.

The final humiliation was Europe itself. The building of the Channel tunnel coincided with the roughest years of Euroscepticism. Physically we were attaching ourselves to the Continent, mentally we were floating rudderless somewhere in mid-Atlantic. The tribulations of the hole were a symbol of, or perhaps a commentary on, our indecision. The very fact that, beneath the sea, the French were driving towards us seemed to provoke us to new paroxysms of Europhobia - rabies, terrorism, drugs, fire, flood, Jacques Attali, whatever.

And when the television graphics showed European road and rail systems snaking through Britain, zooming over the Channel as if it were a stream, there was a sort of queasiness. Did we want the Continent to flow in and out of our land so smoothly, so casually? What had they sent us before? Armadas, doodlebugs and Messerschmitts. Even the timing of the opening seems a malign omen - close to the anniversary of 'The Great Escape', another Euro-tunnel project forced on us by the dubious passions of the Continent.

There was even a class element to all this. Because of the floating gin palaces known as ferries and the tattooed lummoxes loading up with Stella Artois in Calais or Boulogne, crossing the Channel at anything less than 30,000 feet has come to be seen as something of a low-life activity. The Channel ports are outposts of Essex. Smart people, intent on burning rubber on the Autoroute du Soleil, hire a Peugeot on the far side.

The tunnel, obliged to compete with the gin palaces, has been tainted. Unsurprisingly, its public relations people aspired to attain a competitive edge by offering something better. Fearing shell suits on their TGVs, they initially resisted the Sun's attempts to give away free tickets to its readers. They might more plausibly have asked the tide to turn. Inevitably, like General Galtieri, they capitulated before the awesome, bulldog might of the Currant Bun.

But that was then, this is now, or almost now. The tunnel is within months of being a fact of life. I shall soon be able to go to Paris in the time, on a bad day, that it takes me to drive to Heathrow and back. I shall start at our uncharacteristically splendid Waterloo terminal. I shall pass, on the way, the deep, dark place where I tried to persuade Graham Fagg to think twice before undoing 8,000 years of geologically determined history. 'It's a bit late now,' he said. 'You're right,' I replied, 'it's far too late. Do it.'

As a functioning fact in the world, rather than a messily symbolic construction project, I would guess the Channel tunnel will change far more than we have begun to imagine. For one thing, most great modern transport schemes tend to be planned with underestimates of their real impact. We believe the figures but we ignore the different world they offer. Look at the M25. Look at the Boeing 747. Nothing has been quite the same since.

And certainly the British sense of muddle during the tunnel's construction has led us to underestimate or, at least, not to consider its ultimate effects. Whatever the cost of tickets, whatever the class imagery involved, there is an immense imaginative shock coming to the British when they find they can go abroad without the irritations and contrivances of boarding a plane or a boat. Until now flying to Paris has seemed to involve as much fuss as going to New York or Tokyo, the only difference being the time in the air. And taking the ferry has drawn your attention to the intervening sea, the white cliffs, the approaching French shore. But the tunnel allows you to go abroad by just getting on a train at Waterloo; what could be more domestic, more familiar? Then there will be a short transitional period of darkness and then everything will be French.

We shall be sucked southwards, drawn by the sun and the startlingly big open spaces of France. It will not be like our occupation of the Spanish Costas, where we hit the beaches and moved no further. Rather, we shall be drawn to explore and look around. What we shall see will depend on who we are and, of course, who we are will become intimately connected to what we see. Graham, the Second Hack and I were right: this is history, uncertain, incomplete, but, undeniably, happening.

'Thatcher est morte,' I cried as I stepped through Graham's chalk doorway, 'connaissez-vous Gazza?'

'Welcome to France,' came the polite reply.

(Photograph omitted)

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