The Night We Went To See The End of the World
Alison: One wet Thursday in November I was sitting on a tube train, reading idly about London's plans for the Y2K celebrations. Like most people, I didn't really have any clear idea of how we were going to spend New Year's Eve. But an "artist's impression" in the Evening Standard caught my imagination. A 200 foot River of Fire would light up the Thames. Starting on the stroke of midnight at the Greenwich Meridian, it would travel up the river in 10.8 seconds, in time with the rotation of the earth, until it reached Westminster. I knew that I wanted to be there.
First, I needed to convince the rest of the cabal. Steven was worried for Marianne's safety, Steve thought it would be cold and wet, and Giulia and Mike were afraid of being trampled to death in the crush. Sue, of course, has a phobia of underground trains. But sometimes the cabal know that it's not worth arguing.
We set out equipped for a major expedition. Apart from the food, water, maps and survival equipment, that is. Nevertheless, the sherpas were laden with backpacks full of alcohol. Marianne was enchanted by the prospect of train rides and fireworks, so off we went.
Sue: You know, it only now occurs to me, perhaps I should have warned the Cabal that I don't like large crowds and the stuffy Underground. There were rather a lot of people in London on the evening of the 31st of December 1999.
Steve: It was the worst of times. Absolutely. No doubt about it. Alison had decided that we would all go into the centre of London on New Years Eve so we could have a few pleasant hours walking around the many entertainments laid on for us by a vote-hungry government. We would graze at the many food stalls, look around and generally have fun. Then we would watch the pre-election fireworks. Everybody we mentioned this to, especially when we said that this would involve taking a not-quite-three year-old (known to be terrified of fireworks) with us, pointed out the sheer bloody insanity of this course of action. So, that night, there we were on the tube to Green Park.
Alison: It was cloudy and warm; no colder than many summer nights, and the atmosphere was great. Most people seemed to be wearing some variety of shiny plastic headgear. We worked out later that the deelyboppers were antennae through which the orbital mind control lasers communicated. None of us had thought to bring our own, but luckily there were a large number of free market purveyors of tinsel willing to rectify the situation.
Sue: Alison bought herself and Marianne glittery deelyboppers for enough money to feed a small African nation. When my lip started to tremble she bought me a pair too. Happy.
Alison: The Mall had been turned into a funfair for the weekend, with a vastly better class of rides than we get in E17. There was a traditional carousel, which Dr Plokta used to formulate a theory that one in six people are nutters. His explanation was that one in six of the horses on the carousel turned out, on closer examination, to be a rooster. Everyone tried to explain that poultry were traditional. 'So my theory is proved!' he exulted.
The star feature of the funfair was the bang-up-to-date bungee ball, catapulting a pair of drunken punters with fifty quid to spare (£20 each and £10 for the capsule mounted video) a couple of hundred feet into the air on a pair of elastic bands. Bids were invited to be the first suicidal nutters of the new millennium. I confess I was tempted. The bungee ball is advertised as "suitable for even the most timid bungee-jumpers". This is a concept like "the tamest saber-toothed tigers" or "the soberest Tobes", but never mind. And it had been set up right outside Clarence House; "I'd ask for a rate rebate if I had that outside my palace", said a passer by.
Giulia: Steve, you may not know, is Plokta's Official Worrier. If worrying were an Olympic sport, Steve could Worry for Britain. I have caught rabbits in the headlamps of my car wearing more confident expressions than Steve's early that evening.
Steve: At this point, I'd like to mention that I don't like crowds, loud music or strobe lights (due to my epilepsy). It was a vision of Hell. If I were a religious type, by now I'd be preparing to foreswear everything that makes life fun and retiring to live under a waterfall, dressed in a hair shirt and living on water and crackers. Doré and Bosch had nothing on London at seven pm on 31st December 1999. It's true that the crowd was unusually good-natured and fairly sober. Most of the pubs were shut, but this hadn't stopped people from bring in supplies of booze. Every other dark corner had men, or even women, pissing against the wall, having sex or just collapsed in a heap. The gutters flowed with beer, urine and broken glass. Fairground rides flashed flickering lights over the surrounding area. I shut my eyes and let the others guide me in the direction of Trafalgar Square.
Giulia: However, strobe lights turned out to be the least of our problems. Armed with a tactical nuclear stroller, Alison forged her way through the crowds, heading inexorably down towards the river. The crowds got more and more dense. We should have fitted scythes to the wheels of the stroller. It was due to the queues: amazing numbers of people waiting to buy from reeking, greasy food purveyors, and a short way on, amazing numbers of grim-faced females waiting to get into the completely inadequate loos. Blokes, on the other hand, were peeing everywhere. I have never seen so many men standing around pissing against just about any object that didn't move out of the way fast enough.
We realised that along with the general din, a more insistent and regular beat could not so much be heard as felt, pounding in one's viscerae. It was the kind of effect a Dark Lord would send out to strike fear into the vitals of his hapless victims, before his dread army moved in to mop them up. Any sane person would turn and flee. "Ooh, listen, they've set up a sound stage," cried Alison gleefully, putting her head down and charging in that direction. It was like charging into molasses. We persevered grimly for a while, trying desperately not to lose sight of each other. The press got worse, Steve's expression darker and darker, the pounding became more and more like something intended to induce spontaneous abortions. Various passersby, seeing what looked like an empty space in front of Alison, tried to move into it and bashed their ankles. When they looked down to see a little round face gazing up at them from the depths of a bright pink plastic Barbie raincoat, their eyes widened in amazement.
Alison: The cabal formed a phalanx and rescued the babe; who just laughed and laughed. We escaped up a side street, but the police had formed a semi-permeable membrane at the Strand and we realised that if we left the riverside we wouldn't get back. Ducking down the side streets, we found ourselves under the Carting Lane Patent Sewer Vapours Gas Lantern. This 150 year-old lantern now unique burns day and night, and never needs refuelling. We reckoned it must be the original inspiration for the lamp-post in Narnia. How else does it keep burning all the time with no obvious intervention?
Giulia: Then we had the first of our two amazing strokes of luck for the evening and happened upon the entrance to Embankment Gardens. We invaded and looked around. It offered a reasonable view, over a seven or eight foot wall, of the area of sky to be later filled with fireworks, and although all the benches were occupied, there was plenty of nice, soft grass to be had. Nice, soft, wet grass. Everyone looked at it. I stood there in my nice, dry, waterproof, rubberised poncho that I had specially bought only the day before. Everybody looked at my nice, dry, waterproof, rubberised poncho that I had specially bought only the day before.
Moments later, we were all comfortably settled on the soft grass on a nice, dry, waterproof, rubberised groundsheet. As the warm saké went round again, Steve looked happy for the first time that evening. We had our second stroke of luck less than an hour later when our team of killer bench-grabbers swung into action and snagged the nearest park bench as it was vacated by one of the couples on it. For some strange reason the other couple also left shortly after and we had the whole thing to ourselves. Dubbing it Plokta Annex, we stayed there the rest of the night.
Steve: With a permanent base, in a not-too-crowded area, the evening suddenly became a lot more enjoyable. Sue had had the excellent idea that we should bring along hot saké in vacuum flasks, and it seemed absolutely the perfect thing for a cold night. We also had an unusually interesting entertainment. We had an excellent view of a high wall in front of us, and of course large number of drunken fuckwits (™Tobes) kept climbing up the wall to get a better view. However, whenever they got to the top, they then discovered that the other side of the wall was a thirty foot drop to the electrified track of the Circle and District lines. Most of them decided that discretion was the better side of valour at this point. Some of them sat on top of the wall and played cards. Fortunately, we were travelling home on the Victoria line, so even if we were treated to a display of evolution in action, it shouldn't delay us too much.
"Steven impressed revellers by juggling his amazing glowing balls"
Alison: Every so often we inspected the Millennium Wheel for signs of life. It didn't move as far as we could tell, though an illusion of rotation was cleverly produced by coloured lights. A chap we met in the tube on the way home saw it revolve, majestically, exactly once, with the designer on board, Spruce Goose-style. Just to make sure that Steve and Giulia felt at home, there was a Concorde flypast. Even flying at 3000 feet the supersonic antique was well above cloud level. They could have flown it a little lower, but I had visions of it puncturing the Millennium Wheel as the crowd let out an enormous roar of "One hundred and eighty"! "Wouldn't that need three Concordes?" asked Dr Plokta helpfully.
Sue: A little radio, purchased for the occasion, told us how the rest of the world was coping; the nuclear oops in Japan raised our collective Ploktaish eyebrows. The French losing their millennium countdown clock elicited a smug smile.
There were some Drunken Fuckwits but they were in a minority and mostly being dealt with by slightly less drunken friends. One, blood streaming down his face, adopted Alison and followed her round like a little lost puppy before collapsing on the grass. He eventually wandered off in search of the First Aid post.
Alison: Mike and I, fortified by control messages through our deelyboppers, set out in search of food. Casting ourselves bodily into the mosh pit under Waterloo Bridge, we emerged the other side, only to find that food fell into the categories of unavailable, untransportable, or doughnuts. We returned to the blessed bench with sixteen doughnuts. "I'll give you a fiver a doughnut," said a chap on a nearby piece of cold wet grass. But some things are more important than money. Like calories and grease.
"Next time I'm here for a Millennium I'll bring a picnic"
For some reason, Westminster City Council had decided that the appropriate number of portable toilets to provide for a crowd of three million people was, well, nil. All the women in the Plokta cabal were overcome with a sudden spurt of penis envy. Luckily, Embankment Gardens is well provided with bushes. "Boys to the left, Girls to the right" explained one chap helpfully. By the end of the evening, Embankment Gardens would have been able to fuel a wardrobe-full of patent sewer vapour gas lanterns. It's the head Groundsman I feel sorry for.
"Ah, the advantage of a long skirt and no shame"
Steve: At last, midnight came around, we drank Waitrose Cuvée 2000 champagne and watched the fireworks display that stretched the length of the Thames. It was stunning. I've seen Chinese New Year from the shores of Kowloon harbour in Hong Kong, I've seen the international fireworks competition at Scheveningen. This was better. Any five-minute piece of the whole 17-minute display was better than any display I've seen or heard of. It made the whole night worth while. Marianne stayed fast asleep throughout the whole thing.
Sue: The fireworks were spiffing. Most impressive were the really huge Chrysanthemum sky bursts and the big mortars getting lost in the low clouds. We were right next to a barge which was launching one of the 16 simultaneous displays. You couldn't see the river, there was a six foot wall and about 50,000 people between us and the Thames, but our gardens were an oasis of tranquillity amidst the chaos. We stood on the bench going "Oooooh" and "Ahhh" as Good Old Tony spent a huge chunk of our GNP on entertaining the masses (i.e. us).
"15% of the rubbish was champagne bottles"
Steve: Everyone was friendly. With the British reputation for curmudgeonliness, it was amazing to see total strangers greeting each other, embracing, calling 'Happy New Year' to each other... of course, this is the one day of the year on which this is socially acceptable. By tomorrow, 3 million hungover people would be back to growling suspiciously at each other, but for now it was very heart-warming.
Sue: I wished everyone in sight a Happy New Year and hugged strangers as we drifted away in search of an Underground station. Trying to find one which was open and not a crush was not easy, Steven proved to be an excellent native guide. We wombled through the wet streets in a haze of good humour for well over an hour, ending up at Euston. We were home, safe but soggy in the wee hours.
I wouldn't have missed it for the world.