When Paul Johnson, the red-haired historian, journalist, sage, philosopher, soothsayer and much else besides, warns that 1999 will be a year of mounting excitement and some danger, it behoves us all to sit up and take notice.
Millennia, he tells us, are times of miracles, madness and danger: “Huge, frustrated, irrational emotions, seeking often desperately to find an outlet…form a potentially explosive mass…which requires only a detonator.” He delves into the past to remind us of the excesses of previous bouts of millennarian fever. He evokes a world of mobs taking over entire towns and indulging in looting and rape, of rogue monks and unscrupulous, charismatic friars, of fanaticism, terror, and mass executions.
“In my judgment,” he concludes, in the reverberating, hell-fire tones of an Old Testament prophet, “no person or place is safe in this year of unknown forces and emotions.”
I know what he means. For some time I have been on the qui vive for signs and portents, and I regret to say I have seen a few. As yet, they are but straws in the wind. But, who is to say that in this, of all years, the wind might not swell into a fearful storm, turning day to night, raining poisonous frogs from blackened skies, uprooting trees and flattening buildings, laying waste to the land, and that, amid the dread holocaust, the ground itself will not open up and spew forth hobgoblins, slimy things and, yes, the sheeted dead themselves to caper and cavort amid the smoking rubble?
Let us not, then, let passing straws go unheeded. Who has not, for instance, lately seen hideous creatures with half-formed minds, tormented by greed, shrieking and gibbering, their faces contorted in unspeakable agony, and shuddered at what this grotesque spectacle might forebode?
That this is “Who wants to be a millionaire?” is no solace, no balm to the uneasy spirit. Faced with Chris Tarrant, the rogue monks of 400 years ago who persuaded credulous mobs to go on the rampage would themselves flee, hastily atone, and make peace with their maker. Such is the salutory effect of a glimpse of what might be meant by eternal damnation.
Nor do warnings of horrors yet to come assuage the impact. Anne Gowan, manager of Telegraph Reader Direct, recently wrote to advise me that a forthcoming issue of what used to be a serious newspaper would contain, among other things, a feature on a non-stop party at an annual snowboarders’ competition, an interview with Vanessa Feltz in which she would talk about her new daytime TV show, a piece about a “quick but clever warehouse conversion in Shoreditch” and, particularly unnerving, a “spotlight on the club scene with four top women DJs”. Most intriguing, however, was Miss Gowan’s promise that the paper would visit a school run for “Seventh Day Adventurists”. What could be more apocalyptic than that? Presumably, this sect is a schismatic departure from the better-know Seventh Day Adventists, who abstain from alcohol and tobacco, practise adult baptism by total immersion, and believe the Second Coming is imminent.
The more radical Adventurists, as their name suggests, will try anything once, as long as it turns them on, and frequently smoke and drink themselves to exhaustion. That they are running schools, and in Britain too, should be sufficient to silence those tempted to scoff at Johnsonian forebodings. Wild, dreadful, mysterious things are indeed afoot.
Even our very human form is changing in this most terrible of years. Marjorie Jaffe, a fitness guru (the modern counterpart of the 16th century charismatic friar who held power over the superstitious peasantry), offers advice in the Daily Mail on how to walk. If you thought that Mail readers might already have an intuitive grasp of this technique, you have not fully taken into account the effect that a daily dose of Telegraph follow-ups and repeated exposure to pictures of Sophie Rhys-Jones can have on the central nervous system.
At any rate, Guru Jaffe says, “When you walk, keep your chin parallel to the ground, eyes straight ahead and your head positioned so that your ears are directly above your shoulders. Keep shoulders back and down and your ribcage lifted. Pull your abdominal muscles in, keep you hips relaxed and your knees soft…it is advisable to consult your doctor beforehand.
I should bloody well think it is. If you have the kind of ears that are sited directly above your shoulders, particularly when your shoulders are pulled back, you are not built as nature intended. No one, least of all Paul Johnson or myself, wishes to be alarmist, but soft knees are a warning sign. They are nature’s way of telling you that you are dissolving. To suggest you keep them that way is pure irresponsibility.
There is no need to panic yet. The unnaturally warm spell that woke up the hedgehogs, the royal betrothal, and those pictures of Cherie Blair’s thighs: each in its own way is a deeply unsettling phenomenon but, even taken together, such portents do not necessarily bespeak miracles or madness. At times like this, when dark and unnatural forces stalk the land and an unspoken frenzy awaits to be released, it pays us all to keep a cool head on our shoulders. Or, as fitness guru Marjorie Jaffe might say, to keep a firm pair of ears over a softly flexed nose.