Ian Murray : Five tourists in search of a millennium experience

If it is possible to pass off a circus tent for a structure that is the ‘envy of the world’, think how much money the NMEC could have saved.

News that five Japanese tourists mistook a circus tent for the Millennium Dome tells us a lot, both about the Greenwich project and the heritage industry.

Hindsight, as Anthony Blair sagely reminds us, is a fine thing, but given the story of the Dome, would it not have been much wiser had we marked the new millennium with a tent? A large, flexible, semi-permanent structure made of canvas, held together by bits of rope, and furnished with sawdust would have been a fitting monument to the competence and accomplishments of both Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson. Of course, the Dome in its own way admirably achieved that end, but at a stupendous price. Even Lord Falconer could have costed a tent. Once built, or rather erected, a circus tent would have suggested its own contents without the need for intervention from Jennifer Page, Michael Grade, Simon Jenkins, or any of the other co-opted bureaucrats and quango servers responsible for the Dome. True, long-legged girls cavorting in spangled tights and men with red noses pouring buckets of water into funnels pushed down the waistbands of their baggy trousers would have lacked the political correctness favoured by the Dome’s begetters. That defect, however, would have been more than offset by public approval and popularity.

The Japanese tourists were happy with their millennium experience. The two men and three women had been making their way to the Dome by bus, but got off when they spotted the 1,200-seat big top of Billy Smart’s circus with its four supporting towers on Blackheath Common. They paid £20 a head and happily watched the two-hour show thinking the trapeze act was the Dome’s high wire performance.

They suspected something was wrong only when they couldn’t find the Body Zone. Robin Cook is the travelling circus’s spokesman. (It is not clear whether he is also the Foreign Secretary. I would like to think so. The ginger-bearded Mr Cook has proved himself the perfect spokesman for a one-man travelling circus.) He says the Japanese asked about the big body. “I thought they were talking about our 40ft inflatable clown. It was only when they showed me the Dome leaflet that I realised what had happened. They seemed to have a good time and emerged eating candy floss.”

It is maddening to think that a 40ft inflatable clown, readily obtainable on the open market at a price negotiable in sterling, would have served just as well as the preposterous Body Zone, the cost of which will probably never be known, but must run into many millions.

The point is plain: a circus would have been better in every way than the Dome, but only of course if the purpose of the project was to be a visitor attraction. We now know that, contrary to earlier statements, the Dome was no such thing: it was an urban regeneration project, and, seen in those terms, must be counted a huge success. Greenwich, previously a neglected and blighted peninsular on the Thames, is today a thriving, bustling oasis of prosperity and happiness thanks to the Dome. The captious observer might question why an urban regeneration project should be given the name of the New Millennium Experience Company and made to accommodate as a sideline a collection of “exhibits”, but some people are never satisfied.

Another lesson in waste to be drawn from the happy day out spent by our Japanese visitors concerns the promotion of tourism in Britain. The ceaseless drive to attract more and more visitors to this country causes no end of problems. Places of interest become so congested as to endanger their very fabric, the additional traffic on our roads is a hazard and a nuisance, and the presence of so many foreigners brings out the worst in a native population totally unsuited by either temperament or inclination to the business of hospitality.

The five Japanese visitors have, however, provided an answer. They have confirmed what many have long suspected: that overseas trippers, invariably in a hurry to complete a busy itinerary, will settle for surprisingly little. If it is possible to pass off a humble circus tent as a structure that is the “envy of the world” (A.Blair), might the feat not be repeated with corresponding gains in traffic management and control of visitor numbers? Coachloads of Japanese, for example, could be taken in convoy to Stonehenge where it could be explained to them that the mysterious structure still bearing the signs of a pioneering but failed attempt by the Romans at open plan building, was all that remained of Britain’s first Houses of Parliament; it was also the home once occupied by the Brontës and now sadly fallen into decrepitude; coincidentally, it was Shakespeare’s birthplace and the very spot on which Alfred burnt the cakes; and, grisly thought, it also served as the altar on which Vlad the Impaler – a frequent visitor to these islands, whose virgins he found to his taste – did much of his early impaling.

Incidentally, Greenwich was the birthplace of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Mary, but who would believe that?

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