We’ve come a long way, baby

A t this time of year, when friends and relations are gathered around and all is bitterness, I urge you to lift your eyes beyond the festive board laden gloriously with comestibles flown in by Sainsbury’s from the far corners of the globe, and ponder the immense chronological landmark that lies barely 12 months ahead.

A new Millennium. A new start. A time of enormous excitement and anticipation. We have come a long way in the 2000 years since we began counting.

Ridiculous though it seems today, the Britons of two millennia ago were a simple, primitive people whose lives were all too often violent and brutish. Lacking civilised values, their pleasures were few; chief among them were bloodying the next man’s nose and copulating with his mate.

Though the advent of beer still lay a thousand years off, to find a few words was a struggle for those early Brits and, once found, they were repeated endlessly until someone snapped and a fight broke out. Food was hard to come by and jealously hoarded.

So it is that at that momentous instant when 1999 fades into the past and 2000, glistening and bright with promise, rises before us, we can look upon our works with pride.

Most strikingly, we have tamed the crudity, lust, coarseness and stupidity that was, through no fault of their own, the lot of our primitive ancestors, and magically encased them all in a box that sits in the corner of our warm and comfortable homes, to be switched on and off as it pleases us. It’s called civilisation.

When that midnight hour strikes, we shall raise our glasses, cheer the brave new world of tomorrow and fall ravenously on mountains of such delicacies as were undreamed of by our prognathous forebears – Twiglets, Salt & Lineker Crisps, Quavers, and those biscuit things that come with little pots of gloop to dip them in.

But wait. A spectre is raised. According to Action 2000, a Government-sponsored body whose name suggests a million and one exciting things to do come the new nirvana, we may usher in the next thousand years of virtual reality nibbling stale bread by the light of a guttering candle.

For, despite the best efforts of Action 2000 to order things differently, there are still an untold number of computers in the kingdom which will, when the clock strikes 2000, make the calculation that time has moved backwards rather than forwards. They will do this because they work on the binary scale with two, not ten, as the base of notation and cannot look a nought easily in the eye.

And, since computers are at the nerve centre of our existence, mayhem will ensue. Security devices will cease to work, warehouse doors will lock themselves shut, distribution systems will be thrown into chaos, supermarket shelves will be empty, and panic shall stalk the land.

Action 2000, however, is a quango composed of wise and knowledgeable people who have addressed their minds to this awful prospect and, praise be, have come up with the answer. Families, they say, should store food to tide them over the lean years that lie ahead until the computers can be brought to their senses and made to restore Hobnobs to the shelves.

To avoid panic buying, this warning has been issued with a year to spare. But what use is time when time itself tells us what we may and may not eat? Unlike the hairy, pungent and ignorant Britons of 2000 years ago, we, in our advanced way, know at a glance when our food is going to make us ill.

When hunger pangs gnawed and primitive man crawled to the back of his cave to retrieve a half-chewed lump of meat from the salivating jaws of a scurvy dog, the morsel bore no sell-by date. Today however, we may no longer hoard food because, stamped on the base of the container is the date on which it becomes a menace to our gut.

Millennium panic buying is therefore unavoidable, and the pictures it evokes are powerfully redolent of a distant, earlier age when life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, and rare was the nose unpunched, the head untrodden.

We have come a long way in 2000 years, but not so far as to have shed the desires and instincts handed down through the genetic chain, which link us across the centuries to the grunting humanoid creatures of prehistory.

Strange that it should have taken the computer – artificial intelligence being the greatest scientific achievement of the Twentieth Century – to remind us that we are as nothing in the great order of things and have, for all our posturing, not advanced very far at all.

Then again, there is Mr Mandelson. His faith in the Millennium is as bright and untarnished as the moment when it first sprang from his mighty brow. It was he who coined the phrase “The Millennium Experience” and ordered forth a colossal dome in which to house those three words.

Who could have known that, when the time came, the experience would be one of want and starvation, which, better than any tawdry contrivance of showmanship, would give us a true sense of history and of our place in the universe?



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