1999 doesn't count: we must think about the millennium now - but watch out for a King of Terror from the sky

Despite the political meltdown of the past ten days, the smack of firm government remains intact. From the Home Office comes the news that new Labour is to ban imports of absinthe, a hallucinogenic green concoction to which smart-set drinkers are apparently getting addicted.

Twice as potent as other spirits, it contains a narcotic called taugone that is similar in effect to cannabis or - when taken in excess - to intravenously administered cooking sherry. The brew, whose side effects include blindness and insanity, was the downfall of Vincent Van Gogh, who pruned off his ear while several absinthes to the wind.

Since more recent case histories are poorly documented, one can only guess at the likely side effects. Contemporary absinthe-swillers might, for example, become muddled while filling in their Britannia Building Society mortgage forms, or find themselves bereft of car and wallet following a moonlight stroll on Clapham Common, or order reproduction Pugin wallpaper at £350 a roll while signing off the order chit in the name of Cardinal Wolsey.

Anyway, no more victims need suffer. Out goes this unpleasant drink. Its mind-numbing properties will not be needed to see us through the next 12 months, which are destined just to disappear, as if in a haze of absinthe: 1999, it seems, is to be a gap year. Normally such a limbo applies only to one's college-age children, eager to do voluntary service overseas, or backpack down the Hindu Kush, or engage in a one-volunteer medical experiment into the causes of the new disease of the techno-age, Nintendo Thumb. Next year does not quite fit this definition of hiatus. It has not been redesignated so much as cancelled.

While ordinary citizens were arranging the soured-cream-and-chive Pringles, dusting down the Depeche Mode CD and uncorking the absinthe for this year's revelries, the media have skipped seamlessly on to a millennium night preview. The Queen, the Telegraph reported, would be arriving at the Dome via the London Underground extension, should it be open. Given the unlikeliness of such an outcome, the newspaper - mindful of the vagaries of new year's eve mini-cabs - suggested a new Thames-going royal yacht.

Jack Straw will, come the big night, be in charge of the Triple C. Not the French orange-based liqueur so popular at suburban parties once the last bottle of M&S Lambrusco Light has been quaffed and any dregs of Bailey's Irish Cream filched from the cocktail cabinet. That is Triple Sec.

Straw will be presiding over the Civil Contingency Committee, responsible for calling out troops in case of a breakdown in public order, a national emergency or a millennium bug disaster. These eventualities will not bother Lord Hattersley, Max Clifford, Emma Thompson or Alice Nutter of Chumbawamba, all of whom have issued prior notice that they will be getting an early night.

Do we need to know now who is stockpiling Horlicks? Must we excise the whole of 1999, a year in which wondrous things could happen? Feng shui might be outlawed, General Pinochet extradited and Lord Hoffmann and Peter Mandelson signed up for Sure Start tutorials on conflict of interest. We might find, for Iraqi children, a third way that involves neither bombing nor starvation. Male Labour MPs may grow to understand that - the merits of the national childcare strategy notwithstanding - a few after-school clubs do not instantly liberate single mothers to take up Eurobond dealing while getting their legs waxed in their free time. Pigs might fly. Richard Branson might not.

But all of that is irrelevant, since 1999 is deemed a non-year. Even the soothsayers failed to note much of interest, beyond Nostradamus's warning that, in the seventh month, "from the sky will come a great King of Terror" - an unstartling pronouncement, given the regularity with which the M4 from Heathrow is clogged with dodgy heads of state or old tyrants wishing to replenish their marmalade supplies at Fortnum and Mason.

What else will the next 12 months have to offer? As Stephen Skinner wrote of the closing months of the last millennium: "A sort of mass hysteria took hold as the year-end approached. This atmosphere led to some astonishing happenings." In other words, the climate of Europe in 999 was broadly similar to that of Notting Hill in 1998.

Clearly we're in for more of the same. Pass the absinthe.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour