Millennium morn dawned bright and beautiful here in Lower Heyford (Oxfordshire) with an unusual stillness. No traffic on the Rousham Bridge, no trains rumbling through the Cherwell Valley, no light planes tilting round the Kidlington training circuit. The Express's front page was a colour picture of a sunrise under the heading "New dawn for us all". We were told: "The sun rises on the new millennium bringing a message of hope, peace and happiness for every person on Earth." I admired the unequivocal tone, but it reminded me of the desperate inky world I inhabit in London where something always has to be written about nothing, usually before the non-event has occurred. Journalists have amused themselves for generations with the story of the veteran Fleet Street hand banished to a private office with a bottle of whisky and instructed to produce a seamless, epic story about a great royal funeral which would occupy pages 1, 2 and 3. Staff who pushed news agency material under the door during the day heard the reassuring clackety-clack of his typewriter but, 15 minutes before deadline, there was silence. Five minutes before deadline, the editor's nerve cracked. When banging on the door failed to produce a response, staff broke it down. They found their wordsmith comatose, his bottle empty and the floor a foot deep in scrunched-up balls of paper. Hysterical executives who tore them open in the hope of finding usable copy discovered that each contained the same seven words: "Not since the death of Jesus Christ . . ."
It was Monday before the full horror of the Dome on millennium night began to seep out: hundreds of guests kept waiting at Stratford for as much as seven hours, some arriving too late to see anything. Afterwards, some claimed they had been abandoned by Dome staff miles from their cars. Some distressed women guests had to "make their water" (as my Moray Firth grannie would have called it) in the streets. The "Dome Minister", Lord Falconer, described the ticketing shambles as "a one-off"; now Dome officials and police are blaming each other. Had she been alive, my grannie would have savoured the details. Although she didn't watch TV news for fear she'd catch the eye of newscasters, she'd cock her ear to disaster stories. Sometimes she'd ask, "What's that man saying?" One of us would say, "Eighty dead after a plane crashes into mountains near Geneva . . . no hope of survivors." She'd say, "Aye, well they'd no business being there." My mother might protest, saying, "The poor folk didna ken the plane was going to crash." My grannie would smile: "Well, they ken noo." She'd have taken the same bleak view about the "VIPs" fuming at Stratford and on this occasion she would have been dead right.
We joined forces with our neighbours Alastair and Susan to serve smoked salmon, roast duck, truckle cheese and four different puddings to 60 village friends prior to our own pyrotechnical display in Market Square. As rockets soared and Roman candles shot fiery patterns over the church and graveyard, a village notable summed up our contentment: "At last, a sensible use of public money."
For my wife and I, the new era began with the worst cold of our lives. Headaches, streaming eyes and noses, raw throats, congested chests. Midway through the ordeal I got raging toothache. My dentist's answerphone provided a number to call in emergencies. The answerphone on that number informed me that there was no room for my message and could I please try later. A village friend, Dave, a dentist, was out watching rugby, but his wife, Barbara, dropped off a sachet of antibiotics. As the pain dimmed, I consoled myself with the memory of Archie McHardy, a farmer-mentor of my Banffshire boyhood. Troubled with toothache, he sent for a bottle of whisky and a set of pliers and had the offending molar yanked out in the kitchen by his tractorman.
We toasted Jane Morley, the only Heyfordian to make it on to the New Year honours list. She works for the Royal Navy. Otherwise there was no talk about the list. In London, who makes it on to these lists and why is much discussed. Newspapers often highlight omissions, or suggest that some honorees are undeserving. In the country, people don't bother so much. They know most titles for politicians, businessmen, show business stars (and journalists, come to that) are a racket, but there's greater acceptance of the human frailty that lies beneath this tawdry little charade.
The instinct to make a fresh start didn't extend to our animals. Mary, the tortoiseshell tabby, began the new era as she'd ended the old: abominating our new 18-month-old labrador/collie bitch previously owned by a hard-pressed single mother who'd named her after an exotic drink, Tia Maria. Their hissing, barking, scratching and chasing sessions produced an unfortunate dissonance amid the human goodwill. I side with Mary, although she's never cared for me, on the basis that she was here first. Mrs McKay is with Tia, saying Mary "has made no effort to make her feel welcome". The noted animal writer Celia Haddon says I'm right. "Make the cat top dog. Feed her first. Let her through doors first. Show her the most consideration. Then the message may get across to Tia." Maybe Tia's behavioural classes, starting this week, will ease matters.