From Dole to Dome and back again

It cost millions to create, but it did give Julia Baxtera job for a year, not to mention an experien

It is Dole not Dome for hundreds of New Millennium Experience Company staff - or "hosts", as we came to be known. We've hung up (or thrown to the floor) our black and yellow jackets for the last time, and now only await our "thanks for staying to the end" bonus - £900 for good workers, bringing our salaries to around £14,000 (not quite up to the fabled levels reported in the press or to Pierre-Yves Gerbeau's £200,000). Tears were shed as we all swiped out for the final time. This really was la fin.

The reminiscences came in floods. How we'd all lined up in November 1999 for our uniforms and passes (a chaotic process, with all the hosts starting at once, crying out for the army to step in). Then there were the four weeks of intensive training, which for many was their first taste of American-style corporate bonding and team-building. "Bloody brainwashing," the more cynical staff moaned, as we were rigorously drilled in the "seven visitor service principles". Handouts helped make the seven rules stick: rule one - "One amazing day" ("let's hear you all shout it now"); rule two - "Exceed all visitor expectations" . . . As with the seven dwarves, we could never quite remember them all and, as the year went on, we perverted them to seven deadly sins - "We must not lust after tasty punters" and so on.

Then we recalled the opening night with Tony Blair, the Queen and all those dinky little bottles of champagne that guests collected on arrival, as a pacifier for the transport cock-ups. On the subject of champagne, we were all invited to join PY Jelly (the best lubricant for any flagging and dried-up tourist attraction) for a wee tipple on the final Saturday. "Let me be your host," he grinned. "Let us be your parasites," we chuckled. We left the party clutching medals and certificates certifying that "you had to be mad to work here" - no, they didn't say that. They were very sensible and will be cherished by our grandchildren, our pets and our future employers, who will jump to interview ex-Domies just to get the gossip.

With luck, we'll get our bonuses in time for 1 March, so we can bid for spare "Body" parts in the Dome auction. Imagine the novelty of a dinner party in the infamous pubic area. (Whoops! Was that a crab falling in the prawn cocktail?) It is now incredibly dusty, though. In fact, the Body very quickly looked as if it needed a good bath, because the rough surfaces were impossible to get a mop into. "It's those bloody capillaries," a fraught cleaner once moaned to me. "Must have been designed by a bloke."

One aspect of Domedom that no one will want to purchase is the signage system, the bane of operations staff throughout the year. Minimalism was the idea, confusion the result. Call the public idiots, but folks do tend to think that if a sign says "Work Zone" and has a big black arrow pointing leftwards, then by turning left they will find the Work Zone. But what the silly old visitors never spotted was the message in invisible ink underneath stating that, if you went left at this signpost, you'd end up in the Baker's Oven coffee shop and that the Work Zone was 200 yards round the bend. Another headache was the bucketloads of bumf that visitors were given on arrival. If you were in sadistic mood, you could watch a family fret over their Dome map for ages, then bounce up and announce that it was upside down. With despair in their eyes, they'd fumble in bags and pockets for bits of paper. "What's this for?" You'd smile helpfully. "That's your ticket for the millennium show."

"And this one?" - "That's your Body Zone ticket." "Well, what about this one?" - "That's your Blackadder ticket." "And this?" - "That's your coupon for ice-skating." "And what the hell's this thing?"- "Ah yes, that's your voting card, sir." "Our what? I vote we bloody go home and come back with a filing cabinet." An American lady pushes through the crowd. "Hi, I'm exhausted. Couldn't the meridian line be brought inside?" Certainly, madam, wait here while I adjust the North and South Poles.

"We're just walking round in circles," yells a furious grandma, offering an opportunity to activate those razor-sharp customer service skills. Now is not the time to say: "Well, stupid, what do you expect? The Dome is round." Instead, you suggest that they all go on a mini-break to the Rest Zone, where they can lie down and chill (literally: the floor of the Rest Zone was freezing) while listening to the relaxing sound of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" played so slowly it won't finish for another millennium.

"Active listening" was service principle number three. When guests approached with comments such as "It's all vacuous garbage" or "There's just nothing here", it was best to reply: "Really, madam, which parts have you found to be vacuous garbage?" "Umm, well . . ." (she looks around for inspiration). You continue: "You see, while working here, I'm doing a PhD on that very subject and I'd value your perceptions." "Damn!" thinks madam. "Why doesn't she just chew gum and say 'I only started here today'?"

Visitors would demand that a zone be explained down to the last frame of a film, then shrug: "I don't think we'll bother." Or they'd grab you and demand: "Is there much in here for us?"- "I'm afraid not, sir, you'll hate it." "Come on then, dear, let's go in." "Dear" would smile ruefully, seeing a great moaning opportunity ahead.

The most difficult moans to deal with were those off-site. On the bus home, a small bit of bright yellow might suddenly dart out from under your jacket, beckoning fellow passengers to come up and have a go. "It stinks, that Dome," a man might lean across three seats to say. Mmm, I would muse, there were problems with drains not coping with customer demand. He prods my arm and I know his next remark will be: "They could have built three hospitals with that money." I agree: "I know they could, but they didn't." "It's seven hundred million on a pile of stinking shit," he froths. I compose myself: "It's good that the grounds have been decontaminated." "They haven't, you're all doomed, you lot. You'll be covered in yellow and black lurgy by February and you won't be able to sue." "It has provided a lot of local jobs," shouts a supporter. "Yes," I agree defensively, "I was unemployed before the Dome." The man winces. "Seven hundred million to get you off the dole." I nod in agreement. "Yes, it does seem a bit OTT. Have a lovely day," I say in my best Disneyesque style to wind him up.

We shall end this article in the Prayer Space of the Dome, my haven on hectic days - of which, contrary to popular opinion, there were many. It was the one place in Domedom where you could guarantee there would be no crush. Occasionally, someone would enter and write something humbling in the prayer dedication book. Or something stupid.

One day, I was drifting off into a management-and-visitor-free trance when the door was flung open, letting in the noise of the show, followed by a bellowing voice: "Excuse me, love" - Damn, I should have worn my camouflage - "which way is it to Mecca?" I leapt to my feet and went into "exceeding expectation mode", made a quick assessment that the lady was not in need of a bingo hall and racked my brains. Which way is east-south-east?

"Over here," I pointed. "You don't mind if I crash out while you pray, do you?" "Be my guest," she grinned. It was a pleasant few minutes before returning to the chaos.

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