Despite huge advances in science and technology, the 20th century will strike us as a barbarous time

"What are your plans for the new millennium?" a friend asks. I'd like to say that I'll open a cinematheque in Marbella, or fly a man-powered glider across the Pacific. But I've just entered my three-score-and-tenth year, so reply cautiously: "First, I'll get there. Then look around at the possibilities." A problem is the almost palpable lack of excitement in the air. People 50 years younger than me, who will spend most of their lives in the next century, display all the eagerness of passengers diverted to a brand-new airport on the edge of a desert. Everything is clean and shiny but oddly threatening. Given that we are leaving the 1990s behind, the most corrupt and shabby decade since the second world war, I expected an explosive burst of speed as we approach the final straight.


Despite all the debate, Britain will enter the 21st century with 92 hereditary peers in its legislature. The monarchy, inherited titles and public schools are among other living fossils that seem to thrive in our peculiar geology. The class system, an overt instrument of political control, is more strongly entrenched than in any other western nation.

The Lords may be in the process of reform, but isn't it time to abolish the hereditary principle in the Commons? I'm thinking of those Westminster placemen, the jobsworths of party politics, a self- perpetuating caste elected year after year to the same seats and promoted to the same offices of state. If the l990s was a low, dishonest decade, the era of focus groups and cash-filled envelopes, then they made it possible. Fortunately, a few mavericks still survive.


A curious feature of the coming millennium is how little speculation it has prompted. I remember in the 1960s being rung up by journalists asking, "What will sex be like in the seventies?" They expected something strange and unimaginable, but looking back after 20 years it all seemed much the same. A general rule: if enough people predict something, it won't happen. Even so, I suspect that within a few years there will be a widespread rejection of the 20th century, its horrors and corruptions. Despite huge advances in science and technology, it will seem a barbarous time. My grandchildren are all under the age of four, the first generation who will have no memories of the present century, and are likely to be appalled when they learn what was allowed to take place. For them, our debased entertainment culture and package-tour hedonism will be inextricably linked to Auschwitz and Hiroshima, though we would never make the connection. I hope that a wave of idealism will move through their lives, not the weird mix of new-age slogans and autocue sincerity that is our own substitute for high-mindedness, but a level-headed decision to put the planet to rights.


Memories of happier times were stirred by a chance encounter in the Thames Valley, my stamping ground, the terrain of business parks, marinas and executive housing that constitutes New Britain. Claire, my girlfriend, needed a quick vaccination, so I drove her to a no-appointment, please-walk-in medical centre near Guildford. Courteous and efficient staff, the latest hi-tech equipment and the prices of everything prominently displayed: consultations, X-rays, blood tests. But no mention of the most persistent complaint of all. "What would it cost to die here?" I asked the receptionist. She wasn't fazed for a second. "It depends - what sort of death do you have in mind?"


A serious question, which I pondered as we drove off. Taking a wrong turning, we found ourselves in Byfleet, crossing an industrial estate that lies inside the old Brooklands racing circuit. Huge sections of the banked track have been carefully preserved, heroic monuments to an age when speed was the nearest thing to magic and carried a potent image of the future. As a child in 1930s Shanghai I sat on the edge of my seat and watched the newsreels of racing cars thundering around the circuit. This was the era of unlimited engine capacities, goggles and white cotton overalls. Today we have Formula One, with its hobbled and neurotic cars, driven by millionaires in fireproof suits advertising anti-freeze. The future has turned its back and lost interest in us. We stopped and walked along the curved track, hoping to hear the throaty roar of 24-cylinder engines. The ancient concrete is the same vintage as the bunkers in the Siegfried Line, but for £750 million they could have scrapped the Dome and rebuilt the entire Brooklands circuit.


Visiting the Dome recently, Claire and I were struck by how ugly it is, the pylons driven like stakes through the shallow marquee, the maze of overhead wires that irritate the retina. It resembles a sinister abattoir disguised as a circus tent, waiting for its real role in a third world war. The Dome is too small, and fails to take the breath away. It should have been at least half a mile in diameter, the largest structure on the planet, a wonder of the modern world. Instead it looks like the last tired effort of 20th-century science fiction.

By contrast, the Millennium Wheel is a delight. Claire and I watched it being raised, and were stunned by its elegance and mystery, and by the special magic shared by all Ferris wheels. There should be more of them, at least one in every borough, and London would become a surrealist and poetic city.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Now then, are we getting anywhere?