"We're going to have to get you out today," said the consultant. "Otherwise, we'll need bunk beds."

I have made a mid-January resolution. I will throttle the next person who says "Happy Millennium!" Luckily, most people have forgotten the millennium and want to get on with their lives - something investors in millenniabilia might have anticipated. It seems unlikely that future historians will have much to say about the year 2000. In the past, Britain's major spectaculars somehow found their moment. The Great Exhibition evoked the outward-looking spirit of the industrial revolution, while the Festival of Britain celebrated the end of postwar austerity. This year we are supposed to be in a state of wonder about a cluster of zeros on the calendar: yet the mood is wrong for it. We are richer than ever before, can communicate and travel better, and the rest of it. But the simple optimism that filled the Crystal Palace and drew people to the Festival Gardens has given way to a sophisticated unease about new technology, genetic engineering and global warming. If the 19th century invented the idea that things can only get better, the late 20th demolished it. Bad for the Dome box office, but probably healthier.

Has the NHS been reduced to anarchy? If the position is dire, the government cannot be held wholly to blame. Something of the kind happens every year, and the opposition's claim that Labour is the cause is sheer humbug. I offer my own anecdotal evidence from the last months of the Major regime - after 17 years in which the Tories might have done something, but didn't.

Ten days before Christmas I came down with bad flu. I knew I needed something stronger than Lemsip when I stood up to deliver a public lecture, and couldn't. A chest X-ray indicated pneumonia. The doctor prescribed antibiotics, which I proceeded to throw up. The doctor declared that I needed to be in hospital at once, to get antibiotics into my bloodstream from a drip. Obediently, I presented myself at the Whittington Hospital in north London.

It took an hour to shuffle to the front of a queue of wannabe patients, waiting to put their case to a ferocious sentinel. The sentinel came to the point. "You can't be assessed for at least three and half hours," she told me.

"Can I lie down on the floor?" I asked. Her eyes did not flicker. "That would be an obstruction," she said. I shuffled back to the freezing car park, and my spouse brought me back to the hospital four hours later, at 8pm. A nurse put me on a trolley, took my temperature and pulse, and was insufficiently impressed. "A very sick patient has come in and we need the cubicle," she said, wheeling me into a busy central area. Phones rang, doctors zoomed, patients groaned. A little boy was sick and nobody cleared it up until somebody skidded on the vomit. After a couple of hours, somebody said: "Is your name Colin Sheppard?" I shook my head, and they rubbed Colin Sheppard's name off a blackboard.

After another hour, I said: "Have you forgotten me?"

"No," they said, and wheeled me into a less visible area.

Another two hours passed. A woman was examined internally a few feet away on the other side of a curtain ("Knees up a little bit more - knees up - I'm afraid this won't be very nice"). At 1am, a registrar finally saw me - the first doctor to acknowledge my presence. "Pneumonia," she said. "You need a drip urgently." At 2am I got one, 11 hours after I first arrived as an "emergency". I stayed on my trolley for another three and a half hours. Around 5.30am, I was taken to a ward, and given a bed. At 9am, they woke me for the consultant's visit. He was a humorist. "We're going to have to get you out today," he said. "Otherwise we will have to have bunk beds." That evening I left hospital, in much the same condition as I had entered it.

Commonplace stuff. Anyway, I recovered. However, my experience taught me several things. First, never let yourself be sucked into the hospital system unless you are so ill that even the porters can tell that you will die if they don't take you. Second, the hospital service - wonderful in many ways - must kill more people as a result of mundane neglect than its top surgeons and expensive high-tech equipment ever save. Third, 1980s funding models are savagely inappropriate. Hospitals that used to take a pastoral interest in their communities now shy away from taking responsibility for patients they aren't able to care for properly. Hence the dragon sentinels, the queues of supplicants, and the purgatorial stage - even after you're in - in which staff behave as if you do not exist.

As head of a college with the most envied fine-art school in Europe, I have got used to taking flack. I am immensely proud that in five out of the last eight annual contests, artists trained at Goldsmiths have been awarded the Tate Gallery's Turner Prize. This year, Steve McQueen deservedly won with a mesmerising remake of a Buster Keaton film sequence. Not exactly Picasso? A matter of opinion. What isn't open to question is that successive judging panels have put Goldsmiths alumni ahead of the products of the Royal College, the Slade and other schools. Yet in this job, you have to take the rough with the smooth. That means putting up with the misconception that everything labelled "Brit Art" has something to do with New Cross. For example, we are sometimes blamed for Tracey Emin's provocative bed, the best-known item on this year's shortlist. For the record, Ms Emin was not a student at Goldsmiths. However, one of the young men who jumped up and down on Ms Emin's oeuvre in a "performance art" protest against it, apparently was. I couldn't possibly comment.

The writer is warden of Goldsmiths College, London

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The tyranny of the brands