When the clock ticked past midnight on 31 December 1999, I was a bleary-eyed nine-year-old just woken from sleep by my mother. I entered this century as a cranky child, watching fireworks explode in the sky, listening to my parents and their friends singing “Auld Lang Syne” in a large marquee they had all clubbed together to rent for the night. I had spent the previous hour or so in bed, having had a tantrum. Like all the other kids, I had been eating crisps for hours and trying to steal swigs of adult drinks: bottles of Miller Lite, boxes of cheap red wine. I got sick, fought with my brothers, started to cry. I guess I was overstimulated.
I was taken into a bedroom in my neighbour’s house and told to lie down in the dark. I resented being treated like a baby, several of whom were sleeping in the same room. Bubbling with an anger I couldn’t explain or express, I fell asleep. Then, as the crucial moment neared, my mother came to fetch me. Here it was, loud and grandiose, the year 2000: Y2K, the new frontier, and though we didn’t know it then, the midpoint in an era that began in 1997 with Tony Blair shaking Noel Gallagher’s hand and ended, in a bizarre two-fisted attack, with Love Actually and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
I was a child of the Alex Ferguson age: a football fan formed by Eric Cantona’s last-minute strike in the FA Cup final of 1996, and confirmed for life with Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s last-minute toe-poke in the UEFA Champions League final of 1999. I was an Irish child of the Good Friday Agreement and the Celtic Tiger, reading about Cool Britannia in the tabloids my father brought home from work.
I grew up in a remote and rural part of the country, watching farmers, bricklayers and plumbers building ever-bigger houses, driving brand new cars. On the threshold of puberty, I scanned the property supplements of Sunday newspapers: “It’s good value,” I told my parents, who hadn’t the money to care. No more men in balaclavas on the RTÉ news. A small open economy on the rise and “playing its part on the international stage”. In life, by which I mean football and property, it seemed like everyone in my life was winning.
Twenty years have passed since Solskjær slid on his knees to the corner flag in Barcelona, and I feel the tenor of that time is haunting our own. It’s not just that some of the major figures of those days – Tony, Bertie Ahern, even Solskjær – have returned; it’s that the absolute homogeneity of that time, the sense of unity in politics, culture, sport (a unity largely undisturbed by an always-on internet, by constant war, by overt hatred) could hardly be more different from our period of division.
I’ve been wrestling with this idea in the only way I know how: by making a Spotify playlist. It’s a collection of songs inspired by the cultural theorist Mark Fisher’s notion that “a year’s taste – as in what a year tastes of – is more likely to be carried by its mediocre, or downright atrocious, products”. The music in the playlist is pretty much all from the years 1997-2003. It ranges from the kinds of people my parents listened to – David Gray, Norah Jones, Dido – to acts I might have seen while flipping through the pages of Mojo and Uncut in the nearest newsagent: Beth Orton, Air, the Beta Band. It’s both eclectic and oddly uniform – everything is up for grabs, no style or sound is off-limits, and yet nothing truly disturbs the overall mood of cool and somewhat melancholy detachment.
When I listen to this playlist, I always think of Fisher writing in 2004 about Dido’s “Life For Rent”. “Here is a thirtysomething wealthy white woman who comes to the realisation that the gap in her life, the lack, the ache she cannot satisfy, arises precisely from her own indecision,” he writes. “It is not that she has been disappointed or let down by external forces… it is that she has never wanted anything enough to really pursue it.” This captures the era for me: the sense that everything could be bought but never really owned; all that was desired was becoming accessible but none of it seemed to mean much, in the end. You could coat it all in sugar, but it was still weird and ugly and doomed. As a child, it seemed there would always be a last-minute goal to save the day. I wasn’t old enough to realise that the price still had to be paid, in full and with interest. That there would be a day when no intervention would come; when truth would out and it would all fall apart.
My clearest memory from New Year’s Eve 1999 is of the fireworks. They had been bought collectively, and illegally, by my parents and their friends – smuggled over the recently nullified border in the back of a lorry. We usually had fireworks at Halloween, a few boxes of Black Cats and a handful of Roman Candles, but this was something else: in quantity and quality we were made to understand that these were of a more spectacular order altogether.
In our neighbour’s garden, behind the marquee, an old wooden door had been erected. It stood alone and upright in the middle of the large lawn, a door that couldn’t open and wouldn’t lead anywhere anyway. On the far side of the door, where the kids were not allowed to go, a couple of stands had been placed in the ground. The fireworks were placed in the stands, lit, and off they shot. As soon as the fuse was lit, the person responsible would duck back around behind the door, in case something went awry and the firework exploded on the ground.
My father and his friends were in charge of lighting the fireworks. I realise now they weren’t much older than I am today, a couple of years at most. Each time they lit a fuse, they jumped back behind the safety of the door, giggling and breathing hard, happy as children. They sent hundreds of rockets into the sky that night, and only one went wrong. I can remember the wild eyes of a neighbour as the door shuddered against his back. He was smiling. Everything was all right. They were getting away with it.
“Minor Monuments”, essays by Ian Maleney, is published by Tramp Press