I was 28 years old. We were about to hit that milestone that everyone had been talking about since I was little: the end of the 20th century. I was excited at the thought of seeing the end of a century and the beginning of a new one – even more the end of a millennium and the beginning of a new one. How many humans happen to be around when one of those happen? Not many. A privileged few of us.
I accepted that my life would carry on as normal, of course. Even when I’d nearly drowned in the sea in 1998 the one thought that had made me think, “This can’t be it!” wasn’t the thought that I’d leave my family or my friends and that I wouldn’t see them again until it was their time to join me. No, none of those thoughts! Some little part of me couldn’t quite believe that I’d had my last day at Rosslyn Research. That was what I did; it was who I was. I lived at home with my father, who let me keep my room as messy as I wanted it to be and cooked fantastic food for me and didn’t really want me to pay rent. And I went to work at Rosslyn Research, where I was a junior supervisor.
Mostly I was happy with that life. There was more laughter in that office on a good day than anywhere else I’ve ever known. There were good days there. And I mean really good days. But there were also not good days and I knew various people thought it wasn’t using my talents properly. Anyway there was a bit of me that thought that I should really be doing something else. During one of my down moods I’d said to Tamara, a friend of mine whom I’d met through Rosslyn: “When I die I’ll look down and see them putting a tombstone up saying that this guy did market research for his whole life.”
She told me not to say that: she found it depressing and she didn’t think it was true.
Anyway, my interest in the forthcoming New Year was about the world as a whole and my fascination with time and history – not that I was expecting the Year 2000 (or Y2K as it was often known) to alter my life in any way.
I wanted to find out who the King of England had been who saw in the year 1000, find out where he’d gone to see the New Year in and go to the same place to see in the Year 2000. We had the Internet at work which I didn’t have at home and which I was a bit scared of. I couldn’t make it work when I tried to find the answer after work one day. (I was using it with the proper supervisor’s permission of course.) My sister had been extolling the virtues of it so I told her the next time I saw her how rubbish I thought the Internet was – all I could get was a dog nodding his head. I decided to try a good old library. As a result I found out about King Ethelred the Unready and then started slowly learning the kings forwards from that date, which was all very fascinating but I couldn’t find out where he’d been to see in the New Year - which wasn’t 1st January back in Anglo-Saxon times anyway: it was Christmas Day as I discovered in my researches.
(How the younger me would be shocked to travel forwards in time to see the amount of time I now spend on the Internet!)
In the end my friends Gareth, Marcus and I went down to my mother’s house where my 96-year old grandmother and her 91-year-old sister had also come for a visit. My mother herself was on a Circle Dance holiday to see in the New Year.
Aunty Joan (my grandmother’s sister) had said to me not long before, “Aren’t you sick of hearing about it? The Millennium?” as they’d been going on and on about it on the news.
I asked her (she was born in 1908) whether she’d be able to get used to the idea of living in the 21st century, having spent so much of her life in the 20th?”
“Oh, no!” she said.
I remember my grandmother said she couldn’t see why we didn’t all call it the Year 20.
“It couldn’t be 20,” reasoned Aunty Joan. “We’d all be dinosaurs!”
Gareth gave us all a transport quiz and Aunty Joan enjoyed it very much and did extremely well.
Gareth, Marcus and I decided to go down to Brighton to see the New Year in. There’d be no parking in Brighton as everyone in the whole of the county would be down there so we parked in a place called Peacehaven. That was significant in the history of the Old Century: after the First World War houses had been built there by the government – the whole thing really only exists because of the mass slaughter that was the Great War. Hence its name – built as it was in the aftermath of all that unpleasantness. We walked a short way and then a taxi appeared. The three of us plus a couple who happened to be there all shared a taxi into town. It was £10 so only £2 each – much better than the rip-off ’bus fares that were being charged that night! We hovered at the edge of town where the rip-off food prices that you got in the centre that night weren’t in operation.
As midnight struck, a lovely fireworks display started up on Palace Pier which we could see reflected in the water beneath.
I then took off all my clothes except my pants (North American English: underpants) and shoes and socks and went into the sea, which was about 6 or 7 degrees Celsius, and had a swim. I suppose that was fairly stupid. I’m a hydrophile, you see – if I see water I want to get into it even if it’s the middle of the Winter. I’ve got myself into danger a number of times doing that but I have learnt to curb that urge in recent years. (It’s not for nothing that my pet charity is the RNLI!)
However the water was reasonably calm so there wasn’t really any danger and I was so glad that instead of everyone telling me what an idiot I am (I’m used to that!) loads of other people started getting into the water as well. Everyone around us was so friendly – all wishing us a Happy New Year! The water exploit had, if you’ll pardon the pun, “broken the ice”!
We made our way back on foot to Peacehaven. The loud crowds gradually got thinner and thinner and quieter and quieter as we made our way upwards and eastwards. We looked down to the beach at one point and there was a little group huddled around a fire that they had lit. They seemed to have some kind of little party going on down there with stuff they’d brought with them.
We got back to Peacehaven, back to the car and back to my mother’s house where we had a drink (none of us were great drinkers then – the other two still aren’t but the younger me travelling forwards in time would be shocked at… er, well, moving swiftly on…) as it was a special occasion. We wished each other a Happy New Year, a Happy New Decade, a Happy New Century and a Happy New Millennium.
PS In 2000 I left Rosslyn Research but that’s another story.