I spent the first thirty-five years of my life furtively sidling towards the year 2000, running from one bush to another with a bit of twig held above my head like an inept spy in a Spike Milligan drawing. It was difficult to deny the symbolism of the numbers, much as I knew it was ridiculous. Way back in 1977, during my final months of junior school, Paul Moorman had told me that the world would end in 1980. This, he explained, had been predicted by someone called Old Mother Shipton, and she was usually right about such things. I spent the next three years doing my best to not think about it, knowing that it was almost certainly going to happen exactly as predicted. The numbers alone seemed to support Paul's hypothesis - the eerily tidy 1980 rather than the somewhat messier 1979 or the incomprehensible 1981 on either side.
Ultimately, this has taught me to avoid placing too much stock in numbers or dates on the grounds of their appearing pleasantly or even uncannily rounded in the fairly arbitrary context of the decimal system. Even so, it was difficult to avoid feeling something about the approach of the year 2000. As a child I had regularly read a science-fiction comic called 2000AD, so named as to evoke what then seemed like a distant and culturally remote future. The same deadline had generally been recognised as signifying the point at which everything would be different to the present day, and this had been the standard in films, books, and television for a long time, most of the twentieth century, and certainly the years during which I grew up. Tomorrow's World would wheel an unconvincing and glacially slow domestic help robot around the television studio - always a disappointment after the robots of Star Wars or Doctor Who - and James Burke would look to the viewer and explain this is how we will live come the year 2000.
Even as we counted down, as the future approached and we began to realise that it would probably look at least a little like what had become the present, the numbers had taken on too much meaning to be ignored. Millenarian cults popped up left, right, and centre proclaiming that it would be the end of the world, civilisation, or both, or that the spaceship was coming to take us all to Heaven - all the usual bollocks which comes around whenever someone who isn't very bright starts taking their mathematics far too seriously. On a seemingly more tangible note there was the Millennium Bug by which everything containing a microchip would reset itself to the year 1900, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil would return to office as Prime Minister, and everyone would be thoroughly pissed off with nothing but coverage of the Boer War on telly. I asked my friend Andrew if it was serious. He worked in the city as a programmer for Cazenove, and he seemed to know about such things. He didn't really know about this one, he told me, but said it seemed significant just how much money his superiors were throwing at people brought in to solve millennial problems before they happened.
My friend Tim was meanwhile laying an egg, although thankfully he was laying an egg a hundred or so miles away, thus at least affording me the possibility of hanging up and blaming it on a bad line when I'd heard enough. He had a computer and as usual had imagined himself to number amongst an elite group of five or six individuals distinguished in this way; he became an expert, finding it difficult to conceive of anyone else having experience equal to or even greater than his own, because at the root of it all he really needed to feel important, to be someone other than the lonely boatsman with just one oar rowing himself around in a circle on his own social and cultural oxbow lake. He'd probably read an article about the Millennium Bug in the Daily Express, something which had impressed him at least as much as Paul Moorman's testimony had initially impressed me.
'Anything could happen, Lawrence. It will be a free for all for computer viruses and all the computers will think it's the year 1900. You should be careful what you download, you mark my words.'
I had been using a PC for about three years. At the time I had not yet found good reason to hook it up to the internet, and so I was using it purely as a word processor.
'I can't see it happening. I'm not actually online.'
'You don't know, Lawrence. Some of the viruses that are around these days are incredible.'
Maybe they were. Maybe they were so incredible that they could now build themselves physical bodies with which to perform home visits on people with isolated computers and no internet access. Tim seemed to know more about it than I did.
I thought about it and decided the worst that could probably happen would be a temporary loss of either gas or electricity, maybe some disruption to the phone system. In any case, there didn't seem to be a lot I could do, aside from follow Tim's expert advice and buy the most expensive antivirus software I could find for a computer with no actual internet connection. There didn't seem much point in worrying.
Since moving to Lordship Lane in 1995, I'd generally spent New Year's Eve with my friend Eddy. We often seemed to be the only two of our social group who never had anything planned, and so would generally end up in a pub on the south bank of the Thames, followed by watching the fireworks across the river as December switched over to January of the new year. Sometimes there would be a few more of us, Neil and Rachel or Carl and Christine; sometimes it would be fun, or sometimes it would be pissing with rain as we stood shivering amongst assorted Time Out readers trying their hardest to have an experience that would justify paying a million quid every three days to rent a glass cube just past the Victoria Bridge. I nearly always enjoyed the pub, but could never quite work out what I was supposed to get from the postscript with all the explosions and cheering. It being 1999, everyone I knew had planned in advance, Eddy included for once, paying tickets for ringside seats at this or that spectacle. Of course everyone knew that 2001 would be the first true year of the new millennium, but please...
It being 1999, I had at last found something resembling a calling, specifically something geographically orientated in the direction of central Mexico. I'd been gripped by Mexica and Pre-Colombian culture since just before I'd moved to Lordship Lane, and had spent five years reading up on the subject. In May, 1996 I'd dug out a bag of acrylic paints which had lain more or less untouched since the end of the eighties - when a really lousy portrait of the poet and author Bill Lewis had convinced me that painting just wasn't my medium - and I began painting images of Mexican Gods and Goddesses. I wasn't entirely sure what I was doing or why, but the composition of each painting gave me a point of focus around which to base my reading. I told myself I was putting a book together, twenty-six paintings of Mexican Gods with a lengthy written piece on each; but I couldn't quite condense the pantheon as I understood it into twenty-six individuals, so it became fifty-two, then finally 104 - these all being theologically significant numbers in the Mexican triskaidecimal system which uses thirteen rather than ten as a base. My painting ability was ropey, but I had decided I could teach myself and fake the rest, and never mind if one or two of them ended up looking a little like X-Men fan art. I was still technically a better painter than Rene Magritte, I told myself.
It seems an absurd undertaking given that some paintings took days or even weeks to complete, but by 31st December 1999 I was working on a representation of Ixpuztec, or Broken Face, a minor Death God. It was sequentially the ninety-eighth painting I had done in the series, and as part of a larger undertaking for which I still had only approximate plans.
As evening drew in on the very last day of what the great majority of people, rightly or wrongly, regarded as the twentieth century, I was perched on my couch with a board on my knee working at a painting. The television was on in the background, and the gas fire was almost certainly turned to its highest setting. My figure work had never been what you would call outstanding, but for once it was looking okay to me, shortfalls compensated by tricks picked up from all those years reading superhero comics. The sky was drawn from a painting by Czech artist Zdeněk Burian which I had known since childhood from a book called Life before Man. I suppose the composition was all a bit cobbled together, but it felt as though I was at least doing something vaguely meaningful, in the context of having spent most of my thirty-five years producing art which aspired only to the appearance of meaning.
It was five minutes to midnight. I set down my board, picked up my glass of tequila and orange, rolled myself a cigarette and went outside. Lordship Lane slopes downhill just past where I lived, meaning that I was stood upon a slight rise looking north towards the River Thames and the newly constructed London Eye, just visible and all lit up on the skyline. I recall the comet Hale-Boppe as a vivid splash of milk in the heavens to the north-east, but according to Wikipedia that would have been a couple of years earlier. I sipped my tequila and smoked my fag, and thought about the twentieth century as the sky filled with fireworks.
It felt as though I had come a long way.
A few months earlier, back in September, I had been to Mexico City. I went alone, and it was the first time I had ever been out of the country. The world had come to resemble something very different to the one in which I had grown up, something I could never have predicted. I had come to view the paintings as something akin to a ritual act, hence the culturally specific count towards which I was working. They were a catechism of sorts, an act of naming by which something was brought into being, specifically brought into being as living rather than dead ideas; and I never really cared whether that made sense to anyone else or not.
It was 2000. The future was here and everything was, as promised, different. Stood alone outside in the freezing cold, paint all over my hands and a ciggy on the go would have been a poor New Year's Eve by the standards of most people, but for me it was magical. We had escaped the twentieth century, and the future had become mutable once more. Almost anything could happen from this point onwards, as indeed it eventually did.