I was twelve when it first dawned on me that humanity might have no future. It was 1980. The Soviets were in Afghanistan and hourly expected in Poland; Ronald Reagan was on his way to the White House, and Checkpoint Charlie was still in Berlin. As for me, I was at school in Salisbury, a pleasant and sleepy market town in the south of England. Nothing much had happened there since the Middle Ages, when the local citizenry had built a cathedral that still, seven centuries on from its original construction, proudly sported Britain’s tallest spire. A place less on the frontline of the Cold War it might have seemed hard to imagine. It came as quite a shock, then, when a friend of mine, looking to make my flesh creep, solemnly informed me that a secondhand bookshop just beyond the cathedral close was third on the Soviet hit list of UK targets to be nuked.
Quite how he had come by this startling information he neglected to reveal. Today, of course, I do have the odd, faint doubt as to its veracity. At the time, however, I instinctively believed it. Something had dawned on me. My school was positively heaving with children whose parents were in the military. Why? I already knew the answer to that. Salisbury, in addition to its cathedral and the nearby prehistoric monument of Stonehenge, boasted something altogether more twentieth century nearby: the headquarters of Britain’s land forces. Clearly, then, in the event of any nuclear war, it was indeed likely to take a hit. The sudden realization of this, and the seeming imminence of apocalypse with it, lurched and thickened in my stomach. That afternoon, as I sat in the back of my mother’s car, I looked out at the silhouette of the cathedral, as slimline and sublime as it had been ever since the early thirteenth century, and wondered if it would still be there in the year 2000. Would I be there, and my family, and my friends, and humanity—and indeed the planet? Would any of us make it to the twenty-first century?
I had not, of course, picked the date 2000 at random. It had a sonorous finality about it. The idea that I might actually be alive in such a year appeared so implausible as to be fantastical. And even if I did it make it, the world around me seemed all too likely to be irradiated, or filled with murderous robots, or ruled by Big Brother—or perhaps all three. Yet if my imaginings of the year 2000 were colored by dread, then so also were they touched by hope. Only make it into the twenty-first century, I used to imagine, only breast that particular tape, and everything would somehow be alright. A paradoxical response, it might be thought, to feel both nervousness and anticipation at the approach of a date; and yet not, I think, a wholly unusual one. The year 2000, when it did finally dawn, was greeted both by hysteria about the possible effects of the Millennium Bug, and by frenzied partying. And then it had come and gone—and nothing much seemed to have changed. The world had not ended, but neither had it entered a golden age. Time just went on—and not for a thousand years would there be another millennium.