Bridges to the future – and to our past

At this time a decade ago, I had a bottle of champagne in the fridge, and was getting ready to meet some mates at London Bridge. Police were already at Charlton station to escort VIPs to the Millennium Dome, access to central Greenwich was by wristband only. So central London it was. We walked through crowds along the Embankment – seeing the Queen’s motorcade on Southwark Street – into the West End. Remember the flaming torches set up? The mammoth crowds? Drinking vodka and Red Bull out of plastic bottles? (Maybe that last one was just me.) I have some photos of us taken that night, swigging champagne in Covent Garden, chatting with strangers, and having a whale of a time. We went to a club, came home by all-night train, passed out. The next day was fairly hangover-free, and seemed like stepping into the future. The 21st Century would be bright and peaceful, wouldn’t it?

A few weeks ago, a thought occurred to me as I crossed the Millennium Bridge. We hadn’t meant to be in the centre of London – it’d started as an afternoon wander in Greenwich Park, and had developed thanks to our Oyster cards (being developed in 1999) and the Docklands Light Railway (opened to Greenwich in December 1999) into a grander meander. We’d end up passing Tate Modern (opened 2000) on our way to the whiskey shop in Vinopolis (opened July 1999), and head home via Thames Clippers (established 1999) to the QE2 pier next to the Millennium Dome (you’re probably ahead of me by now).

“This bridge probably sums up the past decade in London,” I said to my companion.

“What, that they cocked it up at first?”

I didn’t mean that, I had in my head how the wobbly bridge had been a potent symbol of how London’s boundaries had shifted in the 2000s – Tate Modern’s opening sealed a complete rejuvenation of the South Bank, putting both sides of the Thames on the tourist trail.

In the east, there were further changes. The music industry switched its focus away from Camden and Notting Hill and towards Shoreditch and Hoxton. (If there was an enduring London character this decade, it was probably Nathan Barley, who started out in Westbourne Grove and gravitated west.) Canary Wharf’s influence on world commerce grew further after the Jubilee Line was finished a week before the decade’s start. Stratford became a viable site for a possible Olympic bid.

And in the south-east? Flats, flats, and more new flats. On the Greenwich peninsula, on the sites of old flats, on any old bit of land that became free. Deptford was “the new Hoxton” at least twice. Charlton gaining yet more retail barns – and a bigger Valley as the Addicks rose, then fell. Brockley stepped out of the shadows and became officially nice. Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal opening up to the public… and over-heated development in Thamesmead arguably helping kickstart an economic collapse.

Sure, some of the seeds for London’s changes were sown in the late 1990s, but the capital of 31st December 1999 was a vastly different place to the one we’re in today.

But yes, there was a foul-up with the Millennium Bridge at first, wasn’t there? But after initial cynicism, the wobbly bridge is now a much-loved part of the capital. A little way along the Thames, can you even start to imagine the city without the London Eye? It failed its safety checks for the big night – but nobody remembers that now.

In fact, even the Millennium Eve celebrations went a bit awry when the “river of fire” fizzled out – but the big fireworks display has, after a false start, become an annual event. (Remember the 90s when people used to go to Trafalgar Square because they had nothing else to do?)

Even the Millennium Dome, now universally regarded as a New Labour vanity project, left empty for far too long, is now pretty much immune from criticism as the O2. The Dome was the top visitor attraction of 2000 – but the nation’s media never forgave its botched opening night. Locally, learning to live with the Dome long after its novelty faded has been an interesting experience.

The start of the 2000s showed that imagination could always trump cynicism if you got enough people to believe. And we spent the rest of the decade reaping the benefits of that time. Some of it’s still to come – the new East London Line rail link opens soon, the Olympic Stadium is dominating the Stratford skyline.

As for the rest of it?

Maybe the great anti-war demo of 2003 was the point where cynicism started to corrode everything. I was there that day, and remembering being impressed with the wit of the slogans, and taken aback by the huge turnout. Surely this could not be ignored, could it? But once Tony Blair stuck two fingers up at public opinion and went on his desert adventure, a lot of faith, a lot of trust in the ability to change things simply went.

And slowly, things have rolled back to the bad old days. Why try to change things when you can just grumble instead? We now seem governed by Have Your Say culture – kneejerk responses to problems instead of taking a deep breath and thinking about the future, and thinking about people beyond ourselves. I fear the 2010s will be another decade of “I’m all right Jack” cobblers, when the pennies get clawed back in but the pounds somehow seem forgotten about. And there are few people who can properly articulate a case against all this.

Of course, you can always fight for change on your own doorstep. But the wider picture in our city and beyond’s a lot gloomier for the 2010s. In a few years, we may look back at the Millennium Bridge and Tate Modern, remember that exciting period when London seemed to develop in a way that suited people, and not cars and big businesses, and wonder what happened since.

I could be wrong. I hope I am wrong. If more people stand up and do something, maybe I will be wrong. I don’t think 2010’s going to be a year for sitting back and taking what’s thrown at us, somehow. Whatever happens, have a great 2010 – and don’t let yourself be ground down.