Looking over the horizon

What will the 21st Century bring? Today there is no shortage of pundits suggesting everything from total computer meltdown, to a plague of superbugs, to a golden age of long life and happiness for all. Interestingly, looking back in our files, the Express & Star of December 31, 1899, contained not one word of speculation about the century ahead.

The next Stealth fighter?Maybe, in those hard-headed times, people didn't think a mere change of century was worth discussing. That is understandable. The Britain of 100 years ago was a nation unchanged and unchanging. It was a nation at the peak of its power, ruling the biggest Empire of all time. What could possibly alter all that?.

The Empire and its neighbours required the occasional military expedition but nothing to cause too much alarm. As the poet Hilaire Belloc wrote of wars against natives:

"Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not."

If the colonies were easily kept in check by a blend of wise government and occasional use of the latest military hardware, relations closer to home were delightfully easy.

Our old enemy, France, was a firm friend and so, too, was the ancient Tsardom of Russia. Germany was nothing more than a distant problem. Not a single British soldier had been killed in any European war - excluding the Crimea - since the battle of Waterloo in 1815. All was well with the world and God (who was almost certainly an Englishman) was in his heaven.

To the average Express & Star reader of 100 years ago, there seemed no earthly reason why Britain and its Empire should not last for another thousand years. No-one could foresee that the eternal squabbles of the Balkans would spill into a world war that would kill 10 million of Europe's brightest and best young men.

Or that Germany's defeat in that war would simmer in bitterness before exploding, only 21 years later, into another global war that would leave 50 million dead.

Who could have foreseen aircraft, space travel, atomic weapons and the rise of the United States to take over from Britain as the world's only superpower? Who could have imagined that ordinary people could be travelling to New York in five hours by flying machine, or zipping up and down a network of motorways in horseless carriages?

Who could have predicted that religion would have faded away so dramatically? One hundred years ago almost everyone went to church. Today, hardly anyone does. Or that the life of women, so hard and cruel in previous centuries, would become transformed by contraception, better childbirth care and labour-saving devices? The 20th century would prove to be the first century in which women lived longer than men.

Guessing the future is notoriously difficult. As late as the 1950s and 1960s, pundits were predicting that by the 1990s we would be wearing silver-foil jumpsuits, eating "energy tablets" and living in modular homes like giant igloos. No-one foresaw that denim, lamb chops and bricks and mortar would remain quite so popular.

So what of the 21st Century? What of the Third Millennium? In the next 100 years, all being well, we will discover a cure for cancer, a means of delaying the ageing process and the technology to live on this planet without polluting it. After a century of crazy growth, the world population will stabilise and begin to fall. The Internet will expand into a global consciousness. In a world where land, property and raw materials become less important than information, the ancient causes of wars will be removed.

The crucial words are "all being well." If it goes the other way, Global warming, spurred on by gross pollution, will cause wars for water and living space. And these conflicts will be waged with horrific, uncontrollable germ-war bombs. Meddling with the genes of corn and animals will create new, unstoppable superweeds and superbugs. Populations will soar until millions perish through famine. There may even be a big meteorite on the way to wipe out all human life, just as the dinosaurs were wiped out.

Above all, expect the unexpected. And don't be surprised, if you happen to be somehow reading this in the year 2099, to see how wrong 20th century man's best, and worst, guesses turned out to be.

In the first edition of the 20th century, on Monday, January 1, 1900, this newspaper said nothing to greet the new age. But its main headline, reporting the Boer War in South Africa, could have applied to almost any day in the 20th century, the 21st, or at any time in human history:


That's how it is. Most of the time. And on we go.


Highlights of
the Year 2000

(to be confirmed)

January 18. Upper Gornal accent voted the most desirable in Britain.

February 1. Walsall Council votes to accept an award for good government (nine for, seven against, 43 abstentions)

March 23. University of Wolverhampton comes second to Oxford in national league. Cambridge third.

April 19. Miss Bilston to represent UK in Miss Universe pageant.

May 22. Wolves win FA cup and Premier League championship.

June 4. Traffic flows freely at M6 junction 10 (one day only)

July 27. Black Country JobCentres closed owing to full employment.

August 8. All holiday flights from Birmingham Airport leave on time.

September 14. Delia Smith's "New Ways with Grorty Dick" becomes unexpected bestseller.

October 9. Coseley named most fashionable town in Britain in Style 2000 competition (sponsored by Oxfam).

November 1. A ban on lighting fireworks before Bonfire Night is imposed throughout the Black Country. Pensioners complain about the silence.

December 4. Wolves v Albion match ends in 4-4 draw after extra time. Fans applaud sporting play by each other's side, shake hands and go home quietly.