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.
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
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
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 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:
WITH A FEW SKIRMISHES.
That's how it is. Most of the time. And on we go.
the Year 2000
(to be confirmed)
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
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
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.