by Julian Fox
'800 days to go', the signs read around Nuku’alofa. The cards being shuffled in the Pacific these days are for a special kind of game. Call it ‘2000’. Come December 31st 1999 and there will be great excitement the world over, but none so much as within a handful of degrees either side of the international date line. That line bisects no land mass and no national boundaries - it did, up till 1995, but more of that shortly. No surprise, then, that the sprinkle of islands up and down The Line are vying intensely for the honour of either first into the new millenium or last out of the old. And given modern transport capabilities, some can actually celebrate the new on one side, pop across and farewell the old (Apia, Samoa - no argument about this), then, if their hangover will permit it, celebrate the new a second time. All very simple.
Yes? Consider your options. It’s a four card hand for the break of dawn 2000: Kiribati, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand. Discard Fiji in real terms, but as the tourist Mecca of the Pacific they’ll have their party anyway without worrying about an
hour or two either way. That leaves Kiribati, Tonga and New Zealand as potential real-time winners. The NZ millenial outposts (The Chatham Islands) are little more than creation’s afterthought, something picked up in kitty and Wellington is welcome to them - but they could take the winning trick. Now, watch out for the fast shuffle. We need an independent observer.
Not the philosophers; they simply confuse the issue by calling the notion of time into question. Not the theologians; they will argue about ‘chronos’ versus ‘kairos’. The scientists? No one seriously doubts that Greenwich Observatory is sincere in its efforts to regulate time according to the best scientific evidence available, so long as you are not uncomfortable with the fact that Britannia ruled most of the waves round here - and some of the land - at some time in the past century. The problem is, Greenwich has changed the game rules with the simple observation that everyone’s a year too early. It figures - when they
moved from BC to AD there wasn’t a year 0. They just went from 1 BC to 1 AD. So, if the first year of the first millenium was 1 AD, that makes the first year of the second millenium 1001 AD and the first year of the third millenium 2001 AD. The scientists and the philosophers seem equally intent on holding up the party. Assuming that the party will happen either or both years, keep your eye on the play. Kiribati did a fast-shuffle in ’95. They did have a problem. The dateline bisected their nation, which is mainly ocean and an inordinately wide spread of atolls, almost from Nauru to Hawai’i. Not only were the Line Islands 22 hours behind the capital, Tarawa, but you actually needed (and still need) a visa to get there, via Hawai’i. The
solution to the date problem was to put a kink in the dateline, a full 30° longtitude. It is now the same day in the Line Islands, but two glorious hours ahead. The real problem is that Caroline Island is only good for guano. It has no people and no facilities.
Tonga still has a trick up its sleeve - it wants to introduce daylight saving. How do the bids stand? Donne said of the sun ‘Busie old foole, unruly sunne….’. Greenwich says ‘poppycock’ to daylight saving. GMT is the relative point, and there’s just no sense in trying to make the sun rise earlier. So the bids stand thus: Pitt Island (NZ - Chathams) sunrise 1st January 2000 16.05 GMT. Vava’u (Tonga) 17.03 GMT. Caroline Island (Kiribati) 15.43 GMT. Looks like the I’s (I-Kiribati) have it. Ah, but
there’s an Ace yet to be played! You forget the tilt of the earth, and that the sun is, as Donne put it, a ‘saucy pedantique wretch’. On 1st January 2000 the suns rays will first strike further south, at longtitude 162 and latitude south 66. That’s the edge of the Antarctic icecap just off New Zealand’s Ross Dependency. At 13.41 GMT the bid seems invincible. But, it’s a misere hand, wouldn’t you say, if the choice is between icecream and birdshit?
It’s Tonga, for mine. Just so long as it’s not a Sunday. Sunday would be acceptable only if the Lord deigns to link the Second Coming with millenial celebrations. Never forget that Someone always holds the Joker!