FIRST, try some homework. Find the composer Ottorino Respighi’s “Three Botticelli Pictures” and listen to the second one, “L’Adorazione dei Magi”.

Completed in 1927, “The Adoration of the Magi” evokes the faith of the three wise men in its beautiful, tender setting of the hymn-tune “Veni Emmanuel”. 

That hymn crosses the century. 

We hear it again in James MacMillan’s 1992 percussion concerto “Veni, Veni Emmanuel”. 
So now listen to that piece, performed on CD by Evelyn Glennie. The tune finally rises triumphantly into the composition before the crisis of drums and brass all but overwhelms it, and then hauntingly it returns as the beating heart, the core of rhythmic sense, hammers on to its conclusion, and the music moves into the Easter “Coda”.

What has happened across the century where these two compositions hold either end in balance?
For Respighi, it seems very simply a beautiful setting. Reverence, joy and prayer are intrinsic, untroubled and reassuring.

READ MORE: The damned and the marginal find their voices in the 1980s

For MacMillan, at the end of the century, the melody struggles to come through the energies of uncertainty that belong to our time.

What’s so wonderful is that the hymn-tune is crystallised despite the dissonances. In other words, if we want it enough, in spite of Rwanda, in spite of Soweto, in the 1990s we could still hear that call. In the 2020s, it is even more difficult to hear it clearly.

The Modern Movement was typified by a radical commitment to the new. But literature was not the only art at the end of the century to attempt regeneration from the past. Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy brings the First World War back for 1990s readers. 

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient revises the Second World War from a distinctly post-imperial standpoint. Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry revisits the Easter Rising in Ireland from a very late 20th-century perspective.

James Ellroy, in his Los Angeles thrillers, recaptures the genre of noir whose masters Dashiell Hammett, James M Cain and Raymond Chandler, in the 1920s, 30s and later, had to be revisited with new invention. Ellroy’s accomplishment in LA Confidential was to recreate the atmosphere of the genre but to take it to new levels. Corruptibility spreads at speed. Ethical questions are fired off with vertiginous velocity. The violence is pure surgery.

The quickness of Ellroy’s writing belies its densities – verbless sentences, fast cuts to unexplained documents, cinematic techniques like montage, poised one-liners delivering the swift hit before you know it.

To explain who we are now, we need to know what we were in the past. Not to do so is to lose memory altogether, and that makes robots of us all.

The science fiction worlds of Philip K Dick, JG Ballard and William Gibson and the rejuvenated prehistory of the Star Wars trilogy all speak of this. At the end of the original Star Wars films, it’s Luke Skywalker’s robotically repaired hand which almost delivers the fatal blow to the villain, Darth Vader.

But Darth Vader – the Dark Father – is actually Luke’s father and, by reasserting that human relationship, Luke rescues him from the “Dark Side” of mechanistic obedience to the evil empire. We must assume that Darth Vader’s resemblance to the New Zealand former prime minister Robert Muldoon was simply accidental (but it’s unmistakable).

The 1990s prequel is really an elaboration on the theme of corruptibility. The boy Anakin Skywalker, who will become Darth Vader, seems at first to be an admirably cool customer, but he is nonetheless troubled by a sense of what is to come.

Similar misgiving is behind the Blade Runner’s suspicion that he might be like the androids he’s been sent out to kill – or “retire” – as the politically correct jargonistas have it. The language of the film exactly prophesied the tyranny of PC diction that seemed unbridled in the 90s. 
Job redundancies were not to be mentioned – they were “opportunities for staff to enjoy further developments elsewhere”.

Exercise for the 90s: Devise a set of “performance indicators” for Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard.
The 90s conspicuously lacked adequate forms of satire. The brilliant era of politicised comedy of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Not the Nine O’Clock News, and New Zealand’s Fred Dagg had scared and faded into a curious faintness in the 90s, notwithstanding Billy Connolly’s continued popularity.

The age had its herald in Blade Runner, where being human can be tested by an examination that reveals your capacity for “empathy”. How do we test for empathy now? By the end of the managerialised 90s, wasn’t empathy a bit of a liability?

The Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator movies posited a self-recuperating humanoid mechanism determined to foreclose humanity’s evolution with pre-programmed, unalterable, mechanical commitment.

In Crash – both the JG Ballard novel and the film by David Cronenberg – sexual intimacy is intensified by high-speed risk but, at the same time, its warmth is replaced by perverse posturing in the cool streamlines of aeroplane hangars and the roadside wrecks of cars and their twisted machinery. That’s us, right? You know the feeling?

It’s as if the negotiation between human desires and mechanical needs required new forms. After all, the need for that negotiation was never more acutely felt than at the end of the 20th century. 

The  break-up of the USSR and the collapse of communism signified the disaster awaiting to overtake mankind when we place our trust in our own ability to take charge completely and control the world to the totalitarian limit of the human economy

READ MORE: Alan Riach: The 1970s saw literature reach across the cultural divide

And yet, has the requirement to do exactly that ever been more urgent? To ensure freedom, don’t we need regulation? What sort of regulations would you like? Here we are in the new millennium. The scale of the problem escalates the quantity of what’s at stake, and what the cost may be.

In Alfred Schnittke’s second cello concerto of 1990, there’s a terrifying transitional moment from the fourth to the fifth and final movement. The cello reaches higher and higher, like a darker version of a lark ascending, though the air is no longer clear or free.

The orchestra crashes down with enormous force and brings the piece to a crushing silence. Then, like an inexorable mill grinding unendingly, the orchestra begins the passacaglia and the cello returns to work new and anguished variations on what Schnittke himself called this “clock of life”.

“We have become phantoms.”

In his 1997 sequence of poems, Virtual and Other Realities, Edwin Morgan quotes Antonio Gramsci – but Morgan rejects the despair that might have followed. He tells us: “The world of things undone has far more matter than this one ...”

Who has not felt this, as Gramsci once,
hammered by forces hard as distant suns ...
Within the walls he writes most steadily,
encourages his friends, freely, readily,
heads letters with hope, and not wrong-headedly.

Edwin Morgan (below) in the 90s, Britain’s foremost man of letters and most various and wide-ranging poet, remained an ambassador for futurism, one of the few poets committed to reckoning the cost yet still celebrating the worth of reality.

The National:

Since his landmark 1960s volume The Second Life, Morgan’s work had elaborated on his commitment to a plenitude in the late 20th century that refuses surfeit or inanition, yet recognises the distance between play and self-indulgence, between privilege and ruin:

When the night wind rises and the rain comes down, you must not forget
The homeless in the doorways, clutching the cold,
still real, still waiting for the tale to be told.

Taut negotiations between freedom and discipline are nowhere more fully encountered and fruitful than in Morgan’s prodigious plenum.

Strict poetic forms and crafted metres travel alongside the astronauts who, cutting their connection with the earth base, choose to make a “home in space” and in a poem which delivers the ultimate blow to the fallacy that only certain subjects are suitable for poetry, the astronauts move “outwards” –

not to plant any –
any home with roots 
but to keep a –
a voyaging generation voyaging, and as far –
as far as there would ever be a home in space –
space, that needs time and time that needs life.

In the 1997 poem “Ariel Freed” Morgan imagines the Shakespearean spirit lifting his wings at midnight, flying over “Moonlit pines, empty paths / [while] broochlike lagoons dwindled below me...” But if Morgan’s trajectory is the figure of “outwards”, his base has always been secure. 

When he was made the first City of Glasgow poet laureate in October 1999, it might have been more appropriate if a renewed nation which had just resumed its own parliament had appointed a poet laureate of Scotland – but meantime, the Glasgow post was fine. 

His appointment as the first Scots Makar, or national poet, had to wait till 2004. He visited New Zealand’s Wellington Arts Festival in 1992 and his acceptance of an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Waikato, where his work had been taught for nearly 20 years, was a memorable marker of his international stature. 

At Morgan’s reading at the university, I happened to be sitting next to the vice-chancellor, Wilf Malcolm, who, after Morgan had finished, leaned over to me and warmly remarked that an event like that was really what made the effort of running the place worthwhile. Would that more managers had the insight and humanity to understand that!

Morgan came from a generation of great poets who passed away in the 1990s. But he maintained and exemplified the temperament of youth and was very much a contemporary of writers such as Irvine Welsh, whose novels are a literary counterpart of the Quentin Tarantino of Pulp Fiction, or AL Kennedy, whose first novel, Looking for the Possible Dance, registered a freshly hopeful move “away from irrelevance and defeat”, which accorded with Morgan’s determined optimism.

Morgan was the poet for the millennium, perhaps above all because he was always aware of the dangers of security and comfort, whether in national traditions or international fashion. “Change rules” is the supreme graffito, but not, or not always, superficially. 

The Irish poet Eavan Boland puts it like this, and the terms apply equally well in Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand or anywhere:

“There is a recurring temptation for any nation, and for any writer who operates within its field of force, to make an ornament of the past...

In every age language holds out narcosis and amnesia for this purpose. But such triumphs are unsustaining ...

“If a poet does not tell the truth about time, her or his work will not survive it. Past or present, there is a human dimension to time, human voices within it and human griefs ordained by it. Our present will become the past of other men and women. We depend on them to remember it with the complexity with which it was suffered. As others, once, depended on us.”

This is the sense that prevailed in a decade which ended with the award of the Booker Prize for the second time to the South African novelist JM Coetzee, and which had begun with FW de Klerk effectively dismantling the apartheid regime in South Africa, and allowing Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela to complete, at last, his Long Walk to Freedom.

The publication of the book of that title, Mandela’s autobiography, in 1994, was as much a literary as a political cause celebre, to be read alongside Dennis Brutus, Thomas Mofolo, Mazisi Kunene,

Alan Paton, Thembinkosi Ndlovu or Athol Fugard. If anyone was truly a “millennium man”, it was surely Mandela.

In New Zealand in 1997, South Africa’s presence was festive. The Soweto String Quartet had a Hamilton audience dancing in the aisles and on the stage of the Founders Theatre. 

When the time for an encore arrived, a voice from the audience cried out for the national anthem of the South African Liberation Movement, “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika”. Sandile Khemese, principal violin, approached the front of the stage in silence, leaned forward, then said, quietly, “Your words 
have been heard”.

That music breaks the heart.

We began the century with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question. At its end, there were still unanswered questions and no easy ground for hope. As in RobertCreeley’s poem, “I Know a Man”, the darkness still surrounds us.

READ MORE: Alan Riach: The 1960s embedded within ideologies

But if the fearful symmetries of the 20th century have shown us new extremities of horror and ruin, they have also delivered unsuspected new forms of resistance and resilience, new ways to love beauty and to hate oppression, new belief in the worth of the spirit and the affinities of mind, rejuvenated commitment to the virtues of immaterial wealth, new expressions of what the South Africans call “Kwela” – the act of rising above, in dance, in literature and poetry, in all the arts.

So here’s a final piece of musical homework for you. The highly successful South African group Mango Groove developed the indigenous African idiom of Kwela into their own pop numbers in a fruitful germination of rock, jazz and disco. 

Many of their songs came out of the period immediately prior to the dismantling of apartheid and the freeing of Mandela, waiting in the hope of that liberation. You can listen to them singing of that longing time in “We Are Waiting”.

Oh, Scotland! They sing for all of us, still waiting, and still giving voice to the possible dance, away from the irrelevance and defeat, into a future that is waiting for us. The new millennium is not 
an end, it’s a continuity.

We are still waiting.