Just one blot on a beautiful evening

IAN COLLINS On an evening of monsoon rain, I am enjoying a 150th birthday party in the fluid form of a Thames cruise - repeating a brilliant bash of a couple of years back on the Seine.


On an evening of monsoon rain, I am enjoying a 150th birthday party in the fluid form of a Thames cruise - repeating a brilliant bash of a couple of years back on the Seine. In both locations we will end by dancing to New York, New York.

The anniversary bash (an 80th and 70th combined) is on one of those floating glass tubes which, so ungainly from the outside, provide a panoramic picture for passengers and the sensation of gliding on glass.

Having supper in the front of the vessel, and glugging champagne, that gliding feel increases as the evening advances. With just the one jarring jolt of anger to come . . .

We leave Embankment Pier and from the outset are awed by the splendid sparkle of London from this viewpoint - a light show towering from both banks and appearing all the more spectacular through streaks and mists of rain.

The South Bank gleams after its latest face-lift, and I can't wait for the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall, lasting monument to the hope and glory of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

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This bright white building brings a smile to the faces of so many Brits as we recall highlight concerts and an arena staging the best in any musical medium. A marvellous memorial to the realised dreams of the post-war Attlee government.

We turn at Westminster Bridge and head with the tide past the Savoy, where Monet painted the river from a hotel suite, then stupendous St Paul's and the Tower.

Then, in a surreal sequence, as we glide below glorious Tower Bridge, the tannoy blasts out Handel's Zadok the Priest at top volume. What the coronation anthem for George II has to do with this late Victorian span I can't imagine.

But soon the Baroque Greatest Hits are gliding smoothly into The Girl from Ipanema. Just as I'm being dazzled by Docklands - a sort of Brasilia on Thames.

London still makes too little use of its great river, but Docklands has emerged in barely 25 years from Wastelands. And, credit where credit's due, its a tribute to the tenacity of Margaret Thatcher.

Hers may have been a decidedly lop-sided vision, but in Docklands it's at its most shining. The towers of Canary Wharf loom on a bend of the river before us - all aglitter as a second City of London.

From the illuminating spectacle of economic dynamism I turn to savour the old glories of Greenwich - Wren's Royal Naval College, perfectly framing Inigo Jones's Queen's House, and now providing a former polytechnic with the best university setting outside Oxbridge.

On we glide past ziggurat apartment blocks to one of the wonders of London. It looks like a series of mini Sydney opera houses strung in a necklace across the river, and it keeps our capital safe.

The Thames Barrage proves the elegance of engineering.

But on the return journey I fix for the first time the punctured balloon of the Millennium Dome. As plotted by Michael Heseltine this was to be the heart of a grand project to rescue a poisoned peninsula - and the area does indeed now have a thriving community, with Will Alsop's North Greenwich Tube station even lovelier than the loveliest Sainsbury's in the land.

But the Dome - complete with a blow hole from a Blackwall Tunnel - was lost to all the hot air generated by Peter Mandelson.

Millions visited in the millennial year, and most enjoyed at least some of what they saw. I would have preferred something more substantial, but the priority should always have been the lasting legacy.

And what is that to be exactly? Whereas Attlee gave us Britain's greatest concert hall, Blair may now leave us a super-casino. How hideous and how priceless.

Culture secretary Tessa Jowell - a woman with no known cultural interests, just like the philistine Estelle Morris before her - would here reveal her true nature.

After the corruption scandal involving her now-estranged husband and his lucrative links to dodgy foreign governments, she was proved unfit for political office. Her excuse that she hadn't read the documents her spouse asked her to sign showed that she was not blameless but shameless (and stupid to boot).

Ms Jowell survives simply because she is Tony's biggest crony in the Cabinet. She may remain to deliver the perfect symbol of the sheer bankruptcy of Blairism.

What a blot on a beautiful evening.