The hopes and fears of 50 years

Cal McCrystal sees victory's fire shine in the watery eyes of VE-Day veterans
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Among the faces in the park are many that are lined or whiskered. Watery eyes and buffed medallions of war catch the evening light throughout the two-minute silence and reflect the flames as the Queen ignites Hyde Park's VE-Day beacon; a signal that prompts a thousand similar spurts across her kingdom. As night edges in, boosting the incandescence of this firefly dance of victory remembered, I study the veterans.

They saw the world erupt and helped put out the fires. But 50 years on, some appear uncertain whether the lava has finally cooled. The two-minute hush by up to 200,000 in the park is at once a sigh of ghosts, a throb of grief and a pulse of something close to ecstasy. Then ascending a platform, the Queen, blue coated, lights the fuse that creates a beacon of pride. A piper plays.

The watching veterans and their frail wives are of my parents' generation. Their children, like me, remember the day off school, although they were too young to grasp the significance of German capitulation. Mingling with them in the park, I re-absorb things half-forgotten: the Blitz dust in the nostril, relief in the eye, cheer on the lip and hope in the heart.

The old men wander around the veterans' tent, recapturing for themselves what this display is trying to recapture. Before noon, 2,000 line up in regimental blazers behind the Household Division bands and march to Buckingham Palace, singing.

Young people swell their ranks as they reach the palace for a concert observed from the balcony by the Queen, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. The veterans and their youthful companions display to the Sovereign a dignified bridging of a generation gap that has plagued her kingdom since the war. An unusual fusion scents the air, as the cybernetic generation greets the Tiller Girls, the Squadronaires, and the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster.

But conversations suggest things of a harsher fragrance. Tony Lucking who will be 70 on Sunday, noted the "deep insecurity" of people today. It is as damaging to morale, he says, as anything Hitler threw at us. We are standing yards from where Mr Lucking had manned a Home Guard anti-aircraft battery before entering the regular Army in 1944 for service in India. He says his nephews have no sense of what VE Day is about. "One of them just works and works. When I tell him he's a workaholic, he says that's the only way to stay in a job".

Albert Ambtman, 82, a Dutchman who served in the Royal Navy as an administrator, wears the uniform he donned 53 years ago. The medal on his lapel was for the sinking of an Italian submarine in the Mediterranean. When the war was over, he settled in Britain. "For the first 25 years, it was all right," he says. "Then the country disintegrated a little. What we fought for in the war was for the generations to come. But the youth of Britain suffer the most."

As survivors of wartime deprivations, we were not to anticipate the legacy: old industries perishing and new ones demanding urgent adjustments of capital, skills and markets - a bewildering change that has taken us through Welfare State to Affluent Society to now, when the park is surrounded by beggars and policed by what looks like a private army.

Listening to Vera Lynn, we are grateful that our children can (just about) hum, "We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when ...", rather than "Und Morgen die ganze Welt", and that the "Struggle of Ideologies" that started in earnest 50 years ago has ended without a third world war.

Yet, Peter Knight's thoughts are that, "OK, there's peace in most of Europe, but there are 48 civil wars going on around the world." At 54, he recalls nothing of VE Day. He recalls only that his father perished in 1944 at the age of 23.

According to Peggy Saunders, at Hyde Park's tourist information tent, many visitors are confused. "Some have asked me what the 'E' stands for in VE Day," she says. Asked if any German tourists have been in, she says, "Noooo!"

And then you start to wonder about "Victory in Europe" and the views of, say, Herbert Lowe, 78, who served in the Royal Engineers and is national treasurer of the Normandy Veterans. "I have been to Normandy four times this year," he says. "They still don't like us over there."

Mr Lowe's scepticism reflectsour European discord. How narrow is the margin which divides European civilisation from chaos is made clear in the feuds that keep the continent uneasy.

"If Chirac doesn't manage to control Kohl, I just know something bad is going to happen," confides Jean Hillier, 68, from Shropshire. She was a nurse on the hospital trains in England before joining the Women's Royal Air Corps. "There was a wonderful spirit in 1945, but it's all gone now," she says.

Europe now is arranged on a plan more closely adjusted to the desires of its people than ever before. One senses this in Europe's own ceremonies; in the meeting of wartime allied navies at St Petersburg to honour a city besieged by Nazi forces for 900 days and in President Mitterand's Elyse Palace lunch, attended by the Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Prime Minister, John Major, the Duke of Edinburgh and the US Vice- President, Al Gore.

The services of thanksgiving, the nostalgic displays, the air shows and the street parties are part of a public testament to the preservation of peace. But as one shy veteran reminds me: "There is less hindering a third world war than people think." He quotes the 18th century French writer, Antoine Rivarol:

"In spite of all the efforts of a philosophic age, the most civilised empires will always be near to barbarism as the most polished steel is to rust."