Of all the parties in all of the world, you sensed that this was the one that mattered

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The Independent Online

The turbulent century entered its final hours with one more display of the kind of fire, fury and bedlam that seems to have dominated all of its days.

The turbulent century entered its final hours with one more display of the kind of fire, fury and bedlam that seems to have dominated all of its days.

As an exercise in celebration there were, naturally, glitches and foul-ups of every kind. Chaos, traffic jams and frenzied crowds reduced scores of cities and towns to a state of paralysed hysteria. And with half the Government and a large slice of the Royal Family strolling through the centre of all this jovial mayhem, there was a real whiff of fear and tension in the air.

The grim, anxious faces of more than 12,000 police officers, many of them armed, moving like an army through the streets of London said that peace may have been declared in Ireland, but nothing had changed at moments like this.

But nothing was ever going to spoil the biggest party of the century for the eager millions. And, in Britain at least, it was the kind of night we all hoped it would be. The night when time itself reached a numerical crossroads, almost magical in its symmetry. And at such a moment all of us, it seemed, had caught the infectious delight of those numbers and were hell-bent on making it truly a night to remember. It was a night when nobody was a stranger.

Nobody wanted to be left out. And long before the midnight hour the greatest party of the century was in full swing. The millennium revellers seemed to have gathered everywhere. Vast crowds thronged the banks of our great rivers. They danced beneath the skyscrapers of teeming cities and embraced each other in the quiet streets of remote villages. They lit fires on a hundred hilltops and sang on the beaches of far-flung islands. A few chose to pray in peaceful churches. Many more drank and caroused in bars and nightclubs. Many others, perhaps the majority, just stayed at home and enjoyed the jubilant television images being beamed from a hundred countries and a thousand cultures celebrating in their own way, and at their own moment, around the shrinking world.

Whatever we did and wherever we did it, those hours leading up to the end of a savage and vibrant 20th century more than lived up to their promise. All day long yesterday, in grey freezing weather, huge swathes of the population seemed to be on the move. Everybody, everywhere, seemed determined to be part of it. And of the thousands of parties, from Cornwall to Thurso, none was any less important than any other.

London, and the Thames, where Britain's long history as a nation began, even before the birth of Christ 2,000 years ago, was inevitably chosen as the centrepiece of the great night.

From the moment Tony Blair started the glittering London Eye wheel across from Westminster - judged unsafe and spinning without passengers, but still a stirring sight in the night sky - the great pageant was on. All along the river, the sounds of partying was just like a howl in the air. The shouts and roars merged with the beat of a hundred bands, and one frenzied sensation of light and colour merged into the next - culminating in the moment when the Queen lit the huge millennium beacon and sent its gas-powered flame hundreds of feet into the air.

Even the Victorians, when they celebrated their Queen's 60 years on the throne almost exactly 100 years ago, could produce nothing like this kind of bash, on this kind of scale. As she moved along the river in her swanky new powerboat, this Queen of just 48 years looked pretty pleased and relaxed.She was doing what she has always done best - putting on a show of quiet, understated leadership. She has opened most things in her time, and she must have quite fancied opening a new century.

Her progress through the soaring barrages of fireworks and the cheering thousands as she sailed down to Greenwich ranked high on the scale of spectacle that this old river has witnessed over the last 2,000 years and more. Julius Caesar made the same journey on a punt back in 54BC, Boadicea once sailed in the opposite direction as she watched her hordes burning down the city, and in 1067 William of Normandy surveyed the river as a conqueror to find a prime slice of real estate to build his Tower of London. And, on one of the great sombre days in our modern history, they carried the body of Winston Churchill along this same stretch of river en route to his burial.

The Dome itself, that great swollen pancake on the Greenwich Reach that has given us all so much grief, was ready for the Queen's arrival - despite a final barrage of media spite. The 1,500 or so tickets that had failed to reach the hand-picked selection of the great and the good were ready for them on their arrival. It was just another problem solved as thousands have been solved previously by the determined bunch of people who built this cheerful monstrosity on the Thames and made it live.

The massive arena was glowing with the faces of the glitterati, the A-list from every section of the British showbusiness and political population, who knew that of all the parties, in all the joints, in all the world, they were at the one that really mattered. They noted the hovering armada of helicopters scanning the sky for nasties, and some even saw the teams of frogmen scouring the river bottom for possible bombs, but they seemed unconcerned that the biggest peacetime security operation mounted for years in the capital was for their benefit.

Throughout the day on live TV, we had seen the last year of the millennium begin far across the world as the sun first rose in the tiny Pacific atoll of Kiribati, then swept across oceans and continents, lighting up cities from New Zealand to Africa. We had seen dancers on ocean beaches, sightseers on the Great Wall of China, and the floodlit Pyramids of Egypt, the oldest structures in the world, greet the first moments of their own 2,000AD. All great stuff, but here in Britain we all knew that through an accident of history we were sitting right on the spot where the genuine start-finish gate stood. Zulu Time, longitude zero, Greenwich Mean Time, that famous notional line at the very heart of man-made time, was running right past the front door. And the Dome, ridiculed and sneered at by the critics, was in full shimmering regalia and ready to host the party at the centre of all the parties.

Watching the dancers and seeing the huge, 400-strong orchestra and choir, which seemed to hang suspended on a gantry four storeys high, hearing the roar of 10,000 people singing "Amazing Grace", and seeing the young acrobats fly through the air high above our heads proved to be a genuine spectacular.

Many of us who were children when the Queen came to the throne in 1952 found we could not keep our eyes away from her. On her Coronation Day she had been little more than a girl, pale and terrified by the reality of the lifetime ordeal forced on her by Fate. Now she was a plump, elderly grandmother, with a smile flickering on her face when the audience took a few liberties while singing her song on this crazy night on the end of the century. All of us seemed to share the powerful feeling that somehow we were all part of the same thing, part of her life, of her country and her time.

And when, on the first clang of Big Ben, the biggest event of the night was unleashed - the great sweep of fire sent roaring, 200ft high, along the river from Tower Bridge to Vauxhall Bridge - the older people in the audience must have remembered something else. It was a night almost exactly 60 years ago to the day when German bombers came to this same river and set it on fire, not with fireworks but with high explosive bombs. More than 10,000 people died on that terrible night. But those folk memories, like most of the horrors of this century, are now locked away in the past.

In this first year of this new millennium we continue, as the Chinese say, to live in interesting times. Dangerous, yes. Uncertain, yes. The news that day told of men, women and children being held hostage on a plane and later released by desperate men, it described yet another entertainment icon, this time one of the three surviving Beatles, stabbed by yet another irrational nobody with dreams of fame, and it told of a brutal mechanised war grinding a Russian city to rubble and killing thousands in the the process.

In 2,000 and onward, starting today, it will no doubt be business as usual. But last night was not for looking back. The FTSE index soared to record levels. Tony Blair's smile looked as if it had even more teeth than usual. Champagne and ale were being consumed by the tonne. And the sound of music and dancing was drifting across the burning Thames and across the land. Nobody there or elsewhere knows what will come next. And, last night, for a few dreamlike hours, nobody cared.

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