2 January 2000 | The Night Mandela Upstaged The Queen

First published in "The Sunday Independent"

So where was the river of fire? What is wrong with the Queen that she didn't cross her arms during "Auld Lang Syne?" Considering the peaceable millions on the streets till all hours, will the police continue the New Year's Eve policy of indifference to recreational drug-taking? And which 25 people would you most want to see trapped at the top of the London Eye? Those are the questions I fell asleep pondering after the celebrations.

The party in my home at Limehouse, where the curving sweep of the Thames flows east to Greenwich, went well, with everyone out by 7am (apart from five sleep-overs,) and still Los Angeles lagged with an hour to go.

During dinner we were on the lookout for the Queen's boat sailing by on its way to the Dome. Some had been expecting a Cleopatra barge or at least a smart river launch, Britannia being in hock.

It was a good place to choose to watch the queenly progress. From my roof I can spy the Dome beyond Canary Wharf and looking west, a segment of the empty ferris wheel. Floating restaurants of rich revellers and sightseeing boats with their loudspeaking commentaries on the riverscape pass by. Of late, one of those has taken to identifying my back wall by saying: "See the house painted very bright pink? That belongs to Julian Clary!" (A flattering confusion but it doesn't.)

When the Queen did come into view, she was conveyed in a brightly lit floating commercial for City Cruises. A friend called from New York (where they drop a ball) to say British Airways' inability to get it up (the London Eye) had knocked George Harrison off the front pages.

As for the river of fire, we had been promised 200 metres of flame - the actual 50 metres were not visible from Limehouse through the low-lying cloud, nor on television. For firework spectacle, our highest marks went to Paris, where the erect Eiffel Tower exploded on and on. Tokyo: nil points. London's expensive celebrations can continue through the year under the Dome's mighty umbrella. Lost tickets, high prices, early closing - all will be forgiven if it's half as good as promised. So far we only know how much it will cost.

As the year turned in Cape Town, Nelson Mandela brilliantly showed us what the new millennium can mean. In his old cell in the Robben Island museum of reconciliation, the ex-prisoner lit a candle and handed it on to his presidential successor who then gave it to a child. Not a sponsor in sight. Was it that Mandela's handlers realise what is lost on the rich countries - that TV responds best to the human face? Or was it just that Mandela has proved, again, that he is the greatest of leaders, political and moral. Coupled with Michelangelo's David, he is my millennium man.

Ian McKellen Drawing by Scarfe.

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