From the archive: sun, booze, and a party – the golden jubilee, 2002

<span>Photograph: Sion Touhig/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Sion Touhig/Getty Images

Some weekends last more than a weekend. Some last forever. Older generations have spoken and written of summer weekends in 1939, when the sun seemed wary of setting, hesitant to let history carry on.

And as Britain began the longest bank holiday in its history, there was the feeling, yesterday, of a special time: people will remember this time. They may remember it for 1,000 different reasons; gone are the days of 1939, when England’s collective memory seemed to be of mown grass and a lazy aircraft circling overhead. Memories of the June 2002 weekend will be more prosaic, more diverse. The Irish fans queuing outside London pubs at 7am to watch their team draw spectacularly with Cameroon. The English fans wandering the streets at teatime, heavy with hangovers and sunshine after a day’s World Cup-watching. The passionate monarchists filing eagerly, hugely curious, into the rarely seen back gardens of Buckingham Palace for last night’s jubilee Prom at the Palace, after an afternoon spent straining to hear the distant sounds of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa rehearsing for her performance of Dove sono from The Marriage of Figaro. The many tourists, splendid in their indifference to royalty, still caught up in the preparations outside the palace, and caught up in the sunshine. But memories there will surely be.

Football fans watch England play Sweden in their local pub in London on J2 June 2002.
Football fans watch England play Sweden in their local pub in London on J2 June 2002. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/EPA

The coincidence of the jubilee weekend falling at the same time as the opening of the biggest sporting event the world has ever seen only needed one extra element for Britain to feel it was truly on holiday: and, duly, the Saturday sun came out roasting. London began gearing itself up for four days of hyper-organised celebration. Crowd barriers already line The Strand, a mile from the palace, in anticipation of the next few days, involving one massive jubilee parade, a pop concert and an apparent attempt to recreate Armageddon with fireworks. Shops were reporting their biggest weekend sales ever of beer and snacks as England prepared for its team’s opening game this morning against Sweden: Tesco reported selling more than 100,000 bottles of champagne since Tuesday.

Outside the palace, the afternoon began slowly, almost lazily. Tourists clustered round Queen Victoria’s monument, lining up for pictures with jugglers and stilt-walkers or, a little more rarely, with Ray Hogan, self-appointed monarchist supreme, who held a huge sign declaring: “The Golden reign of Elizabeth II, 1952 to 2002.”

Donna O’Brien, down from Manchester to visit her sister Julie, who works for the Foreign Office, said: “I don’t think anyone wishes the Queen any ill will, really. I’m a teacher and I’ve found it quite hard to get the children interested in doing anything for this jubilee: but it’s just the way society’s changed, it’s nothing personal.” She was delighted, however, to learn that Camilla was appearing in the Royal Box, though not sitting beside Charles. It’s only the second time the couple have been together in the presence of the Queen at the palace. In March, Camilla was a guest at a 75th birthday party for Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who was back again last night to perform Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasilieras. “I think Camilla’s fantastic. She’s a discreet lady, and there have been far too few discreet ladies among the royals,” O’ Brien said.

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Against the gates, Prince Charles lounges, smoking furtively. A second glance and it turns out to be a rather convincing lookalike, James Potter, who’s half-hoping to do his lookalike career some good. Maybe he should put the cigarette out. He does the voice for me, and tells me his real job is as a decorator.

The palace gates opened shortly after 4pm and the first of an estimated 12,000 crowd, most of them as much fans of music as the monarchy, began filing into the gardens, sure that this night, and the next three, will stay with them for a long time. It could all go horribly wrong, of course. A couple of World Cup lost goals, or questions about the amounts spent on this jubilee, could sour the moments. But those days are still to come: last night, as Rossini began swelling from the palace grounds and there was a smell of new-mown grass, much seemed possible.

Euan Ferguson wrote for the Observer as a columnist, feature writer and critic for 25 years