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Britain celebrates 60th year of Queen's reign

LONDON -- The patriotic bunting is ready, the golden carriage on standby, the boats freshly painted, the shops filled with royals souvenirs.

The normal ebb and flow of British life gives way in the next four days to a series of street parties, flotillas, outdoor concerts and finally the appearance of an elderly great-grandmother on her balcony to wave to her subjects.

The pageantry is very grand and very British. But at the heart of the Diamond Jubilee celebration is a nearly universal sense of appreciation for the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, who is marking 60 years on the throne.

The queen was a vibrant young woman of 25 when she became the head of state of a faltering post-war nation. Today at 86 she remains strong of heart and stout of spirit, refusing to let age slow her pace or dim her smile, which if anything has grown more welcoming over the years.

Winston Churchill was prime minister when she became queen, and David Cameron, who wasn't even born then, is Britain's leader now. Elizabeth herself has no political role. But her royal mystique, the centuries of history she embodies and her own discreet charisma help define the very idea of Britain for the world.

Alan Watson, a member of the House of Lords who has written a book about the queen, said the Jubilee is a joyous occasion for many Britons who see the queen as a symbol of stability.

“These 60 years have been years of really dramatic change in the UK, the tectonic plates have moved,” he said.

“The country has lost its empire and is no longer in the front rank of power, and I really think that change has been enormously eased by her and what she represents. My feeling is she has enabled change by her reassurance of essential continuity.”

When Lord Watson joined the queen at a rain-soaked tree-planting ceremony in Richmond several weeks ago, he said he was struck by her buoyant mood as the Jubilee approached.

“I got the clear feeling that she is really enjoying things,” he said. “It was pouring rain, but she really looked radiant, a happy person. I think she feels very content in herself. I think she is satisfied with how the reign has gone.”

Elizabeth has weathered shaky times with her children, whose marriages have tended to break apart, and her popularity suffered after the 1997 death of Princess Diana, with some finding her response to the tragedy to be cold and out of touch with public sentiment.

The late princess was an international superstar. And the queen was seen by some as overseeing the royal push to cast her adrift after the breakup of her troubled union with Prince Charles, the heir to the throne.

But all evidence suggests the queen's connection to her subjects has recovered from those blows.

There was overwhelming support for Elizabeth at the last great celebration that focused on her role — the Golden Jubilee bash that in 2002 marked her 50 years on the throne.

The event is remembered not just for the concerts and the parties but for the spectacle of an estimated 1 million people gathered in front of Buckingham Palace to wave to the queen and say: “Well done.”

Palace officials are hoping this simple show of affection will be repeated on Tuesday when the festivities climax with another balcony appearance.

They have reason to be optimistic. Newspaper polls this week suggested that affection and appreciation for Elizabeth cut across all ages, social classes and political affiliations.

For many, she is a living link to the challenges and triumphs of World War II, when she was a young princess who helped with the war effort, even learning how to drive and service heavy vehicles with the Auxiliary Transport Service.

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Souvenirs to mark Britain's Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee are seen for sale in a shop in the City of London, Thursday. (AP)

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