Down on the Mall – the tree-lined avenue that joins Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square – they’ve put out more flags: huge Union Jack banners on each pole, flapping in the coolish wind. Hundreds of metal safety barriers are up — a double layer of them, unlike 1981, when they did not believe that at least two metres of space were required between royals and commoners — and they’re lined with tents, small brightly coloured one- and two-person numbers.
There’s a touch of Scott’s last expedition about these strings of pods, with people huddled in, surviving on iron rations (shortbread and Earl Grey) and updating their blogs. There’s a lot of teenage girls here, hanging out in an ironic/unironic way, ribbons in their hair, and Wills ‘n’ Kate T-shirts ironically punked up. The occasional teenage boy hanger-on with them, hoping that some of the overflow of pagan fertility rite will slop his way.
But above all, it’s women of a certain age, tending the flame and putting on the kettle — cheerfully mad, decked out in red, white and blue plastic boaters, and wearing Wills ‘n’ Kate tea-towels like capes, conferring superpowers. In any tribe though, the father may well give away the bride, the means by which it is done is secret women’s business.
In the most patriarchal of countries, the personification of power and national being is a grey-haired 80-something matron, who may well have another 15 years on the clock, and these women, with their T-shirts and bye-byes, are her honour guard.
We walk slowly down the Mall, and at the entrance to Clarence House, we’re stopped to let someone swing into the drive:
“Someone’s coming in,” a woman says excitedly, her Wills ‘n’ Kate springy-head-antenna bobbling excitedly.
Yes they are. A truck of Portaloos parts the crowd. There’s hundreds of the things. They’ve really gone over the top with the poop coops — they run the whole length of the Mall, like a phalanx of horse guards standing at attention.
They really are scared of public pooping — not unreasonable given the British tendency to let it go anywhere (recently it was found that parts of the National Gallery stone were being worn away by people letting their small children take a leak against the side of it).
Me, I think a river of effluent down the Mall gutters would give the whole thing a delightfully medieval turn. Something has to. Our Kate is no Diana, although the eating disorder appears to be coming along nicely. The carriage (she was originally to arrive by car) will be less magical, the veil less diaphanous, and the marriage boringly genuine. How bourgeois can you get?
Indeed, that’s the whole problem. At the heart of this ceremony, which is meant to bind us together as one nation somehow represented, bodied forth, by the bodies of a young couple, it cannot help but be observed that the marriage is, well, more than a little yecch. The Middleton — Middleton! — family is from Bucklebury, a home counties town, 80 kilometres out of London, the haute-bourgeblah, living-death belt, neither city nor country, to which they retired after making a fortune from a business selling party supplies by mail order. Good God. How is it possible that Prince Philip is still alive after that news? Prince William could have married a shop assistant, a Hapsburg princess, a Glasgow crack whore, or a woman named Lurlene doing 30-to-life in Arkansas, and they all would have been more romantic matches than the girl from the big neo-Georgian house, who, even in real life, looks like she was drawn by an illustrator of chicklit novel covers.
The melancholy fact is that working with this sort of material, the wedding cannot be other than underwhelming. The overall effect is not to raise Kate up, but to draw William and the royals down. Wills himself hasn’t helped, losing his looks in his mid-20s.
He started that decade of his life as a Greek God; now, balding and with the in-breeding showing, he could be mistaken for the junior partner in a Jaguar dealership, having been invalided out of the Green Howards after getting fragged in Basra.
So there is the distinct feeling among many that we are not so much attending a fairytale wedding, as being dragged to the hitching of some cousins we never really knew, and who look like they’ll start talking about how great Andrew Bolt is, at the reception, shortly before the free piss runs out.
That feeling is spread pretty evenly across the country. Even on the afternoon before the event there were good possies to be got right up against the barrier on the Mall, a sign that there’s been a less-than-frantic rush to be part of it. The same is true of street parties, those gingham and teapot ceremonies in which tables are run down the middle of street, to be bombed by the Luftwaffe; this time around, there are only a fraction of these being planned, compared to 1981.
Tempting as it would be to blame this on the echtness of the wedding itself, it can’t be sustained. Nor is it the result of buyer’s remorse on the last wedding. Diana’s fairytale turned into a local production of Liaisons Dangereuses, in which the only one who wasn’t aware she was a patsy, was the patsy herself, subject to the tender mercies of the sort of dysfunctional German family clusterf-ck usually only found in late Fassbinder. The whole thing left a sour taste, and laid bare the process of monarchy, i.e. mostly as a racket. If the 1981 wedding gave monarchy a brief boost, the marriage was worth 100 republican conventions as a teachable experience.
So folks won’t get fooled again. But above and beyond all that, they can’t feel connected to it as they did 30 years ago, because they don’t feel as connected to each other. We have now had three decades of a single social-economic system, administered by Thatcher, Major and Blair, and only mildly mitigated by Gordon Brown, and that is one that put individualism at the heart of British life, a society in which collective being had hitherto been dominant.
Until 1980 the primary political struggle had been over the form collective life would take — socialist, elevating equality, or conservative, elevating tradition. Thatcher changed that, releasing energies good and bad, but above all dissolving the very society she thought she was defending — that of “Victorian values”. The great paradox of the last century was that UK Labour was the guardian of more of that than Thatcher was — just as the European “bicycle” monarchies have only been able to survive in social democracies.
Social democracy mirrors monarchy in affirming that there are social values and institutions that should remain outside the market maw — that having such “sacred” values is essential to having a society in which shared meaning is possible. Both stand against the neoliberalism of the last decades, which is a form of nihilism, dissolving not only meanings (because the market expresses everything in terms of everything else, quantitatively), but the capacity for connection in which self is dissolved.
The more you entrench a society like that, the more you entrench a permanent “solitude together”, in place of collective life, and a mild and persistent melancholy that goes with it — to be obliterated, when too much, by booze or Jesus.
By nationhood too, but where the atomisation process has gone too far, that sense of shared life cannot be retrieved, and many ceremonies become expressions of a rather forlorn yearning for what can no longer be felt (Anzac Day is a supreme example of this). The Brits are not yet at that point, but give them another 20 years, and such ceremonies may feel absurd rather than mysterious. Those flags on the Mall flap in the wind almost petulantly; those pod-tents are cocoons, woven to the barriers, shielding their charges from the harsh world until morning. When, with the clatter of hooves, and rain on the streets, the colony wakes once more.