Friday morning I was late for a dentist’s appointment in Bloomsbury, jumped in a black cab for what I thought would be a five-minute trip. Twenty minutes later, still jammed in a sea of buses near Tavistock Square, the driver and I had formed a temporary two-man republican cell.
“They’ve blocked off all the roads to the river.”
“What, for the Olympics?”
“Naaaaaaah it’s a jubilee rehearsal. It’s a bloody rehearsal.”
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Earlier, we’d slid slowly past a billboard for Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film, The Dictator, a parody of the end days of Middle Eastern fantasists. I’m no strident anti-monarchist, but the traffic snarl — the fourth in as many days — had a ghost of that feeling about it. A city of 8 million, one of the greatest in the world, was being disarranged to run through arrangements for the royal flotilla, when the Queen and Phil would float down the Thames on the royal barge ahead of 1000 ships and boats. That felt a million miles from here, and the ceremony itself felt a million miles from a real public outpouring.
Trapped in a black cab amid sheer walls of red bus, one national symbol within another, the encroaching jubilee seemed about as anti-British as you could get.
I doubt that was the feeling throughout the nation, but it was harder to tell than the fawning newspapers and TV bulletins would suggest. By Friday afternoon, your correspondent had escaped London altogether — on a train so overcrowded with people of the same mind, it may as well have been the last one out of Paris in 1940 — and holed up in a 16th-century cottage buried deep in the bosom of the good old English countryside. Soho, as I left, was primping itself into full-on non-post irony — the Pret a Manger on the corner had a sign outside saying “keep these streets clean for the Queen”. Comptons, the beariest pub on Soho’s gay mile, a place that, most Saturday nights is just sweat and hair, had an enormous three-storey banner of Maj in her ’50s glory days — the photo so blown up that it had bitmapped into some ghastly cubist portrait, deliberately or otherwise it was impossible to say.
Three hours later, in the village, there was a single string of flags across the one main street, and the announcement of a party in the main square for two hours on Monday — not exactly an outpouring of patriotic feeling. But then the Y-shaped pattern of the road in the centre of the place is pre-Roman, pre-Celtic, perhaps 2500 years old, and in those terms, Maj is just a German blow-in.
No, it’s in the suburbs, the vast areas between that things are happening — the parties and barbecues, and that most distinctive of British celebrations, the street luncheon, where an enormous table assembled from everyone’s kitchen tables travels all the way down the street, covered in chintz tablecloths. The ceremony has more than a touch of retro about it these days — a recreation of VE day, an era when the kitchen table really was the centre of the house, and not a “surface”. The BBQ — summery, outdoorsy, privatised, Californian/antipodean — is gaining ground. It depresses me immensely.
Official figures say that there have been about 9000 applications for street party closures, various of which are being featured on TV — and TV is as close as I’m going to get because, well, have you seen the British suburbs? They make Templestowe/Punchbowl/etc look like Ravenna in the late spring. The reports usually feature people who were there for an earlier jubilee, or even the coronation, and there is a bit of mildly moving photoshoppery, old grannies fading into sepia kids, etc.
Organisers say that more than 6 million people have attended “big lunches” celebrating the event, a figure I don’t believe for a second. Indeed, though 9000 street parties may sound like a lot, it is very little compared to earlier jubilees, where the number was into the tens of thousands. Organisers boasted of 300 street parties in Wales, which is a pitiful number, and half the parties in Scotland were concentrated in Edinburgh. There was official vagueness about the numbers who had turned out to watch the 1000-craft flotilla — the whole pageant has taken place over a drizzly weekend — and news reports said the crowd were “10 deep in some places”, which sounds like a less than effusive boast.
We’ll never really know, even in the midst of it, what the numbers were, or what the mass of true feeling was. One thing about giving people a four-day long weekend is that the sense of a genuine release — four days is a real wodge of time, and many people will take three days vacation leave in the rest of the week, to bridge it into a nine-day holiday — manufactures a feeling of joy that can then be officially attributed to the royal festivities. Still there’s been any number of people in Union Jack make-up, spangly hats, etc, around the traps. But you certainly don’t hear in everyday conversation, the sort of thing you hear in the States on July 4 or any one of half a dozen days — spontaneous outpourings of country-love and expressions of uniqueness.
The continued affection for, and attachment to the Queen and the monarchy shouldn’t be understated — it seems to have grown in recent years, after a dip in the years following the death of Diana. Nor is there any great enthusiasm for a republic — could there be anything sadder than attending the wittily titled Republic, the republican pressure group, which held a party near Tower Bridge and drew about 1000 people. Essentially it was 1000 people turning out to say that, given their preferred social arrangements, they would not be here at all, in the rain, reminding millions of others that they disagreed with them.But that affection for the monarchy is a long way from the deeper bonds that attached in earlier times — right up to the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. It has to be remembered that, right up to, say, the mid-1980s, the UK was a far more bonded and focused on culture than it is now. There were three TV channels, dominated by British shows, pop music was overwhelmingly British, there were no European cheap flights, the pub still dominated social life, and industry and its cities had not yet been decimated to the degree that neighbourhoods had collapsed.
Many people were far more fervently left-wing than they are now — but they also felt connected to an organic and class-based culture. They wanted a social democratic society under the aegis of a monarchy. If they thought about monarchic change at all, it was a desire for a north European “bicycle style” monarchy (which has always been a bit of a scam anyway). With the exception of Scotland and Wales, no more than 20% of working-class socialists would have also been republicans.
Now, socialism has gone — but so too has the bounded society from which all classes drew their shared meanings. Three channels have become 300, stag nights go not to the pub but to Prague, and the high street offers a style overwhelmingly oriented to American mythologies — one reason last year’s riots, the anti-jubilee, focused so overwhelmingly on trainers and designer gear. The monarchy has been undermined by the market, its sacred nature profaned by comparison. It has become one meaning among many. Ardent monarchists are united with republicans in regarding the institution as culturally important (its financial and political power is obviously vast) — yet they tend to be two wings of the same elite, biffing it out in op-ed pages no one reads any more.
Sixty years ago, when Elizabeth was crowned, meat, sugar and sweets were still on ration, seven years after the end of the Second World War. Clothes were general issue, drab browns and grey. Holidays were rail trips to seaside towns with stone beaches and terraced rows of B and Bs. For the ceremony, the rationing was relaxed, the papers printed colour brochures, an exotic new dish was invented — coronation chicken, combining curry powder and sultanas, intended to be representative of the Commonwealth — and the parties took place in streets still gapped by bombs, and V2 rockets, a terror that haunted Londoners in the memory for years after.
Then, the chintz tablecloths unfurled like flags, splashes of colour in the grey, a mark of celebration and national survival. The monarchy symbolised collective self-salvation against a nihilistic enemy, reflected the nation back to itself, and people remembered it for months.
This long weekend will barely last in the memory of next weekend, the flotilla a devised stunt, invoking an earlier Elizabeth, product of a committee and a white-board. People enjoyed it, and good luck to them, but it did not solve the monarchy’s problem, that it sits uneasily in a country half global hyperconnected superpower, half burnt-out imperial remnant. But nor did it solve the republicans’ dilemma, that there is not the slightest desire to replace it, nor anything they could offer that would make the act worthwhile. It subsides into traffic jams and missed appointments, jammed red buses and yelling Cockney cabbies.
Nevertheless, I’ll go down tomorrow to the party on the square, pay my respects and hope there’s no sodding Morris dancing, drink at the White Horse, to the viridian fields of the valley rising either side, in a town that had a larger population in 800 AD than it does now, glad of more than just the passport, grateful to be part of a place where the soil daily still turns out coins and bones and rings, fragments of life and love across the millennia, before these kings, before this state, but of these people.