In case you missed it, the last four days here in the UK has been a funny old time. The nation has been on holiday for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II who has been on the throne now for sixty years. It was a big event for a big anniversary but the most powerful moments were the small intimate ones. I am not a great celebrator of our nation’s, in my opinion, immature need for its toffs and hierarchies but I have grown to respect the Queen for her work in that funny old job of being Queen. I don’t think many thinking people disagreed with me this weekend especially when, her husband suddenly hospitalised, she was seen as that rather lonely figure walking up the aisle at St Paul’s Cathedral for the service of thanksgiving. Lonely but stoical, dignified and quietly confident that she has the strength to see this job through being the figurehead for a nation no longer great in so many ways but still with an ethos worth preserving.
It might well be that it’s just that we all like the opportunity to show off the family jewels at times like this. The Queen is one of those jewels, it’s not just the diamonds and the golden carriages, she somehow fills the tiny focal point at the centre of all that pomp and circumstance perfectly but bizarrely. A little woman, the diminutive head of state for a little country that has known better days but still somehow manages to find something in itself to be proud of. London is a gem amongst these gems, a fantastic piece of stage design. Whether it was St Paul’s, the great cathedral designed by Christopher Wren, shown in its full magnificence during that service, the River Thames with the historic buildings on its banks or the Mall, the setting for either a noble procession of golden carriages and soldiers in scarlet or a vibrant crowd of Brits dressed stupidly but enthusiastically in the Union Jack. I would find being there much too claustrophobic but I had to admire the sheer chutzpah of those crowds who spent the weekend standing around in the cold and the rain in the spirit of celebration.
Buckingham Palace fits the bill too – actually rather a dull piece of architecture but, to use that tired cliche, an icon for our constitutional monarchy with its balcony where monarch can stand and wave to enormous crowds and were enormous crowds can see the monarch.
This time, with the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, still in hospital, there was a smaller than usual group of royals up there. It was a shame about Philip but we didn’t miss any of the others. It was a sign, deliberate or not, that if we are to continue with this eccentric constitutional system, that it is time to size it down to it basic essentials. I would be much less uncomfortable about Britain’s grossest elitist social structure if we ditched all those lords and ladies and just kept the weirdly practical constitution of hereditary monarchy with a monarch and her immediate descendants. I was happy to see her up there with her heir, Charles and his second wife, the increasingly likeable and fun Camilla and Charles’ heir, the likeable but dim, William and the woman he has chosen for his wife and for the “spare” heir, Harry. Could we just stick with them please?
I think the time has come to ditch the others – nobody wants to or needs to see Princes Andrew and Edward any more – we’ve had enough of their cock-ups and we’ve recognised their lack of talent and charm – they now represent everything that is unattractive and unnecessary in our society.
I might make an unpopular exception here though – since the largely mocked Princess Michael of Kent married the queen’s cousin Michael, we can see that not all royals need to be unattractive. Prince Michael’s family do seem to be winning the looks in the Royal house of Windsor and they actually looked stylish at the St Paul’s service.
There is of course a new aristocracy in Britain as we saw at that strangely British event, the rock concert that the Queen threw outside Buckingham Palace. Here were the last, I hope, representatives of Britain’s long line of Knights and ladies, Sir Tom Jones, Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney and not forgetting Dame Shirley Bassey. As a piece of entertainment it had some sensational lighting effects and a memorable performance by the great American singer Stevie Wonder but apart from that it was a very British affair, dare I say mostly naff performances from singers whose voices waved them and us goodbye a long time ago. Actually I don’t include the perennial Sir Tom Jones in that description, his voice is still a phenomenon.
The most memorable performance was, yet again, the most intimate. It took Prince Charles, so often naff and embarrassing, to grasp the moment with a speech that cut the crap and in his very eccentric way got to the heart of the matter. It was a speech about the weather, afternoon tea, his “mummy” and it led to a charming crowd rouser when he called for a cheer to wish his father well. the crowd roared its response in what was probably the loudest burst of cheering of the whole weekend. Charles may have just earned his place as heir to the throne – funny old chap as he is.
Judging by the pre-publicity, the main event was the river pageant. We were told that it was the biggest flotilla of ships ever and stuff like that and, I suppose, it might have looked more interesting from the banks of the Thames than it did on television where it was made almost unwatchable by the banal and ill-prepared BBC commentary that seemed to miss the spirit of the event by treating its audience as if we were all as stupid as some of their commentators proved themselves. Famously now, of course, it was the weather that grabbed the headlines and, from what I hear, it was a miserably cold and wet experience for most of those people crowding the banks and bridges along the Thames – made more so for some of the crowd who waited for hours for a view only to be blocked at the last minute by boats with champagne guzzling “banker” types mooring in front of them.
I don’t really think the Queen enjoyed it – well, she didn’t look as if she was – but she stuck it out and she and the rest of us were rewarded by what I thought was the high point of the entire weekend.
Nothing was as inspiring or symbolic of the occasion than that choir standing in the torrential rain singing Land Of Hope And Glory. Elgar wrote the unbeatable tune and learned to regret the jingoistic words that someone attached to it without his approval and yet, it works somehow. When these young singers, wonderful of voice and guts, sang about Britain being “mother of the free” well we kinda hope that it might be true – some good things involving freedom have certainly come out of Britain over the last couple of centuries but we mostly concentrate on the bad things. When it goes on to us wanting our boundaries to be set “wider and wider” and God making us “mightier yet” I think we all know that we gave up foolish imperial dreams a very long time ago but, hey, song lyrics work their magic in more than literal ways and we often don’t listen to all the words. There was a spirit displayed by those vibrant young singers, so British-looking in their ethnic mix, with their grins and wide-eyed enthusiasm and, yes, with their complete dedication to the whole naffness and silliness of the event standing on a boat in the rain and singing songs about a little island’s greatness to a little old lady on a barge in front of millions of people. It is that spirit that I would like to see “mightier yet”.
Now Britain may not rule the World militarily, economically or culturally any more, and I for one don’t care about that in the least, but there was definitely a lump in my throat when I listened to those singers who encapsulated the importance and the uncomfortableness of freedom – freedom to say what you want, freedom to feel OK about your own way of life and, if you want to, to look very silly indeed. That’s how we should extol this funny little island, this land of bad weather, cups of tea, bad food, terrible trains, old rockers, an eccentric but strangely effective constitution headed by an eccentric old lady who is loved without ever really tried to be lovable. Heaven help us, we’re broke, we’ve got a government run by idiots, we’ve fallen out with our friends in Europe, our public services are drained of resources, and we still suffer from dreadful inequalities but those of us who were “born of thee” or born to become a part of thee, have reason enough to stand and sing soggily and enthusiastically on this eccentric weekend of celebration.