Our children didn’t care about the rain or crowds because this was a spectacle they’ll never forget.
For a thousand years, kings and queens have featured in every chapter of our island story. We learn their dates in school — along with those of Shakespeare, Nelson and Churchill — and we are taught that some were good, some bad. I think what most of us were doing over the four-day Diamond Jubilee “weekend” was thanking our Queen, Elizabeth II, for being one of the good ones.
We did it through toasts, through songs, through laughing at ourselves as we stood out in the rain waving our miniature Union flags. We even, in our eccentric way, took some pride in our contrary British weather. No wonder foreigners think us mad.
I loved Sir Terry Wogan’s comment that the river pageant was much more “romantic” and “impressionistic” because the boats disappeared into the mist. That’s the spirit. Hypothermia be damned. For many of us the abiding image of the celebrations was of the pretty choristers from the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir sailing past drenched to the skin, mascara running down their faces, singing their hearts out.
Some of the placards in the crowd went further than “good” and claimed greatness for Her Majesty. “Elizabeth the Great” has a ring to it and might yet stick. Who knows? One thing is certain, everyone who took part in the Jubilee celebrations, whether it was watching the lighting of a beacon, putting up bunting, or attempting to imitate the Grace Jones hoola-hoop dance at a street party, felt they were taking part in something of genuine historical significance. There isn’t likely to be another Diamond Jubilee for at least a century. Perhaps this was the last. Again, who knows?
That is why my wife and I, like many parents, felt it important for our children to witness the events first hand, whatever the weather, however daunting the million-strong crowds. They will remember them for the rest of their lives and think: I was there.
A friend of ours invited us to a party in a disused office block overlooking the Thames. With its bunting and flags covering holes in the walls, it was like a punks’ squat, circa 1977, but it was perfect and we all drank toasts from red, white and blue paper cups, knowing we didn’t have to be at work the next day.
And the moment when the flotilla of man-powered boats appeared — Venetian gondoliers and war-painted Maoris among them — was like wandering in to someone else’s dream. Those among our friends who hadn’t done their homework thought that the Gloriana was the royal barge, and, until they were told otherwise, found themselves cheering and shouting “there she is!” when they saw a woman in green: HM Clare Balding.
When the real Queen arrived dressed in regal white aboard the Spirit of Chartwell there was no mistaking her, and we all burst into a chorus of “God Save The Queen”. (Just the first verse, obviously). What was striking was that the men, who are normally more self-conscious about these things than the women and children, were singing with the most passion. And it wasn’t just because of the drink. Our feelings of patriotism were, for once, uncomplicated.
The next day the bunting was out in our local market town, Petersfield in Hampshire, and, to a backdrop of a tug-of-war, fancy dress parade and a vintage car rally, dozens of families staged what amounted to a Carry On version of the river pageant: a race around the island on the lake in DIY “boats”. I haven’t laughed so much in ages. My friend Stewart and his sons came second to last after capsizing several times in a Heath Robinson contraption made from two barrels and some planks, but the cheers from the crowd soon warmed them up.
Inspired by this spectacle we took a boat out on the lake ourselves, a proper one. My children rowed while I made whip-lash noises. And, for once, it was correct to call the flag we were flying from our bow a Union Jack.
Economists may have objected to the two bank holidays, but that evening, as we watched the concert at Buckingham Palace knowing we could drink another toast and again not worry about work next day, we really did feel as if we had stepped out of our lives and escaped, however briefly, the depressing talk of double-dip recessions. Thinking about history gives you perspective. We’ve seen worse. We’ll get through this. Take your lead from the Queen: keep calm and carry on.
There were lows as well as highs. How sad that the Duke of Edinburgh couldn’t be by Her Majesty’s side for some of the events. But at least his absence led to one of the most moving moments of the Jubilee: when the crowd started chanting “Philip! Philip!” Even the ever-stoical Queen seemed to wobble a bit when she heard that.
The crowd had been prompted by the Prince of Wales, who delivered a perfectly judged speech, much of it off the cuff. The rest of us wanted to show the Queen how much she means to us and he managed to put that meaning into words when he thanked “Mummy” on our behalf “for making us proud to be British”.
As always with these events, there were some amusing cock-ups, such as the way the American stars at the concert kept referring to the Queen’s birthday. Technically it was, but the official birthday was slightly missing the point. Will-i-am managed to get it wrong on several levels when he called out, “Happy birthday, Majesty!”
The BBC’s cock-ups were less forgivable. Would Richard or David Dimbleby have referred to Her Royal Highness the Queen? Would they have commented on a Jubilee-themed sick bag? Would they have made reference to Nelson’s hat at Waterloo?
But credit where it’s due, the BBC did point the cameras in the right direction for the concert, the unexpected highlight of which was Madness on the roof. The combination of Our House “in the middle of one’s street” and that glorious lightshow projected on Buckingham Palace to make it look like a row of terraced houses seemed both witty and profound.
Of course the Windsors are not an ordinary family living in an ordinary house, but as the Duke’s illness reminded us, we are the subjects not of gilded icons but of living, breathing people. They have good and bad years the same as the rest of us, even if they do sometimes refer to them in Latin. And the genius of monarchy is that it allows you to unite as a nation around one family — one family that represents all families. The Queen is every wife, every mother, every grandmother. She even joins us in our homes on Christmas Day, at 3pm.
I think all the great republics in the world, even America, must have felt a twinge of envy when they watched the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and appreciated how effortlessly this sentiment works. Much as Americans may admire Barack Obama — well, the half who voted for him — his children are not a relevant part of the American story.
When we saw the slimmed-down monarchy on the balcony, the Queen with the Prince of Wales to her left, and the Duke of Cambridge to her right, we were reminded that monarchy is about parents, children and grandchildren. And not just theirs. As many people said in vox pops, this family feels like our extended family. “I literally feel like Her Majesty is the grandmother I’ve never met,” one man said outside St Paul’s.
It’s not so surprising. We have grown up with them, as they have with us. When Prince Charles succeeds to the throne, we will have been following his life since his birth. It’s The Truman Show with fanfares, palaces and crowns. The same will apply to Prince William. Our house. Our tribe. Our chief.
At Westminster Hall, Master Mercer Thomas Sheldon addressed the Queen and said: “You are our constant in a changing world.” That caught the mood well. He might have added that it’s a cynical world, and that she, in her calm and selfless way, has been cynicism’s opposite.
The next day, while the rest of us nursed our hangovers and got back to those depressing headlines — atrocities in Syria, financial meltdown in Spain — she went back to work, meeting heads of the Commonwealth, proving once more her stamina and dedication. The show must go on, even when her husband is in hospital. Duty first.
A belief in monarchy is not entirely rational, let’s face it, but it seems to work for us. It suits our national temperament. We have a prime minister as well as a sovereign, but in a two- or three-party system he or she will only ever have the support of less than half the population. The Queen, who we don’t vote for, can be Queen to everyone. And according to a recent ICM poll, nearly two thirds of the population like it that way — a far higher percentage than liked it when polled back in 1946, before she became Queen.
It is also worth remembering that we don’t have a national day in this country, no equivalent of Independence Day or Bastille Day. Remembrance Sunday is the closest we get, but that is an occasion for solemn commemoration, not celebration. What we have instead is the occasional royal event in which the lives of the Royal family seem to dovetail with our own.
That is one of the reasons why people waited out all night to see the Queen process past in the State landau, accompanied by a hundred guardsmen on horseback, their uniforms electrifying against the grey stone of Whitehall.
It’s become a commonplace to say it but, my goodness, we do these things well. Apart from the pageantry and the precision it should be mentioned that there were no sinkings, no tramplings, no terrorist attacks.
It is telling that one of the reasons we won the Olympic bid was that Lord Coe took along a DVD of the Golden Jubilee and said: “See? This is what we can do.” All the great London landmarks featured in the Diamond Jubilee: from St Paul’s and Tower Bridge, to Buckingham Palace and Big Ben. What a tourist advertisement that was, one that will bring in far more revenue than was lost through us having an extra bank holiday.
But that’s not what the Jubilee was about. Not really. It was about being physically cold and damp yet feeling warm. It was about an inscrutable Queen who never gives interviews sending a clear message to us that the monarchy will be safe in her son’s hands; that we must trust her on this.
It was also about scale, the very grand and the very small. Miniature plastic flags may not have the aesthetic appeal of those gorgeous, silky giants billowing down the Mall to their vanishing point at Admiralty Arch, but they, along with those on the paper plates, mugs and novelty bathmats, reminded us how cheerful and bright are the colours of our national flag.
Above all, I think, the Diamond Jubilee was about nationhood and the eternal narrative of family. Theirs, yours, ours.