This Jubilee business really is just like hillwalking. You need a rucksack, rations, warm layers and a waterproof shell. You know it will rain, it’s just a question of when and how hard. It’s a long walk in, surrounded by hordes of like-minded people, then there’s a brief moment of triumph and a long tired trudge home with a warm glow for a nice cup of tea.
In a 10-deep crowd on the Mall, surrounded by similarly kitted-out people munching on cheese sandwiches, there’s a moment of clarity that this is what makes us British: our ability to turn out in the damp with sarnies and waterproofs and make a day of it.
OK there are some key differences. Crowd etiquette raises new questions that you’ve never had to consider on Helvellyn. There are women standing on plastic stools. Now that’s all very well if you’re the woman on the plastic stool, but what if you’re the woman behind the woman on the stool? And are cardboard periscopes socially acceptable? Good for you, a view-blocker for the good folks further back.
My particular section of Mall life has some drunken and rather unpleasant young office workers, one of whom expresses apparently genuine outrage that a blind person with a guide dog is taking up space.
There’s a three-month-old baby, who’ll be told of this day he doesn’t remember for the rest of his life; a woman who looks older than the queen; some chatty folks from Ashford and a couple of families you could only call rather boring. These are the Queen’s Englanders, cheering everything from the policemen to the roadsweepers, doing Mexican waves and quite happy to share the moment with complete strangers.
Every now and then a random handful of soldiers or policemen marches past, presumably to keep the crowd’s appetite whetted.
At one point a band of bear-skinned soldiers marches up the Mall and does a U-turn right in front of us. Nice of the organisers to include a tribute to the current government as part of the day’s events.
When the final moment comes, in a cacophony of horses’ hooves and booming gunfire, the line of sight all but vanishes. Everyone raises two arms, not to wave, but to point their mobiles at the Queen to take photographs. This, combined with the other vision-blockers like those infernal cardboard periscopes and toddlers hoisted onto shoulders, render a proper view all but impossible. So back to the hillwalking analogy: It’s the being there, not the view, that counts, just like the top of Helvellyn in cloud.
In the final push up the Mall, most people are behaving with quiet restraint but others are displaying their finest motorway queue-jumping techniques, weaving and pushing in, trying to get – what – a whole two feet further forward. Some of the Queen’s loyal subjects are not team players.
At the palace, with 1.5 million others stretching back like a giant snake down the flag-covered Mall, I suspect I’m not the only one who didn’t expect to find themselves there, cheering on a fundamentally undemocratic institution and looking for all the world like a Daily Mail reader.
But whether or not I’m a monarchist I’m certainly a queenist. You have to admire a woman who recovered from sudden shocking bereavement at the age of 25 and stuck at running the family business she inherited for the next 60 years.
She and Phil the Greek have seen the cults of Blair and Thatcher come and go, fashions fade and superpowers wane. They’ve bred their very own British dysfunctional family, and we’ve journeyed with them from full-on stiff-upper-lippery to people who’ve finally begun learning it’s OK to react outwardly to inner emotion. To see half the royal party jigging up and down at the end of the Thames pageant to the Sailor’s Hornpipe was a joy. Diana’s influence lives on and not just in her sons.
I went to the Mall as a teenager to celebrate Diana’s wedding before I – and the nation – had realised she’d apparently been selected for her breeding potential rather than for love. I went back for her funeral, feeling vaguely ashamed at having been part of the lie and very sad at the way it all turned out.
Today I was back as a tiny mark of respect to a woman who’s kept putting one foot in front of the other through six decades of trial and triumph. She seems to have a personal faith and be unafraid to admit to it. She’s a woman of substance.
Yes she’s been born to a life of great privilege. She’s never had to rummage round to see if she’s got enough coins to buy a Mars Bar, or choose between food and heating. Yes she likes shooting things that some of us just love admiring. But I wouldn’t swap a public privileged life for a private impecunious one, and I suspect most people wouldn’t either if they’re honest.
Whether or not a royalist, yes I’m a queenist. And for the doubters I have two terrifying words for you: President Blair.