Monday, June 11, 2012


Over here, we are only just recovering from Diamond Jubilee fever as we celebrated Queen Elizabeth II's sixty years on the throne with all the pomp and circumstance we could muster.

What a country describes as its history is just the story it likes to tell itself.  Britain's narrative has featured both tragedy and comedy over the years but there was no mistaking the category last week end: romance, the love of a nation for its sovereign lady.

I'd have to say some of the manifestations of this affection were a little odd, like subjecting Her Majesty to a three-hour pop concert, when she was seen discreetly inserting ear-plugs.  And then there was the Thames boat pageant.

That told, perhaps, the most significant story in the whole weekend. Of necessity,Britain is a sea-faring nation: thirty per cent of the population live within six miles of the sea; no one more than seventy miles away. We love our boats and the Thames has been our royal river for a thousand years.

Admittedly, the weather was terrible. We saw the Queen using her throne as a windbreak and the ninety-year-old Duke of Edinburgh hospitalised the next day, after standing (all the time) in the cold for two and a half hours.

Despite the teeming rain, 1.2 million people watched from the banks.  But then, our weather is part of our history too.  'God blew his winds and they were scattered,' the first Queen Elizabeth said when storms saved England from the Spanish Armada.

Each different squadron in the procession spoke of our past.  In among the Olympic rowers on the gilded barge, Gloriana, which led it was a soldier, disabled in Afghanistan.  Fifty small boats, rowed by youngsters from all over the world, carried Commonwealth flags.   The unique floating belfry had its peals echoed from churches on either side of the river, then picked up in the shires and on out through the country – ten thousand peals sounding celebration just as at one time they would have signalled danger.  There were tall ships and warships and lifeboats and fireboats.

The most poignant moment was the squadron of 'little boats' – fifty of the original seven hundred, sailed by ordinary folk, that crossed the Channel to Dunkirk in the early days of the war when the army was trapped by the speed of the German advance, saving 350,000 troops when hope was all but gone.  One of the men who answered the call that day and one of the soldiers who was rescued – both in their nineties – weer reunited.

The Queen's barge was of course the focal point, as indeed our monarchs have been a focal point for our history.  In the modern world a monarchy, even a democratic one, is a curious institution, but we like it.  Indeed, if a republic was declared tomorrow, HM would win a presidential election with a landslide majority.

The barge she sat in didn't exactly gleam on the water, given the rain, but the designers had certainly done their best.  The result, to be frank, was a bit kitsch, with red velvet and OTT gold leaf,  but then when it comes to royal occasions we've always liked a bit of bling – scarlet and gold uniforms, gold coaches, crowns with socking great diamonds...

We didn't get the promised fly-past – too dangerous – but somehow it was even more fitting that the finale should be the London  Symphony Orchestra, with a choir of young singers belting out 'Land of Hope and Glory', giving it all they'd got as the rain streamed down their faces.  It was – well, it was awfully British, even if it's a bit difficult to keep a stiff upper lip while you're singing a top A.

Yes, I'm mocking it, a bit.  But with the boats spread out all across the river, just like one of Canaletto's London paintings, and Tower Bridge opening up to salute as the Queen's barge approached, it wasn't just history; it was poetry too.  And I have to confess to a patriotic lump in my throat.

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