The pageant: glimpses and reflections…
Two cultural events this month have provided illuminating insights – at a macro and micro level – into so much of what makes 21st century Britain tick.
In author Martin Amis' new novel, Lionel Asbo, the Lotto Lout hero wins £150 million whilst in jail and becomes tabloid-famous overnight, picking up a glamour-model girlfriend along the way. Typifying the X-Factor famous-for-15 minutes phenomenon that pervades life in the 'Noughties', the protagonist's fame and money don't prove life-affirming, however. He misses his old life and even misses jail (‘You know where you are in prison’).
2012 also marks not only the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, but also the 20th anniversary of her 'annus horribilis', 1992: a year that seemed to symbolise a monarchy in terminal decline. It’s quite illuminating two decades on to recall that Charles and Diana's separation, Princess Anne's divorce and the inferno at Windsor Castle were only three examples of a car-crash momentum that appeared inexorable at the time.
Analogies between then and now aren't difficult to draw, for the focused efforts that led from that monarchical 'dark hour' right through to this month's triumphant weekend of celebration, complete with concert, church service and water-borne procession, would bear translation to the deep seated issues that are currently affecting the Queen's 60 million or so subjects. If they can get it right in time, can’t we, too?
Enough of the negatives, for Pageant day itself proved more than uplifting. Setting off with scant regard for the forecast rain, this Sunday morning resembles rush-hour as a million-plus people pour into London. We are wrapped within a life-affirming capsule onboard the Tube: excited flag-bearing children are cheek by jowl with exotic Great British Eccentrics. Alongside me in the Jubilee Line carriage, one young man nonchalantly adjusts his look-alike chain mail and jousting tabard with nary a trace of embarrassment.
Our instinct, once we arrive at Waterloo, is to keep moving and soak up the ambience imbued by an event that Guinness World Records will later confirm as the largest parade of boats ever seen. This scale of event hasn’t been witnessed since a flotilla welcomed Charles II’s new Portuguese bride in 1662, when Samuel Pepys described ‘a thousand barges and boats, for we could see no water for them’.
Walking east along the Thames-side footpath is no easy feat though – not owing to the crowds, as it happens, but because several riverside areas are closed off by corporate takeovers. Forced to bypass them with ‘inland’ detours, we’re reminded of some recent criticisms by the Thames Diamond Jubilee Foundation chairman. Charged with fundraising for the £12m cost of the Pageant, Lord Salisbury censured the corporate events being hosted on the river by City banks and leading UK companies which snubbed appeals to sponsor the very occasion from which they’re feeding.
It is by a circuitous route, therefore, that we reach the Millennium Bridge, where in front of Tate Modern the BBC’s giant screen reminds us that the river craft are nearing. Yet a television would afford more of a view than we have, right next to the Thames. Ironic, then, that here is UKTV Gold, handing out branded self-assemble periscopes – not an advantage afforded to spectators at the Queen’s June 1953 Coronation.
Our optical aids allow us to see the craft now sailing past, but a better view would still assist and a helpfully vacated walkway bench opens an opportunity… But it’s sited right behind an outdoor catering area set up for the occasion and security staff from the Tate are soon on our case, imploring us to step down for health and safety protection. Not to ensure ours, of course, but doubtless to avoid invalidating the venue’s own insurance. InjuryLawyers4You? My companion and I argue gamely, standing our ground in both senses. But the issue won’t defuse and we take pity on the reasonable supervisor’s plea that he’ll lose his job.
It’s soon sheeting with the promised rain and, with most of the procession now passed, we turn the Tate’s helpfully cavernous area into a makeshift shelter. Another supervisor proves tolerant and we proffer a reciprocal bowl of strawberries. It’s not as upmarket as the wristband controlled party venues nearby, but it’s a whole lot more genuine…
Outside, though, the sodden walkway is a sea of rubbish left for someone else to clear. Now would that have happened 60 years ago?