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“Can you tell me what’s happening? Has it started?”
The woman in front of me had travelled down from Chesterfield in Derbyshire and couldn’t see a thing.
“Horses,” I said, “I think they’re the Life Guards” and I took some video of the passing, mounted soldiers on my phone and showed it to her.
I had promised Byline Times that I would come up to town on the day of the Coronation and write about the mood on the streets. But I had another agenda too. I wanted to know if any of this would elicit any feelings of pride or patriotism within me.
We had left later than planned and arrived in Charing Cross on an almost empty train at about 8 a.m. – only to fairly, easily make it down to The Mall where we had fallen in behind the rest of the crowd.
“My son lives up in Camden,” my cheerful new friend continued, “and he’s away for the weekend so we thought we’d borrow his flat and come and watch the Coronation. Are you local?”
“Yes,” I said and then not really knowing what to add and steering clear of my actual reasons for being there, looked skyward and said: “isn’t it a pity about the rain.”
“I’m alright” she said tapping her plastic Union Jack hat “just a pity I can’t see anything.”
I offered to put her on my shoulders, and we laughed.
Crowds are curious things and I have seen my share of them in this spot over the years. One of my earliest childhood memories is of standing near the spot we were now on, waving a Union Flag as the Queen passed by during her 1977 Silver Jubilee. Up until that moment I had viewed the Queen in much the same way that I think I viewed God. A sort of benign figure who dwelt above us and who, we were told, we should all be very grateful to have – despite nobody really being able to articulate why.
I was here twenty years later in 1997 too on the morning following the death of Princess Diana – when a peculiar, insurrectionist mood gripped the streets and parkland around Buckingham Palace. And I popped up last year for both the Platinum Jubilee and the funeral of HM Queen – although on those occasions it was impossible to get anywhere near the action as everyone decided that they would take part in a piece of history.
What always strikes me about these Royal events is that the Brueghelian nature of the crowd is far more interesting than the actual event. For many it (seems) that being there is not so much a ‘show of loyalty’ or even affection for the crown – although yes inevitably some people might be there for that purpose – but more a grand day out. In short, many people come simply because they are drawn by the spectacle.
For despite what the BBC and broadcast media might have you believe – many millions of Britons are essentially Royalist agnostics. The latest YouGov poll – held ahead of the Coronation found that while 58% thought the monarchy was ‘good for Britain’ a considerable 36% either thought it was bad or had no opinion on the matter either way.
Now of course 58% is still a sizeable majority, but the bad news for the Windsors is that there is a sizeable demographic shift the younger you go. So while 77% of Britons over 65 think the monarchy is a good thing, just 48% of 25–49-year-olds agree and in the 18–24-year-old bracket things are decidedly republican – with just 32% of young British people thinking that the institution benefits Britain.
In our little (albeit unscientific) corner of The Mall all segments of the crowd were represented. There was indeed a very enthusiastic group of monarchists, draped head to toe in flags who were talking loudly among themselves and reacting in exaggerated manner to everything that was happening, but the woman from Derbyshire had, as far as I could tell, essentially come down for a weekend trip, while many of the people in my immediate vicinity were tourists. There was a Danish couple drinking beer, a Texan woman who ‘just happened to be in London and thought she’d come along’ and a family of French expats who had come to watch the parade. There were several families with young kids – doing what young families with young kids do – and trying to wear them out.
I confess that I was quite enjoying the banter – and there was no internet signal which forced me to focus entirely on what was going on – but despite that I found it hard to summon up much emotion about the event. And that was in stark contrast to the last time I was here because despite my republican feelings on the institution I did feel a genuine pang of regret when the Queen died last year. Yes, she was 96 years old and yes, she had had a fabulously privileged life – but there was always something faintly reassuring about her presence. Like the sky above our heads and the pavement beneath our feet she was a constant.
Could it be possible to ever feel the same way about King Charles III? Would I feel a thrill at glimpsing him in his gilded carriage?
One of the most surprising, and least reported aspects of these royal events is just how many people are there to make money. When we arrived in The Mall, at around 8.30 a.m. the ice cream and Pimm’s vendors were already doing brisk trade. You could get a ‘souvenir programme’ for a tenner and people were flogging all manner of plastic crap including ‘coronation glasses’ for a fiver which were being hawked with the line:
“Be a king for the day… or a queen for the day…. whoever you want to be!”
It wasn’t just plastic tat that was being sold. So too was the monarchy itself.
On giant TV screens short films were being played that talked up the day’s events and the people involved. There was a cartoon that told the story of the Stone of Scone and a film that made much of the new King’s green credentials even – as beneath the screen – Royal Parks staff removed discarded tents, sandwich boxes and bottles that had been abandoned by those who had camped out. Clearly the love England’s green and pleasant land did not extend to royal fans taking their detritus home with them.
Occasional announcements asked us not to frighten the horses and to avoid using flashes even as an extremely noisy helicopter buzzed low overhead.
Every now and then there was a distant rumble – which several amongst us mistook for the sound of an approaching drum roll but which was in fact the noise of portaloo doors – slamming loudly in unison.
Eventually the sound of martial music and the clopping of hooves announced that the royal party really was approaching. The Royal carriage went by, and Charles and Camilla gave half obscured regal waves through the window and were gone. Behind them through one of the tinted windows of a limousine, I glimpsed the unmistakable silhouette of Prince Andrew.
We could have waited and seen them come back again – but we decided to make our way up to Trafalgar Square instead. Earlier in the morning, I had spotted members of the Republic Campaign group there, just to the side of the lonely statue of Charles I – with yellow banner half unfurled and thought it might be good to chat to some of the people in the demo.
But as we made our way back in that direction, past crowds eager to take our place on The Mall, I got my signal back on my phone and saw on twitter that Graham Smith and other members of the group had been arrested, pre-emptively, apparently on the evidence of a two-week-old Daily Mail headline.
Just beyond Canada House, on the edge of the square there was a lively demonstration of yellow clad republicans going on – and another group advancing to join them but in the swell of people, it was impossible to get any further.
“Fucking republicans,” a man muttered under his breath – as the police directed us up towards Haymarket.
That afternoon we were invited to a local street party and ate cake and drank wine. It was a good event and a nice excuse to get together with neighbours and friends but what was curious about the afternoon was that practically none of us present actually spoke about the King, the coronation or anything to do with it apart from those arrests.
As the rest of the weekend played out – as the Windsor concert dominated the TV schedules and as I dipped in and out of the news and twitter I was struck forcibly by a growing sense of injustice and anger about those arrests. Even as right wingers on social media mocked any comparison to totalitarian states – even as ‘free speech’ advocates turned a blind eye to events and even as the news media continued its monsoon of obsequious coverage, I began to feel a sort of despair.
Because whatever your feelings about monarchy or this country – whatever your views on the culture wars and Brexit – you might hope that this group of islands on which we dwell had reached a stage – not only where we get a choice in who our head of state is but also where those who question the entitlement of a hereditary monarch are able to voice their opinions.
In its place we are offered a prevailing culture in which republicanism remains a cause that dares not speak its name and which if it does – is silenced by the state. A culture in which Royal coverage is overtly flattering, never questioning and which props up a class system and a single family which has the right to rule over us all in perpetuity.
So my trip to London on Saturday was not wasted. Watching the coverage and the parade itself and the King and Queen consort passing by did make me feel something after all.
And in a word – it was rage.
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