Diamond Jubilee…like a wet weekend in Southend

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Au...

Queen Elizabeth II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, that was the Jubilee then. A strange time to be back in London, the streets hung with bunting dripping in the rain, Union flags hanging limp, the skies grey, pictures of the Queen everywhere, the air cold and damp.

Just across from where I live, the local pub was festooned with red, white and blue balloons, and there was a lifesize cardboard cut-out of the queen with drizzle running down it. The fish-and-chip shop next door was busy. At one point, some one called for three cheers for the Queen. It felt more like a holiday weekend in an English seaside resort in the 1960s than a once-in-a-lifetime, historic event.

A million people lined the Thames to watch some small boats going by. In the pub, I half expected Sid James to pop up behind the bar and serve me a pint of mild.

The streets were full of drunks, but they were the benevolent, gentle sort. A lot of people were wearing fancy dress, pretty girls in tiaras and short skirts, who must have been freezing in the rain. I saw one man dressed up as a red letter box. A woman had wrapped herself in a damp Union flag, but it looked more to keep warm than in any great declaration of patriotism.

“It’s really weird, the streets are full of people with flags,” I overheard an American tourist say into her mobile phone. Well, yes, but isn’t the US like that every 4th July? They only do it in Britain once a decade or so.

Despite the pomp and ceremony of the official events, the whole thing seemed remarkably free of bombast and nationalism.  It reeked more of nostalgia.

And of a certain gentleness. There was none of the rage of that earlier Jubilee, Johnny Rotten snarling “No future” into a microphone as the Sex Pistols sailed by, though it would have been curiously apt for a new age of austerity, the vainglory of the Blair years in tatters.  But then even John Lydon’s become a nostalgia act these days, and it seems there are no successors.

Where was it all leading, this strange, insipid nostalgia? There was something beguiling in it, the sense of a nation at ease with itself, that could celebrate without displays of military might or declarations of some God-given destiny, that seemed happiest revelling in an echo of a long-forgotten time, like the last campers huddling from the rain at an old-time holiday camp.

But that seemed dishonest. These bunting-hung streets, after all, were the same ones that were decked with fire in last year’s riots, the economy is still slipping away, public discontent with government cuts still simmers, London’s mix of races and cultures still rub uneasily against each other.

Perhaps there was a sense of all that in the quiet way they celebrated. In the Blair years,  the whole thing would have been more triumphalist.

Instead, with nothing much to celebrate in the present, and the future grim, Britain looked back yearningly at the past, like an old couple enjoying one last turn together on the dance floor.


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