The jubilee long weekend was heralded with images of the Queen’s 70 years projected on to the sarsens of Stonehenge, the only other tourist attraction of comparable steadfastness. It will end tomorrow with the 260-year-old gilded royal state coach parading down the Mall without its most familiar occupant, but with scenes from her unprecedented reign projected on to the carriage windows. The Queen travelled in this coach to her wedding and her coronation, waved from it at her silver and golden jubilee processions; there will be poignant symbolism in it advancing without her.
It is quite a while since she was a dancing queen, but her presence at the jubilee celebration has been a little reminiscent of the “Abbatars” currently entertaining audiences at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. She has been both there and not there.
In among the celebrations – whether the popping of patriotic prosecco on the Mall, or the sinking of innumerable jubilee lagers across the land; the soaring high notes of St Paul’s choristers, or the thud of We Will Rock You in front of the palace – this was also part of a long goodbye that began with her solitary attendance at Prince Philip’s funeral last year. The palace has a private lexicon of euphemism for the difficulties of what Sadiq Khan referred to as “a 24/7 job at 96”. The Queen’s understandable withdrawal from her own party was explained first by “mobility issues” and then by her “experiencing discomfort”.
Her absence audience-tested the institution’s biggest challenge: the ongoing ability of the monarchy to draw a flag-waving crowd, and a vast television audience, without her. If there is a saving grace of having a chosen family as the standard bearer of state, it is that it never grows old. In the few minutes in which she took the salute from her household cavalry, the Queen looked weary next to her “youthful” consort, the Duke of Kent, 86. She was restored to smiles in the role of great-grandmother to Louis in his sailor suit, as a large crowd cheered the Red Arrows flypast.
Green Park on Thursday was recast in red, white and blue. Picknickers had little interest in debating the future of the institution. Young and old had the same lines: “She always puts the country first, and always will, unlike politicians”; “In all these years she has never put a foot wrong”; “We had to come from [Kent, Somerset, Wales, Scotland … ] just to show how much she is loved”. The scandal of her second son generally “makes me sad, she’s an old lady, she doesn’t need it”. And the pantomime had a predictable villain: “Harry was wonderful until he married that dreadful woman.”
I watched trooping the colour from the galleries set up in front of the palace. The rest of the crowd were old soldiers from the British Legion, for whom thoughts of Queen and country are movingly linked with finest hours. “No other country can do this,” I kept hearing, as we watched men in gold braid on horses pass by, carrying tubas. Eavesdropped quotes: “Oh, she’ll go past Louis XIV’s 72 years, no problem” and, “These red coats always remind me of that scene in Zulu.”
Another widespread conviction, that the whole world was watching, was borne out to a degree in the press tent. A couple of journalists from Brazil insisted this impossibly regimented version of carnival was big news in Rio. Europeans were in thrall to the images, in part “because of the contrast with Boris”. Not all media was quite so drunk on patriotism as our own, of course. The New York Times balanced its report with a feature on Graham Smith, campaign leader of the Republic movement, stating the obvious: “She was given the job for life when she was 25, and she’s still alive 70 years later so she’s still got the job.”
One part of that job, as this weekend has reminded us, was that the Queen is a rather unlikely firestarter. Parties have had a shameful name in the national conversation in recent months, but here, finally, was one that no one had to be embarrassed about.
The capital, after a couple of isolating years of gloom, was packed; the Tower of London’s “Superbloom”, 20 million wildflower seeds planted in the spring, had begun to flower. There was jousting at Hampton Court Palace and an ‘alternative’ Royal Command Performance involving a screening of Pistol, Danny Boyle’s Sex Pistols series, at the South Bank. (With Johnny Rotten on one side of the river and Elton John, Diana Ross and Duran Duran on the other, the jubilee party provided a faithful costume re-enactment of the chart wars of 1977-1982.)
Apart from her brief appearances – and her branded ubiquity on everything from paper cups to tube lines – the Queen’s formal contribution to the national knees-up involved a simple statement: “I know that many happy memories will be created at these festive occasions.”
And memory, of course, is what it is all about. There was a jarring note when the prime minister, with half a haircut, got up in St Paul’s cathedral to give a brief sermon on the virtues of truth, but still, he knows he’s on to something when he makes his cringeworthy appeals for the restoration of imperial measurements. How else to understand that strain of the nation that still enjoys nothing more than catching a glimpse of hereditary princes greeted on cathedral steps by a cast of characters who, to less reverential eyes, appear to be assembled from assorted Gilbert and Sullivan am-drams? “The scarlet coats have lasted well,” David Dimbleby informed the nation, with due reverence. “They were made in 1935 for George V’s jubilee.”
The scene, and all that followed, also revealed that Britain’s insatiable love affair with nostalgia, and with any excuse for a party, is still alive and kicking. It was appropriate that the jubilee occurred on the same day that news emerged that the BBC would continue to broadcast the shipping forecast despite the demise of its long-wave service. The National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations noted that its members, with their digital meterological gadgetry, have not relied on the information for decades. Yet that did not mean they did not want the national lullaby of Fisher and Dogger and German Bight to continue: “It is a link to other times, other people, other places.”
For those who watched that Shakespearean roll call of dukes, Gloucesters and Wessexes, side-eye each other in St Paul’s on Friday, the appeal was similar. The most dramatic images involved the muttering of the congregation in the wake of the Sussexes advancing up the aisle, a dozen fascinators bowed to whisper snark. On TV, the BBC director quickly cut to the overhead shot of the cathedral’s tessellated floor. “We now wait for the arrival of Prince Harry’s brother and his father,” Dimbleby intoned.
In the absence of the Queen, the thanksgiving service gave an indication of how the palace sees things playing out in years to come. The aisle set Charles and Camilla apart from William and Kate. Harry and Meghan were suddenly behind even the Linleys in processional order, sharing a naughty-step pew with the princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, whose father (Covid being the least of his problems) has now joined their mother in perpetual royal purdah. The camera angle that could get both Meghan and Kate in shot would have to wait for future series of The Crown.
Having, as a thousand vox-pop reminiscences recalled, invented television with her coronation, the Queen was apparently watching at home with the rest of us. Less, as the archbishop of York observed, “in the saddle” than in a favourite armchair. We don’t know her gogglebox thoughts on the jubilee. It is, of course, in our confessional era, one of the remarkable and uncanny aspects of her 70 profoundly dutiful years that we don’t know her private thoughts on anything at all. But watching her even for the few minutes she appeared in public, you had the sense she might have quietly wished that the whole fuss hadn’t gone on quite so long. And just perhaps how that particular sentiment was not confined to this weekend.
Two of the week’s tributes came close to capturing something of the unique service and strangeness of her life. Poet laureate Simon Armitage’s beautifully judged poem, Queenhood, addressed the formidable anxiety of the beginning: “Draped and adorned, a monarch walks forward/into the sideways weather of oncoming years.”
The other notable portrait came in Notting Hill director Roger Michell’s posthumously released meditation, Elizabeth: A Portrait in Parts, which is playing in cinemas and livestreaming this week. His film, cut with fictional footage, historical scenes and private out-takes, catches some of the surreal choreography, the sheer indefatigability of a million royal handshakes, smiles and white-gloved waves.
This weekend reminded us that the muscle memory of that role hasn’t gone yet – the bunting may yet mark a self-addressed centenary telegram in four years’ time – but also that the magic act won’t ever be the same without her.