How to hold a right proper party, Briton-style

With their usual resolve, revelers marked the Queen’s milestone with contagious enthusiasm, even in the rain

Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Photos/Keystone

It’s fitting, somehow, that in all of the spectacular moments designed to elicit a laugh from the Queen last weekend—a flotilla of boats on the Thames, a giant flaming bonfire and a grand equestrian pageant in her own backyard—it was an offhand joke about—what else?—the weather that caused Her Majesty to finally crack up. During her son Prince Charles’s tribute following the outdoor street concert in front of Buckingham Palace on Monday night, the monarch looked pleased and humbled by the cheering crowd of tens of thousands before her. Standing centre stage surrounded by an eclectic assortment of pop stars, from the great (Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder) to the goofy (Robbie Williams and Cliff Richards), the lady of the hour was visibly relieved the skies had finally cleared in what had otherwise been a weekend of thoroughly English weather.

Not that it put much of a damper on things. On Sunday afternoon, Elizabeth II and her family—the duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, duchess of Cornwall, duke and duchess of Cambridge and, last but not least, Prince Harry—stood stoically for four hours in the frigid rain and whipping wind watching a parade of boats pay tribute on the Thames River. It was a feat of supreme organization, pageantry and—in the royal family’s case—bladder control that the whole thing went off without a hitch (if you don’t count the duke of Edinburgh falling ill with an infection the following day). There were red velvet thrones available on the royal barge, but the Queen, dressed in a ruffled white coat, gloves and a rain-deflecting, inverted-brim hat, stalwartly refused to rest. Whether this was out of excitement or in solidarity with the close to one million people who gathered, in some places 20 or 30 deep, huddling under inside-out umbrellas, to cheer her arrival on the banks of the river, is not clear. All we know for sure is that she appeared to love every minute of it. The royal right hand got a thorough fluttering as she waved the boats along for hours. Unlike the blue-lipped duchess of Cornwall, who remarked to onlookers while disembarking that it was “absolutely freezing!” the Queen stood tall despite her 86 years, and did not complain. In this sense it was a moment that encapsulated everything that Great Britain stands for: monarchy, pageantry, and the ability to enjoy oneself in spite of the crappy weather.

The water procession, which had been years in the offing, felt like a catharsis of national jubilance in otherwise trying economic times. All over the city, gallows humour reigned. As I joined the procession along the riverbank near Tower Bridge (not far from where the Queen and her family were docked), an east London flag vendor hawked his patriotic wares: “Get your wet Union Jacks here! Freshly drenched in real British rain!” Ahead of me a mother pushing a pram scolded her toddler son for whining. “But I didn’t get to see any boats!” the sopping boy justifiably moaned. “But you saw a helicopter darling,” she tutted. “And we did ‘hip hip hoorah’ for the Queen!”

The pageantry missed by latecomers did manage to delight those wise enough to arrive early to score a good viewing spot. There were all the trappings of a true state pageant—a full barge of state trumpeters blowing their horns, the pealing Diamond Jubilee bells on the Ursula Catherine Belfry Barge, squadrons of tugboats, rowboats and fleets of historic river vessels, a double-decker sightseeing boat packed with visiting prime ministers and governors general (excluding our own David Johnston who travelled with his wife on a Royal Squadron vessel) and, best of all, the great Gloriana, the royal rowing barge, clearing the way for the Queen, who arrived flanked by courtiers in a modest motorboat. All told, it was a splendid evocation of the great 1747 Canaletto oil painting that inspired the event—a floating show quite literally fit for a Queen.

But not all the celebrations were quite so grand. All over the city, from Whitechapel to Wimbledon, Belsize Park to Brixton, Londoners hung out the bunting and took to the streets with paste sandwiches and Pimm’s to toast Queen Elizabeth and her 60-year reign. At 10 Downing Street on Saturday, a planned street party hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to move indoors out of the wet. There, officials entertained a young and boisterous crowd of Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, Brownies and elderly folk in what Cameron himself described as a great “big society” celebration of the monarchy and the British spirit in spite of a politically and economically turbulent several months. “Some had wondered whether it would be possible to do [this],” he said. “It is more than possible. It’s something people are enjoying and finding great pleasure in doing.”

The following day, Cameron and his wife, Samantha, attended another street party in their home constituency in Spelsbury, Oxfordshire. There they lunched on a generous spread of spinach and bacon salad, free-range egg quiche, grilled chicken and grilled vegetables, and cupcakes emblazoned with St. George’s Cross.

In menu terms it was a far cry from the modest fare on offer at my local street party in west London’s Shepherd’s Bush—think twist-off bottles of corner-shop Chardonnay, cheap cider, Jaffa cakes and cheese straws—but the mood was still suitably festive. As a self-styled DJ cranked retro Oasis tunes on his iPod dock, neighbours crowded in under a hastily erected canopy to escape the teaming rain. “It’s our natural sport!” one woman remarked brightly to another. By which I assumed she meant “making the best of it,” not huddling in a mackintosh while washing down cakes and booze—though on reflection this would have been equally apt. From the lowliest labourer right up the royals, the British do love their nursery food and strong drink—and the Diamond Jubilee was no exception.

Finally, on Tuesday, the final day of the four-day marathon, after the rock ’n’ roll tributes, the roaring bonfire beacon, the fireworks and the crowd noise had died down, the Queen attended a somewhat more sombre event: a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral, presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, looking a bit like Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series, eloquently summed up her magisterial virtues: “Our Queen has shown a quality of joy in the happiness of others,” he resonated from the pulpit, bushy brows raised. “She has made her public happy—and all the signs are that she herself is happy, fulfilled and at home in these encounters.”

In the congregation, the Queen sat utterly still, eyes trained forward, hands clasped primly in her lap. If she was moved or tired or thrilled or simply bored to tears it was impossible to know. As usual, she expertly concealed all signs of interior life, preferring instead to act as a grand screen upon which we, her subjects, were invited to project our individual thoughts and feelings. The Queen, in this sense, is less a patriotic person than a place where regular people, moved by patriotism, seek to gather. She is ubiquitous and yet entirely unknowable, an enigma with a face as familiar as your favourite grandmother’s. Confounding? Rather. Comforting? Absolutely. And never has this glorious grab bag of contradictions seemed so splendid as it did on this, the anniversary of her 60th year on the throne.

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