So we are all monarchists now. Well, not quite, but — unusually — I am not in this instance among the Guardian readers and writers sniping and spouting against the splendid if extremely wet events of the diamond jubilee weekend.
Queen Victoria cemented her legend and her popular image at her golden jubilee, stilling the babble of republican voices that had risen during her years of almost complete invisibility to her people as she mourned obsessively for her dead husband. Still clad in black herself and declining to wear a crown as recommended by her prime minister instead of her usual bonnet for any event, she nevertheless surrounded herself with colour, in particular the colour provided by India and the Indian princes who braved the sea journey to attend pageants and durbars in London. By her diamond jubilee, she was, at 78, an old woman, but unable any longer to move about easily or to leave her carriage, in which she sat at the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral for the jubilee thanksgiving service.
Judging by the way Queen Elizabeth II got in and out of her carriage without so much as a helping hand for her diamond jubilee service last Tuesday, she might easily be doing it again in another 10 years and walking up the long aisle of St Paul’s for a platinum jubilee. It’s in the blood after all: I remember the queen mother aged 100 at my godmother’s funeral, walking into the church and to her seat and actually kneeling for prayers. This queen, like Victoria, did not wear a crown to St Paul’s; we would have found that surprising, but her clothes throughout her ceremonies and pageants drew all eyes to her — no gloomy black and never for her during her whole reign, the years, months, weeks or even days of retirement from the public eye. For her too, a golden jubilee turned her image, if not that of her family, from negative to positive. This diamond event combined with the royal wedding last year of a popular young prince and a pretty but ordinary girl has been the icing on the cake for the monarch and, for a short term at least, for the monarchy.
And the truth is that it has provided the only bright light in our present darkness. Like it or not — and it is pretty irresistible — the pomp and ceremony that surround a major royal event — and that this country is so good at — are, at their most basic, a huge USP for the country and, at their most elevated, does just that, give us all a lift. Judging by the coverage overseas, the rest of the world quite enjoys the spectacle too.
These days of course, while the European royals pitched up for a huge family lunch, so many cousins for which Queen Victoria is to blame, Indian princes were a bit short on the ground. Not to say, however, that British Asians were not out in as much force and as much wet weather gear as those with longer Anglo-Saxon roots. Returning home on the tube after the remarkable river pageant, British people of all races, clutching damp flags and dripping umbrellas, took off their shoes to wring out their socks amid general laughter. The monarchy is, it appears, when en fête and quite regardless of our often dismal summer weather, a most unifying spectacle.
Less satisfactory and a lot more potentially divisive is the spectacle provided by Baroness Warsi, Conservative Party chair and cabinet minister. She is undoubtedly British, born and bred in Yorkshire as is clear the minute she opens her mouth. But as soon as expense fiddling and sleaze rumours smear a politician’s image, it feeds the worst instincts in our society if that politician has an Asian name and an Asian face. Lady Warsi, a politician who is appointed and has never been elected, has been highly visible and extremely vocal throughout her career in the House of Lords. At best one has to ask, how could she be so stupid? The worst is what plenty of people are thinking and really we don’t want to go there.
We all know far too many of our politicians have been caught out with hands, metaphorically at least, in the till. Unfortunately, those of less Caucasian appearance — their reputations extremely poorly served by the likes of Lord Paul — show up all too clearly in the general mix. I am quite sure that blessed Ken Clarke, the sensible, old-fashioned, pragmatic face of our current government is right to dismiss many of the allegations against Lady Warsi as “downright silly” but there are others just dying for her to be hung, drawn and quartered for reasons far wider and less honourable than the possibly fraudulent expenses claim of which she is accused.
This summer’s festivities are already doing a good job of taking all eyes off the political and economic balls and the sword of Damocles hanging over Europe, and there is so much more to come. The rest, which has started with the Euro 2012 football and will move on into the Olympic Games, is likely to prove a good deal more contentious and divisive than the diamond jubilee. Ugly instances of racism and anti-Semitism in Euro football’s host country, Ukraine, are being reported and United Kingdom government ministers are already boycotting the event over the treatment of the jailed Ukrainian opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko. As for the Olympics, well, there is a good focus for general grumbling if ever there was one.
London roads have been dug up, or in the case of the Hammersmith flyover, part of the main road from Heathrow airport into London and my own regular route to the capital, rebuilt over what seems like years and is certainly a number of months. Road closures and assorted repairs continue round the city and we are all feeling hard done by over the bizarre ticketing arrangements for the games themselves, which mean that almost nobody anyone knows seems actually to possess a ticket for any event at all. The great British public has started to vote with its feet on this one — the last lot of tickets put on sale last week have not been selling and quite a few of the earlier batch have not exactly flown off the shelf either from all accounts.
Out of curiosity, having entered the original ticket ballot to no avail, I checked the website yesterday and discovered that there were tickets available still for the opening and closing ceremonies, the former only at the top price of two thousand and some odd pounds, the latter in two price ranges of which the lowest was nine hundred and fifty pounds — just the thing to cheer the ordinary cash strapped citizen. On top of that, for the lucky few with a ticket of any sort — and I bet there are empty seats in the end — you have to fight your way to the venues for any particular event through the crowds of those leaving after their brief ticket slot. Security, we are told, requires almost nothing beyond a wallet to be brought to any event — pity the poor people travelling in from miles away with baggage — and no food to be taken in so you are forced to use the contents of said wallet to buy in venue food — guess what, the ubiquitous McDonalds and Pepsi — jolly British all that.
This has to be a jaded view of the whole thing, but most of us seem to feel the same way and remain to be proven wrong. I hope we are wrong actually. We are told that the International Olympic Committee is to blame for all shortcomings but we won’t believe it and instead blame our own petty bureaucracy for the bans on anything appearing, even on a cafe breakfast menu, with the word Olympic in it or any sign of the Olympic rings. Apparently, even using 2012 on any advertising is quite a risky business. Billions of pounds have been spent and we are not happy. Tickets, as for every other event including the jubilee concert, should have been sold quite simply on a first-come-first-served basis which everyone understands all over the world. As for advertising — for heaven’s sakes — I refuse to believe that a small shop displaying an Olympic logo takes anything from major sponsors or does other than, as we are supposed to be doing, celebrate as we should wish to do in better circumstances, the great Olympic event happening on these thoroughly, jubilee moment aside, depressed shores.