A recent opinion poll placed the Queen’s personal approval rating at 80%. Judging by how many people turned out for the riverside Pageant yesterday in typical February weather, when the calendar indicated it was actually June 3rd, there seems to be good grounds for thinking that Royalty and especially the Queen have a special place in people’s hearts.
And it’s not only the toffs and that tiny proportion of our population who we elect to rule over us both commercially and politically that love the monarchy. It is also the overwhelming view of the rest of the country, many of whom flocked to the Thames yesterday, from London’s suburbs and from further afield, to camp out along the Embankment and the South Bank, much as they had done on that equally cold and wet day in June 1953 when the Queen was crowned. Call it patriotism and the bulldog spirit if you like, but no sports or pop celebrity and no other national treasure has the pull of the Royal Family and particularly of the Queen.
It was, by all accounts the biggest, grandest and greatest River Pageant since the time of that very merry old King, Charles II. We know something of the river scenes from Canaletto’s brilliant masterpiece of the Lord Mayor’s Pageant. The colour and size of the pageant that greeted Charles II’s coronation was no doubt a response by the ruling class to that guilt they felt following the removal of the head of Charles’ father and a response to a very few dull and chaotic years as a republic.
In the early 1990′s Community Links, the East London charity which I have been connected with for more than 30 years was struggling with an enormous project of converting a disused town hall into a community centre. Whilst the eventual success of the project was as a result of the efforts of many people and numerous companies it was the invitation to Prince Charles to top out the centre which galvanised support and ensured the friendship and support of many influential City chiefs and which turned the dream into a reality.
Arriving at Euston in persistent drizzle, a flood of Pageant-goers easily identified by their red, white and blue colours and hundreds of Union flags, swamped the station forecourt and made a beeline for the underground. For once the tube was displaying “a Good Service” on all lines. Packed into a noisy expectant car on the Victoria line, half the carriage exited at Pimlico (a rare event I bet) whilst the rest of the carriage emptied out at Vauxhall. The drizzle had lifted. Could the Queen work her magic as she had once done for me years ago at Braemar when during the 70 minutes the Queen watched the Highland games, the sun shone?
Vauxhall bridge and the embankment down to Chelsea Bridge were rammed tight with people. We hovered for a bus but took a taxi, the driver of which, gave us his view on the weather, London traffic (it’s the worse its ever been), the Olympics (don’t know how we are going to cope) and the people (I’ve never seen this number of people over such a big area) before dropping us at the top of Albert Bridge Road where the traffic had ground to a halt. Walking down the west side of Battersea Park we caught something of the atmosphere. My wife asked a steward if a brochure could be bought. “Don’t ask me mate. I’m from Glasgow and it took me 13 hours to get here”
Our viewpoint was rather grand-from an 8th floor penthouse flat as a result of an invitation from a client. The booze flowed and salmon and salad was served and shortly before 3-00pm. The Queen accompanied by her faithful 90 year old hubby stood and waved as a small boat took them passed us on the way to the Royal Barge-all decked out in gold and red with flower beds and over the top grandeur. Then the real Pageant began. More than a 1000 boats of all shapes and sizes passed below us along the mud olive-grey river artificially deprived off its famously viscous tides by the closing of the Thames Barrier 14 miles downstream.
The crowds of well-wishers lining the Chelsea embankment on the far side, on the Tower of Old Chelsea Church and hanging out of each flat and balcony from the apartment blocks on the south side of the river, cheered as a succession of river craft passed below. I have no knowledge of boats but I couldn’t help being impressed by the man powered boats that followed the Queen. There was a grand galley “the Gloriana” which I later saw on TV had been led by rowing luminaries including, no less, Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, Gondoliers from Venice struggling in the near winter conditions, a Viking ship, a Maori canoe and all manner of rowing craft. Even without the tides it looked a tough job. Then there were the blue boats of the sea cadets with their flags representing every commonwealth country, the Dunkirk boats who had performed that miracle of rescuing 300,000 plus of the British army in 1939, a paddle ship with the Royal Marines band on board. Numerous tugs, dredgers and narrow boats sailed past, historic boats, boats from the various services and then bringing up the rear an enormous broad vessel with a full symphony orchestra playing Greensleeves then Rule Britannia as it passed us at about 4-30 by which time it was absolutely tipping it down. And yet the crowds remained down below with their macs, umbrellas and plastic hoods partially shielding them from the atrocious weather, still cheering and waving and just happy to be part of it.
Of course the Pageant has its detractors. Republicans of course and all those people who always grumble at whatever grand and expensive project the authorities lay on at any given time. I don’t know what yesterday’s extravaganza cost but it would be a fraction of the Olympics cost (which by the way I think is brilliant despite what it will eventually cost) and gave a huge slice of pleasure to millions of people who were there and who watched glued to their TV sets. For those who were there, got soaked to the skin and who had fleeting and often poor views of this unique river procession the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant will remember it for the rest of their lives. And you can’t put a price on that.