It’s jubilee time again, this time a Platinum one, and once again, I experienced it by bike. Whilst I am not an enthusiastic royalist, neither am I a rabid republican. I have heard the arguments rehearsed against the monarchy many times and can understand why it might be an entirely good thing for an elected head of state to run the country rather than a powerless figurehead, unable to control the shenanigans of a rogue prime minister. On the other hand, there have been times in our history when an impoverished, miserable populace can be cheered up by a coronation, a royal wedding or, in this case, a jubilee.
Evidently, even the public fountains in London gushed with red and white wine for Tudor weddings and a grateful populace lapped it up rather than the usual beer. Hampton Court is ready to do the same at any moment, having reconstructed the fountain that Henry VIII took to France for the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
However, it must be admitted that freebies from royalty are a rare treat. Mostly we, the adoring subjects, are expected to line the route with loud hurrahs and “faces filled with real joy,” as Queen Victoria notes of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. We are also enticed into buying piles of tatty memorabilia – biscuit tins, tea caddies, jugs, mugs, plates, t-shirts, plastic bunting – and live afterwards with the lingering legacy of gardens, parks, bridges and tube lines named for jubilees past and monarchs long departed.
Despite knowing all the negatives, and being cynical enough about the latest jubilee to see it as a diversion from our national woes, I have to admit to loving the carnival atmosphere that the celebrations engender.
My first jubilee in 1977 (the Queen’s Silver) is half remembered, watched through a haze of alcohol with a group of friends, like me straight out of university, ultra-lefty and full of clichés about the class struggle. But I nevertheless made some excuse to watch the parade on TV in a rather depressing London flat.
The Golden Jubilee in 2002 was a different matter altogether. Twenty-five years older, with children and still lefty, I shamelessly embraced the whole three days. I defy anyone (or at least anyone with a bike) not to be exhilarated by the fact that central London was shut to motor vehicles and it was possible to ride unimpeded around Hyde Park Corner.
We were on our way first to a classical concert at Buckingham Palace and on the next day to the pop concert, with a glimpse of Brian May on the roof of the same palace. Assorted parents and teenagers, all on bikes rode to the closest spot we could get to in Green Park, where we carved ourselves out a space for a picnic amongst the thousands gathered there.
It left me wanting more, so even more outrageously I cycled the next day, with any teenagers or friends awake after the night before, to the Mall. There we watched as the Red Arrows, flanking Concorde, flew up the Mall, and I somehow found myself cheering as they swooped overhead, trailing clouds of red, white and blue. And then the greatest betrayal of all – I surged with the crowd to the gates of Buckingham Palace to cheer as the Royal Family appeared on the balcony. Just got so carried away.
Fast forward to 2012 and the Diamond Jubilee. A coalition government, austerity, but we were still in Europe and London, outward looking, cosmopolitan, exciting, hosting the Olympics. The jubilee kicked off the last happy summer before the shades of Brexit and endless Tory government closed in. Once again on bikes, but this time along the river, following the boat pageant in pouring rain that literally soaked us to the skin. Liaising with by now grown-up children to meet up at some river side hostelry and getting glimpses of the Royal Barge and boatmen through sleeting rain and crowds six deep. So Henry VIII!
And the next day, something else from a bygone age – a street party, again in the pouring rain but sagging gazebos, soggy bunting and lots of cheap fizz, which probably would not have featured in earlier celebrations. It was fun!
And so to the latest jamboree – Her Maj has gone further than any crowned head before her. Whoever heard of a Platinum Jubilee? And what is there to celebrate in a country facing a cost of living crisis, existential threats to its democratic institutions from its own government, not to mention looming climate disaster and a scary war in Europe? Not much, apart from the fact that I’m still here, it’s my fourth jubilee and I still have my bike!
Living in Sussex it will be more difficult: the family have flown the nest and most of my friends are fleeing the country. But I was weirdly excited, as I rode to the Mall for the fly past and another balcony moment, and then returned to the capital on Sunday for a street party, the concert and the fireworks, again with my bike.
So forgive me, my republican friends and allow me my fun, as I engage for the last time with a relic of Empire, in an anachronistic celebration that reeks of nostalgia, privilege and deference. On my bike at Hyde Park Corner. Whee!