At its best, British society can be very attractive – humorous, tolerant, large-minded. At its worst it can behave abominably – riot, steal, engage in acts of vile thuggery and/or shrill denouncing of unfashionable opinions. We look back down the centuries and wonder how anybody could possibly have imagined that watching a man being hanged or beheaded could constitute an afternoon’s enjoyment. We look at drunken people shrieking and vomiting and shouting obscenities in unpleasant mating rituals in a shopping mall on a hot summer evening and we wonder about how civilised we are today.
A wet June Sunday in London this year saw Britain at its best. There were plenty of people from different countries in the crowds that lined the Thames for the Diamond Jubilee Pageant of HM Queen Elizabeth II, but the vast majority were British and the whole event had a British-at-their-finest mood to it.
Probably the weather had a lot to do with it. Our worst riots – think Brixton and Liverpool in the early 1980s, or several cities in the summer of 2011 – tend to occur in very hot weather. Damp and cool seems to suit Britain best. As the boats and barges gathered on the Thames, people gathered on the banks with umbrellas and hot drinks and layers of clothing topped with rainwear or plastic ponchos.
At the heart of all this was a lady in her 80s, with a down-to-earth approach to life, a warm smile, a lot of dignity, and a colossal understanding of the weight of heritage and tradition that she carries with good humour, patience and a sense of Christian duty. We love her. Queen Elizabeth II has given Britain and the Commonwealth six decades of dedicated service. She has faced massive social changes, many disappointments, and big family problems and embarrassments – and these are all things that her subjects have faced in their lives too. She has, in the famous slogan of World War II which is now popular on china mugs and tea-towels, decided to “keep calm and carry on”. We honour for it, because it has meant that Britain has survived as a coherent entity, as a nation with some sense of what that means, during tumultuous years.
Tumultuous? Yes. When Elizabeth II was crowned, Britain had colonies and influence around the world – large tracts of Africa were nominally under her control and she boasted a great Royal Navy that patrolled the sea-lanes of the globe. At home, the nation had a strong sense of unity and identity forged by centuries of history and recent experience of two great world wars involving immense sacrifices. Abroad, the great nations of Australia, New Zealand and Canada were bound to Britain by deep ties of blood, affection and shared achievements. Sixty years later, a thousand changes in demography, social habits, morals, manners, travel, education, language and religious belief mean that something quite different now bears the name of “Britain”. The tangible link with the past, and one that gives credence to the idea of the nation, and a sense of sanity and stability, is the Crown. Its wearer has won our hearts again and again by the way in which she has fulfilled her duties.
It didn’t actually rain during the river pageant itself – what got was more that gentle dampness in the air that is characteristic of England, and so harmless in its results. No one got soaked, no one got scorched, everyone could cope. We stood for hours, but there was no fighting or unpleasantness. We were friendly, cheerful, united, talkative, community-minded. Children were swung up on to parental shoulders to get a better view, old people talked with pride of witnessing other royal events down the decades, teenagers relished crazy outfits (faces painted in red-white-and-blue, flags used as dramatic capes, daft hats), families unpacked sandwiches, people queued patiently to use the loos. The river scenes were relayed on vast TV screens in parks and squares – I watched one in the gardens alongside the Houses of Parliament. When Prince William and his young wife appeared on the screen, we applauded a bit, and talked about her dress and how nice they both looked. When the Queen appeared on the screen, we rose to our feet and cheered and cheered.
The pageant was magnificent – British seamanship, which many might think had disappeared as a skill along with most of our Navy, still seems to be thriving. There were superb oarsmen, beautiful crafts of different sorts and sizes, lots of energetic young people. The Royal Barge was splendid. All along the river, church bells pealed – that most glorious, most beautiful of sounds, English bells on English air, and this time mingling with the shouts and cheers of a great many happy people.
It was a good day, a special day, and one that we needed. Will there be any lasting effect? Who knows? The churches that pealed those bells are far from full on Sundays. The people that cheered and enjoyed themselves lack spiritual depth and seek sustenance in all the wrong places (TV, computer games, casual sex). The children are not taught much history at school and in most cases read little if any elsewhere. Our crime rate is high. The fastest-growing religion is Islam. Our birthrate is low – we are not replacing ourselves. A lot of our babies are destroyed by abortion. The future looks a bit bleak.
But in marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee we marked something about ourselves: we learned again that we share a common heritage, that it is centred on a rich tradition, that being together in celebration is more fun than spending lots of money or demanding more consumer goods. We remembered things too easily forgotten — loyalty, common fellowship, the courtesies necessary when large crowds gather, the joy of generations sharing a common experience. Perhaps we will be able to draw on this in the months and years ahead. Perhaps some of us may even ponder the deeper aspects of the thing. At any rate, the day did us good and as I write this I’m looking out of the window at preparations for our local street party and the sight of people from different races getting together with trays of food and talking about the weather. God save the Queen!
Joanna Bogle writes from London.