This weekend is that much-anticipated event: the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, celebrating the 60 years since Elizabeth II took the throne. It’s been talked of for months in London, and for weeks storefronts have been decked out with red, white, and blue bunting; restaurants and groceries have been offering Jubilee specials and Jubilee commemorative items; shirts and scarves and bags and leggings emblazoned with the Union Jack have been on sale in all clothing stores.
And now? The big weekend is finally here. Brits from all over have flooded into London, clogging the transport system and taking scores of touristy photos with the major landmarks. Everyone has Monday and Tuesday (today and yesterday) off: national holidays were created, just to celebrate the queen.
I had long-standing plans with a couple of friends to go to the boat parade on Sunday. The last (and only previous) monarch to reach her Diamond Jubilee was Victoria, but the last flotilla on the Thames of this sort was before even her time – it was some 300 years ago. So we decided to go (despite gloomy weather forecasts and that morning’s chilly air). We packed water, some emergency snacks, layers of warmth, umbrellas, raincoats, and our Union Jack scarves, and set out for the south side of the river at London Bridge around 10:30 in the morning.
The parade wasn’t due to pass us by until around 4 pm, but I had suspicions that even our five-hour head start would be insufficient to beat the crowds. I was right. Hordes of police were out, funneling eager patriots along the riverside. We finally found a place nearly a mile further upriver. The three of us squeezed into a space that had been left open; it was on some steps, so we actually had a great view over people’s heads.
For the first couple of hours, people were mostly rather cold, rather damp, and rather miserable. But then the beer and champagne started flowing. A group near us broke out a picnic. (I’ve noticed that the British are exceptionally good at making exquisite little picnics. These people had champagne, salmon, green salad, potato salad, and profiteroles.) Around 1:30, a group to our left started trying to get our section of the riverbank to do the Wave (apparently, here, it’s called the “Mexican” Wave). Around 2:15, the singing began. “God Save the Queen” and “Rule Britannia” were featured prominently on a list of about five songs, and I must have heard each of them five or six times.
Finally, the first of the boats arrived. The event had been given the tagline “1,000,000 spectators, 1,000 boats, 1 queen.” And it was quite something to realize what one thousand boats looks like out on the water. The whole event was kicked off with a huge barge bearing ringing bells, followed by an armada of rowing boats and a fleet of boats bearing the flags of the countries of the Commonwealth. And then, at last, it was time for the queen’s boat. The people around me were cheering, leaning forward, singing, and waving flags: the atmosphere was electric and contagious. Suddenly, I saw her: even from halfway across the Thames, her profile was recognizable under her white hat. People around me were narrating: “Queenie’s in white!” “That’s Kate in the red!” “Camilla’s the cream!” No one could seem to tell the men apart, but everyone could tell which blurry blob was their queen, and that was all that mattered.
The parade continued after the queen had passed us by, but the rain started up in earnest again, and my friends and I decided it was time to leave. We headed home, but the traffic was something else: it took us half an hour just to get underground and get on a train.
I had seen the queen on her Jubilee and stood amongst throngs of singing and cheering Brits – it was amazing. It felt something like the Fourth of July, but this is a Fourth of July that comes once in a blue moon, and it meant all that much more because it was a rare occasion.
I sort of figured that I’d done my duty as an honorary Brit. I’d been to one event and gotten soaked. There was no need to leave my cozy room and make the wet, crowded trek down to Buckingham Palace just to see the queen again.
But then, last night around 10 pm, some friends who were in from Italy for the weekend asked me if I wanted to just go check out the big Jubilee concert. So we went down to Trafalgar Square and walked onto the Mall (the big avenue that leads to the palace gates). It was busy, but not overwhelmingly crowded, and the whole place was decked out with flags and big tv screens so that we could see what was happening at the other end of the street. Just as we arrived, the MC said, “Please welcome Sir Paul McCartney!” I couldn’t leave after that. So we stayed and sang along to “Let It Be” and “Live and Let Die.”
We saw fireworks on the screens and in real life. We listened to Sir Paul’s jokes and HRH Charles’s feebler jokes. We gave three cheers for being British, and made our retreat just as everyone was singing “God Save the Queen.” We saw more fireworks over the lake in St. James’s Park, and then headed home. Once again, the atmosphere was electric.
And so despite the weather, I’m so glad I went out to see the queen. It made me feel so British – and with my time here quickly coming to an end, I love to feel British.