by Deirdre Good
The remarkable thing about the recent Diamond Jubilee is the number of people that joined in the celebrations. After all, Britain is secular and racially diverse—unlike the monarchy. Jubilee memorabilia described that institution as “steadfast and true” — words that couldn’t be applied to the banking sector, or the media, or the NHS for that matter. Maybe the Jubilee celebrations reflected enthusiastic support of someone, some institution, that can be trusted to be steadfast and true. Maybe Brits are simply in the mood to celebrate and enjoy national dressing-up and processions. I saw republican sympathisers in demonstrations with placards but they were drowned out by the millions who joined street parties, went to London for the Jubilee weekend of June 2-5, as we did, or celebrated in their home communities. Celebrate they did: in Kent and the Brecon Beacons of Wales where my mother and I were before the Jubilee weekend, where bunting was already up across streets and in pubs (of course). While the big Jubilee Lunch was on Sunday June 3rd, local notices announced celebrations and StreetParty estimates that 2 million people had a street party of some sort over the weekend. As of May 26th, 9,500 road closure applications had been received, according to the Local Government Association. It was a good time to leave the car at home.
Even the weather didn’t stop the celebrations: someone tweeted that anyone can enjoy a carnival in the sun but only the British can enjoy a carnival in the rain.
Sunday was also the day of the 1,000 boat flotilla down the Thames to Tower Bridge. The day before, I went with my mother, my niece and a friend to Hammersmith Bridge in hopes of seeing a few boats in waiting. We had our own picnic near the river bank and were thrilled to see boats go by, including the Jolly Brit, one of six open launches used on the Royal Yacht Britannia. It was used as a jolly boat (a boat that takes people from ship to shore) for the Royal family’s trip ashore for picnics or walks while cruising round the Highlands and Islands. Perhaps the name comes from the old Dutch word jolle, meaning a small boat. Quite a few people were doing the same thing as we were, and in good spirits. A jogger stopped by and offered to take a photo of us.
Sunday’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the river Thames was extraordinary. An island people, Brits have always had boats and flotillas: whether to warn of the Spanish invasion during the reign of Elizabeth 1, or to rescue trapped armies in WWII. But on Sunday, a million people stood on the river banks between Chiswick and Putney bridges all the way to Tower Bridge to watch the boat procession past the Queen and members of the royal family on their barge. Here’s a time lapse video which conveys the scope of it. As the video progresses you can see the weather worsening. The procession included historic boats (some used in the evacuation of British forces at Dunkirk, and others that saw action in the Battle of Britain), passenger boats, leisure boats and working boats. There were kayaks and schooners, tugs and barges. There were boats and barges with musicians playing traditional music and world premieres. Here’s a list of flotilla participants. We saw some of them going under Hammersmith Bridge on Sunday afternoon before we retreated from a cold and increasingly wet viewpoint to join millions watching the spectacle on TV.
The BBC’s flotilla coverage, which the Daily Telegraph characterised as “inane and insulting” and which covered everything but the flotilla, was unfortunate for those who couldn’t be there. But if you were standing in the rain on the banks of the Thames, you might well see printed lists of boats many brought to share with their neighbors to identify what went by. At least before the rain came down and lists became soggy. Where we stood, people called out which boat passed under the bridge and who was on it. I could identify several from the lists including The Dove from the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers in the category of the Thames Watermen Cutters. At least the images of the flotilla on TV were better than the BBC commentary.
2,012 or more beacons were lit across the land on Monday June 4th from Hadrian’s wall and Britain’s highest mountain peaks to churches and buildings of all faiths and denominations. Beacons were also lit as far away as Australia and Tristan Da Cunha. But these weren’t distant images from far away places: where we stayed in Wales, several communities were planning an evening gathering on the highest nearby hill in order to see lit beacons on surrounding peaks.
On Tuesday, we went to stand with hundreds of people at Ludgate Hill near the west entrance of St Paul’s to see the royal family arrive by car for the service of thanksgiving that drew the Jubilee celebrations to a close. Neither my niece nor I had seen the Queen in person and we were keen to do so. We arrived by Tube along with people whose attire indicated that they were going to the service. None of the chosen looked at each other or the rest of us as they joined the queue to enter St Paul’s. Moving away from them, I found two policewomen. “Where can we see the royals arriving?” I asked. “Do you want to see the service or watch the royal family?” they asked. I smiled and pointed to my niece. “She wants to see the Queen,” I said. They told us they’d just come from the top of Ludgate Hill where there was no one. “You’ll see it all from there,” they assured us. “Turn left through the arch and around the corner.”
We stood right behind the police barriers and gradually we got into conversation with others around us, particularly when well-known people went by. “Wasn’t that the Archbishop?” I said to one neighbor after the first large black car went by. She agreed. Someone from a nearby café walked up and down the line offering us tiny snacks. Behind us, a group of women with plummy accents analyzed the events of the weekend, speaking in a way that encouraged us to contribute our own opinions. Thanks to cell phone updates from a friend watching TV, my neighbour on the other side provided a live order of appearance commentary about the cars we were about to see. When the Queen’s car was imminent, my neighbour’s young daughter said that she hoped the Queen would be accompanied by her corgis as she was lonely (Prince Phillip had been admitted to hospital after standing for hours in Sunday’s rain watching the boat procession). “Did you know she has named one of her dogs Griffindor?” someone asked. “Better than Slytherin,” another commented. Gradually the cheers increased and when the Queen’s car went by, we caught an image of her wave on my iPhone. She was accompanied by one of her ladies in waiting. Afterwards, our gathering drifted apart. “Thanks for your help,” I said to my neighbour. “Not at all,” she replied, “enjoy yourself!” As we left the area where not so long ago Occupy London camped outside St Paul’s, we could hear the words of the Archbishop’s sermon broadcast for those outside the cathedral: “We live less than human lives if we think just of our own individual good.” They seemed a fitting paraenetic observation on the communities formed by encounters with strangers that made up our Jubilee weekend.
Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.