A Right Royal Cock-Up: Watching the Diamond Jubilee

My family moved to London in April 2011, just weeks before the royal wedding, and the day after that spectacle I was watching an evening news program criticizing the BBC’s coverage of the event. The presenters were unbecomingly star-struck, the pundits grumbled, pointing out celebrity guests like Victoria Beckham instead of former King Constantine of Greece. They were concerned that this pandering, lowest-common-denominator attitude would not be rectified by the Diamond Jubilee.

That was the first I heard of the Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne. Like the commemorative paperweights or coffee mugs awarded at less nepotistic workplaces, Jubilees are doled out to monarchs after 25, 50 and 60 years of service. “Jubilee” refers to both the whole calendar year in which the anniversary takes place, and to the four-day pageant officially commemorating the milestone. It is an unusual word to associate with a woman who only smiles at corgis.

When Jubilee Weekend finally rolled around earlier this month, banks and other businesses shut down for a four-day public holiday. People held street parties all over England, while in central London thousands of flag-waving revelers lined the banks of the Thames and the Mall for a series of parades and concerts honoring Her Majesty. It felt like a repeat of last year’s wedding – Union Jack bunting hung from every vertical surface, a run on Pimm’s at the grocery store, horses, hats, bugles, and my daughter and I watching the festivities from a safe distance on the telly, marveling at the customs and ceremonies of this strange tribe we now live amongst.

In the run-up to the Jubilee I read an online debate analyzing Americans’ fascination for an institution it so bloodily rejected 200 years ago. There were a range of solid theories – we’re subconsciously longing for what we relinquished when we broke away from the Crown; the couplings and machinations of the royal family have the lurid appeal of a living soap opera; we are magpies who love brass buttons and furry hats – but none that quite capture the impression these archaic performances have on an outsider looking in, in the 21st century. It’s like watching Civil War re-enactors, or Darkon – the elaborate costuming, the commitment to staying in character, the sense that carefully choreographed human interactions are the only kind the participants are comfortable with. The difference is that an entire nation has agreed to treat it as real, with tens of millions of pounds of public funds annually shoveled toward the maintenance of a performance that seems of little benefit to anyone but the actors themselves. We let our role players use the parks and turn a benevolently blind eye when they show up at 7-11 in costume. We don’t let them open Congress.

And just like Civil War re-enactors who must endure the illusion-shattering effect of a car horns in the distance and kids on Razor scooters hooting from the sidelines, even Her Majesty’s most ardent supporters must contend with the reality that the monarchy’s power falls short of divine.

The centerpiece of the Jubilee was a boat parade on the Thames. Let your imaginations run wild, the event’s official website suggested in a breathless tone. Square riggers. Wooden launchers. Oyster smacks. If it floated, and was not a dead body, it would be proudly sailing past Her Majesty on the afternoon of June 3. It sounded like a lovely thing to do on a pleasant early summer afternoon, which makes me wonder if the Jubilee events were originally scheduled to take place somewhere other than England.

England has no summer. It has no seasons. For 340 days of the year the island sits beneath a gray, cloudy, drizzly sky that veers wildly between 50 and 63 degrees. There are a few dozen days of glorious weather sprinkled at random between April and October, but you can no more count on a sunny day in June than you can upon a winning lottery ticket coming into your possession. And yet people were shocked – shocked! – to wake up on Sunday morning and find rain dumping upon London (though not on Belfast or Edinburgh, a sign that God might be a Republican.)

As the wind kicked up, boats backed up on the river and the whole thing turned into a soggy, sorry mess, the army of television reporters stationed across the channels clung resolutely to the script that viewers were watching something magical. On CNN Piers Morgan called it an “orgy of excitement,” a baffling statement that only raises questions about the kinds of orgies Piers Morgan attends. The BBC collapsed upon itself, its coverage a pastiche of awkward camera angles, cuts to people clearly unaware that they were live, a minute-long shot of the controls of a ship, and a long debate between two presenters wondering if the trash boat currently on air was part of the parade, or was in fact transporting trash.

Someone noted on Twitter that requiring an 85-year-old to stand outside in the rain for hours is more assassination attempt than party, and in fact the Queen’s 90-year-old husband spent the rest of the weekend in the hospital with an infection. But there she stood, this tiny little white-haired lady, looking and smiling and waving and acting like this didn’t suck when so obviously it did.

I don’t know what monarchs do now that they can’t have rivals beheaded or commission portraits of themselves as virgin fairies. I don’t know how you justify the public expense or how voting taxpayer can conceive of him- or herself as a subject instead of a citizen. But as a woman who finds herself increasingly short on patience, I can respect what might be the Queen’s most singular accomplishment: to endure sixty years of tree plantings, garden parties, ship christenings, wing openings, polite chatter, endless parades and English weather without getting caught complaining.