Harold Nicolson famously wrote that the Queen became Queen in 1952 “while perched in a tree in Africa watching the rhinoceros come down to the pool to drink”. She was wearing jeans. For much of the succeeding 70 years, she has been the one for whom royal safarists will wait patiently for a short glimpse, which they got on Thursday when she came on to the Buckingham Palace balcony dressed like a particularly fragile Wedgwood vase.
The thing about royal pageantry is that even committed ironists wilt in the face of it. Mark Twain covered Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, sent over to do the job for American readers by William Randolph Hearst, and only managed a single, final sentence of wryness after several thousand awestruck words. “One can enjoy a rainbow,” Twain reflected, “without necessarily forgetting the forces that made it.”
For some, of course, enjoyment is quite out of the question. But I hope that, like me, you very much enjoy the grandeur of those who feel bound to issue their own regular court-and-social bulletins concerning the jubilee. “I will not be watching this.” “I will not be attending a street party.” “I will be clicking my knitting needles.” Marvellous. It’s very good of them to emerge on to their digital balconies to acknowledge their public at all, of course, and perhaps accept a pose or two from their devoted followers. But also, it’s funny how both the most ardent royalists and republicans in this country embody the sweetly ridiculous solipsism of that brilliant final couplet from AA Milne’s poem about changing the guard at Buckingham Palace. “’Do you think the King knows all about me?’ ‘Sure to, dear, but it’s time for tea… ‘ ”
Clearly, the ability to look an extra bank holiday in the mouth is hugely admirable, and venturing repeatedly online to express disdain is a form of tireless service in itself, and a much more improvingly awful way to spend one’s time than simply going to the pub and ignoring it pleasurably there. Indeed, given the focus on constancy, we have to recall that drunkenness has long been a feature of such occasions. I read a hilarious newspaper report from the 1977 silver jubilee, which featured a Scottish guy in town for the football who’d been startled by an early-morning rehearsal of the carriage procession a few days before the main event. “I was frightened,” he said. “I haven’t been sober since Thursday and I thought it must be Tuesday or the Scotland team doing a lap of honor round London.” This report also contained the deathless line: “The foreign office last night confirmed that Mr Enoch Powell would be spending [the] jubilee in Moscow.”
Hand on heart, this is my nerdy favorite part of all these events – the ability to go back and read what all sorts of different people were really thinking about the thing, and then flash forward to see what’s changed (or hasn’t). Ben Pimlott’s brilliant biography of the Queen suggests that part of the monarch’s reticence about her coronation of her being televised was fear that the appearance of boredom would be inadvertently transmitted (she had been bored at her own father’s crowning of her).
Boredom has been the constant stalking horse of her role. I always think the British rather like to see their royals miserable and suffering out of “duty”, which is a huge part of why they cursed Diana for trying unsuccessfully to have a life away from it (then intended they’d never done so when she died). A currently more successful escape attempt by Diana’s son has driven people far madder than the actions of someone sixth in line to the throne ever should have. People who wouldn’t dream of sacrificing so much as an active role in the Mail Online comments section demand superhuman feats of misery absorbance in their royals.
But back to 1953, and the BBC was making supposedly terrible mistakes even then. A throwaway line in the Radio Times suggesting the Queen had approved of the coverage of her father’s death was regarded as totally incendiary. She had precisely in view, insisted the royal household, and that was the point. (Today, in an age where permanently having an opinion is fetishised, the Queen is perhaps the last person whose opinions remain sacredly unknown.) At the coronation itself, Noel Coward made a joke about the Queen of Tonga so outrageous that he uncharacteristically disowned it , perhaps worrying that he’d be cancelled. In fact, he felt he had been canceled in Tonga, judging that a planned visit the following year had been rendered “quite impossible”.
Snubs closer to home remain a huge part of many royal occasions, as they have been since long before the 13th fairy failed to make the cut for Sleeping Beauty’s christening. Kim Kardashian, presently on some kind of unilateral state visit to the UK, reportedly sought to gain an invitation to Saturday’s jubilee party, but was rebuffed. Other no-shows? I couldn’t believe it when Prince Andrew announced he had Covid and therefore would not be attending today’s service at St Paul’s. That was the exact same excuse I was going to use to get out of writing a column on a bank holiday, but then I remembered that I’d had it in January, and also haven’t just paid £12m to an accuser in a sexual assault case. So here we are. And, indeed, here the Duke of York is not.
In 1953, even celebrated photographer Cecil Beaton feared he’d be NFI, though he needn’t have worried. He took the mesmerisingly bravery official portraits of the new Queen, not in the Abbey itself, but afterwards, and against a painted, impressionistic backdrop of the church. Beaton perhaps always understood that royalty needed extra artifice to work – succeeding most dramatically as a representation of a representation. His dreamlike coronation picture stands in poignant contrast to the rather artless photo of the Queen released to mark the platinum jubilee. Presumably the sitter has gotten somewhat bored of this process over the decades, but then a wistful nostalgia is quintessential to all royal occasions. Many cannot watch without wondering if the country just did things better in a past that is constantly retreating.
“The coronation was a phoenix-time,” Princess Margaret once said. “Everything was being raised from the ashes. There was this gorgeous-looking, lovely young lady, and nothing to stop anything getting better and better.” This isn’t quite the whole story of that post-imperial moment, but it’s rather difficult to avoid the unfortunate contrasts with our present one, where it currently feels to many as though there is little to stop things getting worse and worse.
Ah, there it is again. Encouraging us to look backward and forward at the same time, at the same-yet-different of it all. This is perhaps the trick of royalty in its most successful form. You don’t have to like it – that would be absurd. But to be unable to find anything to be interested in about it at all, well … that seems a wasted opportunity, and none of us can drink to that.
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