Jun 02

The Jubilee Stuff

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World Cup & Jubilee: coincidence, conjunction. England’s presence in Japan means that that event, in the mind of England, is about England. So is the Jubilee – isn’t it? Or is the Queen a different semiotic location from England – or is she Britain, a slightly different thing again? In practice the differences don’t count: the Jubilee is about patriotism, meaning ‘England’, as is the World Cup.

The Jubilee is a date: the World Cup happens on dates. The Jubilee is scripted: songs whose melodies and words have been learned. The World Cup cannot be thus planned. The Jubilee commemorates – does it? No, it celebrates: it’s not really about the past, it’s about the continuity of past into present: about survival. It marks that something is ongoing. The World Cup is not thus continuous, save that this team is the heir to older teams: ‘the England team’ is like the monarchy in that sense, an institution whose members change. The Jubilee is an outburst of money, noise, colour, feelings, motion, to mark something: it represents. The World Cup isn’t really a representation, save that the teams represent their nations (maybe that’s substantial): it’s an extended, complex action, whose structure but not whose contents are predictable.

And the World Cup is not really about England. An England run enlivens things tremendously: but these tournaments revolve around other teams. England will fail (to win, not necessarily to match hopes): ‘England at the World Cup’ must in some sense be a failure, where the Jubilee can only be a success.

The presence of the World Cup, of England’s opening match smack in the midst of these days, helps the Jubilee, for it provokes and releases much spontaneous, easily expressed feeling that can be transferred to the Jubilee. Are those St George flags that passing cars wear an homage to the Queen, or a wish for England? My assumption was the latter: then I remembered the Jubilee (the thing about the Jubilee – it’s so forgettable), wondered if I must change the assumption. But no, I think it’s happy accident: the World Cup offers an alibi for the Jubilee (that would mean you can be ‘patriotic’ and get away with it thanks to footy), or vice versa (you can bang on about ‘England’ and justify it via the Jubilee).

The World Cup arouses direct feelings, though it’s across the globe. The Jubilee arouses uncertain feelings, halting thoughts, though it’s in our town.

‘Jubilee’ – for some from now that maybe says 2002 (awkward number! but less awkward than – 2003), ‘Gold’. But for many it seems to say silver: 1977. The silver of teaspoons: their enlarged ends represented the royals in text or image. But the colours were the Union colours, the red white and blue. I look at last week’s Independent on Sunday: they splash a flag across half a page, with the young Janet Street-Porter on it where the Pistols put the Queen. The point is, the colours say Jubilee: which says Silver Jubilee, 1977. Street Parties: Sex Pistols. Strange then to think of the flag in other contexts: military, BNP, draped over a Mexican terrace with Oldham written in the middle. The Union Flag and the Silver Jubilee signified each other. (Much pause here for claims that that Jubilee was more real: fuller: held more parties: showed more loyalty to the Crown. The claim lingers that 1977 was the true Jubilee.) But they both also signify that third term, punk – which has thus got entwined with them, wrapped up in the flag. This needn’t be the dull accusation of incorporation – ‘Punk is now part of a cosy English Heritage past’ – though it could be, as those words ring true. But it suggests that the revolt always had to hug its antagonist: that critique was properly immanent.

The politics of punk? Varied and real, no doubt, but they’ve become another alibi, too, another line to chuck out to evade today’s politics or their absence. ‘In the 70s, rebel rockers like Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious released ìGod Save The Queenî for the Jubilee! They were banned!’ – such a groove, now, an old one full of dust and fuzz, not blood and buzz. When Lydon talks now about ‘his’ Golden Jubilee, or praises the monarchy, maybe he’s trying to embrace and outdo that condition; to be realistic.

In the midst, on a warm Saturday night, the Smiths. Not the LP itself – so much to live down to – but the old orange tape of rehearsals. The source tapes hiss: the guitars click and echo (realistic) before and after songs. I hear that extraordinary improvisation between drums, bass and one or two guitars – had they ever practised it, or was Marr really showing it to them on the spot? When he breaks the lightweight blues to throw in a couple of trademark chords – plangent, cutting against the rhythm, changing the tone for 5 seconds – I remember how much I learned (tried to learn) from him: it feels like everything I know.

One more meaning of Jubilee: track 14 of Parklife’s generous expanse. These guitar-pop moments of self-consciousness about nation, at least once a decade: Lydon, Morrissey, Albarn. That state-of-the-nation ambience made you feel that this song would be a powerful statement of some kind. But it’s only Billy Banker (oh, really – self-parody) and the couch potato. An opportunity missed, or just a whim. But why – ‘Jubilee’? An answer: so that you could skim the tracklist, taking in the dog tracks and slumming, and see at a glance a reference to England, Englishness, all that stuff these records were supposed to be about. (The ILM article I never got round to writing, about how we should try not to think of Britpop in terms of ‘national identity’. I wish I could remember what my argument was going to be: I hope it had more substance than I can remember.)

‘Jubilee’, then: shorthand for England, feigning the intent to discuss it.

Front page of the Observer: Euan Ferguson on the Jubilee: meaning not thank you, ma’am or 50 glorious years, but the same game as this – the articulation of the shadow of meaning generated by the weekend sun, the attempt to reflect on what’s distinctive about these days plucked from time. We’ll remember it, he says; they talked of endless weekends of sun in 1939; the combination of factors, including the weather; the small details, like Irish fans queueing outside a 7am pub. I record no more: I didn’t buy it. But he’s right, at least in general. This thing becomes, unexpectedly, as big as the Millennium, which was even less intrinsically meaningful, assuming anything is.

Idle talk, all this Jubilee rambling: as though ‘national experience’ was the point. Evasion of the politics which the event ought to call up, and which I meant to address here, before deliberately distracting myself with details. The Jubilee as occasion for political reflection? This is the Guardian’s way of prompting. The Queen Mother dies: ‘time to remember and mourn; but also to look forward, and consider what kind of nation we want to be’. ‘We wish the Queen well… Her Jubilee will be celebrated by many people who, a matter of months ago, felt indifferent [oh, what need editorials: we could all write them ourselves]. But after the celebrations, Britons may wish to reflect, as many are already doing, on whether they prefer to be subjects or citizens’. ‘Time to reflect’: I suspect this phrase, like ‘What is needed is to educate people’. They mean ‘time for other people to think as we do’ – which is OK, if you believe your own beliefs – but they’re also both condemned to failure.

This event has grown to the point of displacing the political question: maybe that’s part of the point, a displacement of politics by culture. Hard, on Sunday afternoon, as BBC2 show All The Queen’s Horses (ìThe Queen has always loved horsesî), to think outside of it all, to the rights and wrongs of monarchy. The wrongs of attacking an old woman who loves dogs and horses: sympathy for the Queen. But that’s like sympathy for the postman. Personalizing it is wrong. Billy Bragg said this years ago, and I now sense that his restraint, his attempt to change the terms of the question, were the marks of a middle-ageing man who’s lived many years with the Queen, and sees the futility of desiring mere violence and revenge against her. That anger is the sign of youth, and I can’t dismiss it, for it made those one or two great records. But I better understand Bragg right now, when he sings ‘the dear old Queen of England’ in ‘Take Down The Union Jack’: it’s not sentimental, but not a real sneer either. Ignoble to hate the Queen. Understandable, then, that some embrace these rites for her? – But they do so politically: you can’t sever the political question cleanly from the froth. Eagleton said it in Ideology, a line I always found off the point till now: ‘The Queen of England’ (I paraphrase), ‘for all I know, is a charming woman: but when someone says this they are speaking ideologically, not innocently’. Can the Queen question be taken out, bracketed on a dusty shelf, while we debate the monarchy? (Another bogus phrase: to want to Debate The Monarchy is either to want to ditch it, or to seek to delay and constrain your own desire, which you doubt and fear, to ditch it.)

The monarchy is wrong. Isn’t it? The onus is on monarchists to prove otherwise. A sense may even obtain that this issue has been settled, a sense which itself leads to complacency and stasis. The likes of me have given up having opinions about the monarchy: cruel to knock them, when everyone knows they’re absurd. Even were that true, it leaves the monarchy in place. ‘Ironic royalism’: ‘I don’t believe in it, but it’s harmless enough – entertaining – fills the tabloids…’. Even this isn’t the real picture. If this event has focused the issue for anyone, it’s been to swing them behind the Queen and her 50 years, and by extension behind monarchy. Even irony about the royal family remains a minority stance: let alone passionate opposition and serious critique.

‘The monarchy is wrong because it props up and exemplifies our class system’. They’re still wheeling that one out, and it convinces me less and less. Class, for one thing, appears to have changed radically while the Queen remains. For another: lose the monarchy, and you won’t lose what class really means – financial inequality, unequal ownership of production, things that haven’t centred on monarchy for 300 years. It’s a sort of argument by analogy: I don’t like class, so I don’t like the monarchy. Maybe that’s reason enough. But what are you really going to do about class, once you’ve got rid of the monarchy? Possible to argue they make a better target, visible and obvious, than the clever shady Murdoch dynasties, the new old rulers of the world. Better the devil you know, better the political foe who wears a crown and thus makes her power, by modern lights, absurd. What lies beyond the monarchy is fearful: not the socialist spill of reactionary fear, but a higher stage of capitalism. That may not be a good reason to back the monarchy, but it’s one reason why those who’ve railed may now stay their hands.

The older we get, the gentler (but also – the more dyspeptic). Time has drained me of violent feelings towards them: partly for the maybe misguided sense that they don’t have long to run. That misguided sense might be what keeps them running for centuries more.

‘The monarchy is a principle of continuity’: is this a good argument for its survival? I think not. Continuity might possibly be an intrinsic good, but why not find it elsewhere? In things we can honestly call good rather than bad – democracy, for instance: historically young and frail. Or in things below the pseudo-depth of the Crown: like the land. What price the continuity of a dying species of warbler next to the continuity of the monarchy? One of them has done humankind no wrong.

‘Heads of State’: a red herring. ‘What – would you prefer President Branson?’: worse than a red herring, a self-condemnation, for it means ‘I don’t trust democracy’.

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