Jun 02

The Jubilee Stuff

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Ian Sansom on ‘essential’ books, pocket libraries – I don’t buy it: each library should be singular. Such libraries depend on copies, on the muliplicity of instances of a given title. A corridor’s worth of academics: down ten offices, how many copies of the same book, unknown to each other? Something we don’t discuss, in (for instance) pop: ‘that LP’ means ‘my copy of that LP’, but also ‘your copy of that LP’, maybe even ‘every copy of that LP’. The proliferation has a hint of redundancy: but that’s wrong, for every life needs its own copy. Copies are like guns in a Western.

I put the TV on: special floats and showboaters parading down the Mall for the royals’ benefit. Somehow I must go: what use watching this on TV, when London is in reach? I go, catch a train: I could be a lone gunman, for all my inchoate feeling. London feels like the millennium: that end of an era on the South Bank, drawing a line in time.

Trafalgar Square: crowds on the south side. A cork of police stops the end of the Mall. It’s full already: masses line the avenue watching parades go by. I stand by the cops, make notes, read Thomson’s introduction. Ghosts, what else? In the Square proper, a big screen shows action: African dancers, the snail’s progress of a Notting Hill float, the dullards at the centre of it all, forced into relative impassivity. One or two floats amaze: Best of British Talent, a load of cardboard cut-outs plus Cliff Richard (a combination devised, surely, just in order to provide scope for jokes in tomorrow’s TV columns); and jubilee representations of the last five decades, with what looks like cod retro activity on the back, and – more strikingly – newspaper headlines on the front. So towards the Queen sail ‘MINERS AND POLICE BATTLE AT ORGREAVE’ – that’s bad enough, a bit of politics, into the face of one who all must deny is above and beyond the political: but worse madness follows in ‘the 90s’: ‘DIANA KILLED IN PARIS CAR CRASH’. Even I wouldn’t have chosen that as central news: those with an interest in not doing so managed to do it. Retro culture as official culture: ‘ironic nostalgia’ as royal command. A landmark passed.

The last event passes us in the square, and what follows is police: sheepish walkers in navy and white. Cheers of ironic tribute: and for a while I can’t tell whether these are part of the procession, or the necessary guards at the end of it: police, or a representation of the police.

When all’s passed, the police line leads the masses into the Mall, and they creep up it: we see it on screen, this event happening just down the road: an extraordinary sight, a pageant in tribute. Yet the spontaneity is staged: watching the maneouvres, as they wave their union flags and she emerges on the balcony ‘not once, not twice, but three times’, as ITV’s shameful newscaster tells us later, is to feel the march of management. Peter Mandelson, Adam Crozier: Blair entering Downing Street, Prince Charles pulling a silly face and surging in popularity, the BBC showing us Ian Wright celebrating a goal in the studio. Staged populism: broad strokes orchestrated from an unseen centre. Here, at least, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

So does the essential fact about it all: people slavishly, embarrassingly paying tribute to a bunch in no way better than them. A spectacle of arbitrary privilege, if not power, so blatant as to become invisible to everyone watching it. But the scale of the event also excites: giddiness of being round the corner from such immensity. The cops nip to McDonald’s: buy cokes amid the deafening sweat.

The crowd around me is mostly white: middle-England types, maybe, save that no-one knows what that means. Not all old soldiers: families, and what seem like ‘young professionals’ aplenty. Casually glamorous girls, bulging through national colours. Why are you here? Monarchists, yes: to queue all night in the Mall you’d have to mean it, man. But more than that are day-trippers: people here because it feels like the place to be, especially with the kids. ‘Let’s see what’s happening’. Vagueness, hazy holiday benevolence.

Knowing it’s nearly over, the crowd watches the skies: eyes flick around the horizon. For we know a Fly-Past is coming: and when it comes, we see it first on TV, on the sudden screen’s transition from the grounded images we now know – crowd and palace – to an image of the air, out of nowhere, and a bomber flying straight at the camera. Mass gasps: montage of manipulation, all the more potent for its lack of audible anchoring voice, and for the knowledge that this is not on the other side of anywhere save the Chandos. They come: warplanes, dashing over us, flying low, primed to pass over Nelson, down the Mall like a runway, over the palace and away. Bombers: Lancasters and Hurricanes for all I know, for the talk is of representing the ages, progressing through time. Dark rigid wings: empty menace. A strange kind of tribute, so martial: maybe that’s what tributes always were, but the afternoon has been about cultures and colours, disabled child choirs and interviews with Jimmy Savile. The withheld ferocity of the aircraft contravenes that, overrides it – and that’s its thrill, the feeling public spectacles give you, of meanings clashing and needing to be stirred and digested through the crush of the crowd, who all may be feeling some other thing, assuming other connotations. (The grandiloquent truth of gestures / On life’s great occasions. – But ‘truth’?) Men around me know better how to read the planes, naming and cataloguing, their thrills building. (Was music playing? I can’t recall.) The sky, the screen, and back again. A dangerous-looking, sleek dark modern plane: ‘That’s Concorde’, says an old geezer, authoritatively and wrongly. – No, that’s not Concorde, says a merely middle-aged enthusiast. Last thing, a rumble from the crowd, a signal in advance: telegraph of the collective. Over the rooftops and over us comes a formation: Concorde, a long curved silhouette, flanked and followed by the Red Arrows. Above us they release red, white and blue smoke: a flag that lingers briefly behind them, then disappears like an image from a pop lyric – with all the clarity that the hazy can bring.

It’s the combination that does it: Concorde and the Red Arrows, at once? Impossible. Godzilla vs King Kong. The stuff of a children’s comic, circa 1978. More themes from retro, if unwittingly: extravagantly backward, from an original idea by Alan Partridge. This helps makes it sensational. That fellow beside me enthuses, his eyes aflame: Ohhh, what about that – Concorde and the Red Arrows – you can’t believe it, can you? You’ll never forget it, will you? You’ll never forget that. He shakes my hand, as they do in these World Cup days.

The rain starts to fall, as if timed by the hidden hand of the New Monarchy. Down the Strand again: the same ‘queueing system’ as last night, the same cops and mounts. The rain falls as the train coasts over the river, past the girders. The past moments were so overwhelming, I look at people through the glass walls of the South Bank and ungenerously, even stupidly, wonder: what are you doing there? – you fools – there was no mileage in ‘avoiding the Jubilee’. You had to go in head on, go through it. And out the other side, into the returning rain.

I follow the news of it all, the no-news good news that isn’t even good. They show the last planes swooping up into the sky at the top of the programme: they look less spectacular now. The coverage infuriates again. Stand in a crowd of English people out for a good time, and feel the vague bonhomie. Watch the terrified news channelling all into deference – into tribute to a great immorality – and feel it again, the old feeling, the surge of anger at the whole shebang, the wrongs of it all, which may one day be overcome.

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