I’m not exactly of the royalist persuasion, so what I’m doing down near the Tower of London waiting for the Queen’s Jubilee boat parade can only be explained as some kind of aberration or alternatively just the desire to be able to say ‘I woz there’ to people who will probably be annoyed with me if I miss the opportunity. Or perhaps a forelock-tucking vestige of personality remains deep-down; deary me, how we Brits are trained to bob and curtsey before a bit of pageantry and a title or two.
The night before saw glorious rain and today is no different: the crowd gathered in and around Tower Hill Terrace and Petty Wales huddle together under a grey, overcast sky with umbrellas close to hand. It’s crowded but not painfully so; many people seem to be moving around trying to work out where the best place is to see from; the riverbank here is closed off to all except a select few. There’s plenty of flags being waved, many of them decorated with the logos of OK!, Hello magazine, or the Daily Mirror, which seems somehow at the same time both awful and awfully appropriate. A few people are dressed in costume; the one that sticks in mind is the young woman both dressed and made up in red, white and blue, whose white-painted face makes her look either like a sad clown or an 18th century rake.
Everyone has turned up with much time to go, and is eagerly standing on tiptoe to peer at the cold, brown river just in case anything happens. Nothing will for quite some time, but people are peering anyway. Even I’m doing this, which is daft; there’s a bunch of artillery guns down on the riverside which are obviously there for a salute, and those will surely go off before any boats go past. A wicked streak of imagination rises up as I picture these guns being mis-fired: wouldn’t it be the most truly British way of doing things, in the best traditions of Dad’s Army, to finish off the Jubilee parade by accidentally sending the Queen’s boat to the bottom of the Thames?
As the rain finally starts to fall, umbrellas surface all across the crowd, followed swiftly by cries of ‘We can’t see! Get yer brollies down!’ The latter turns into a refrain: ‘Get yer brollies down! GET YER BROLLIES DOWN!!’ Slowly people get the message and the forest of umbrellas thins, with cheers greeting each one lowered. A ginger-haired young man in front of me protests good-naturedly, ‘There’s nothing to see!’ But of course, even if there is nothing to see, people want to be able to see it. It all feels much like the Sermon on the Mount scene of Life of Brian, with Jesus at the top of the hill speaking beautiful words while all the way at the back of the crowd people are shouting ‘Speak up!!’
The artillery guns start to fire off, BOOM BOOM BOOM. It goes on for a while before I think to start counting; it sounds like they’re doing a shot for every year of the reign. The rain starts up a bit more heavily, and the umbrellas reappear, together with the return of the refrain: ‘Get yer brollies down! We can’t see bugger all! Bloody selfish!’
When the boats finally start to come past they are at first barely visible; there is an angle through the crowd where you can see through to HMS Belfast and just catch a glimpse of them, and a little while later they can be seen over the heads of the crowds in the open water leading up to Tower Bridge. The second or third boat is bedecked with all the flags of the United Kingdom and at the front stands someone, dressed in what looks like a Beefeater’s uniform, waving to all the crowds; you can see people wondering, sometimes aloud, ‘Was that the Queen?’
More boats, and nothing confirmedly royal. A little girl on her father’s shoulders asks, ‘Can we go home now?’ When she realizes that the Queen hasn’t yet gone past, she starts asking after every boat; and then when she’s told that she can see better than her parents, every boat contains the Queen. More flag-bedecked boats go by; perhaps the flags of the Commonwealth nations?
Suddenly people get excited — there is a vibrant flash of colour visible in front of HMS Belfast, a flag that is unmistakeably the royal standard, and on the boat, a tiny white blob. A Scottish fellow in the crowd behind me is ecstatic: ‘Oh, it’s her, it’s her! Ohhh, it’s so lovely!’ And he dances off into the crowd to get a closer look, though whether he’ll succeed is doubtful; the crowd in front is crushing up as close as they can get to the riverbank, which is still some way distant, and only the people on the towers can possibly really see anything clearly. The boat becomes visible again, heading on towards Tower Bridge, bedecked in its bright royal insignia. There again is the little white blob, though whether it’s really the Queen you couldn’t tell for the life of you. Personally I think that if I’d been on the throne 60 years I wouldn’t want to be here on this rainy, windy day; I’d get a lookalike to do it and sit at home with a cup of cocoa, watching the whole thing on TV.
Rather aptly, the weather decides that it too has had enough of waiting around and chooses this moment to begin the rain in earnest. If people weren’t already starting to wander off, this decides it, with just about everyone turning round and heading for the tube station. We came; we waited; and finally we saw, as a white blob in the far distance, the Queen of England. And it most definitely rained on her parade.