The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and the Strange Life of Royals

We try to use language to avoid cliché, but there are certain public occasions that are so deliberately crafted as clichés, or so allow themselves to be entangled in them—clichés in the positive sense of consoling continuities, familiar things that capture unchanging tradition, like Christmas lights or the first pitch of baseball season—that to avoid the cliché is to fail to capture the event properly. An event of that kind can slip away uncaught, because resisting the familiar language resists the familiar point. Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee—her platinum, in fact, celebrating seventy years since her coronation—which began to be seriously, formally celebrated in London on Thursday, at the start of a four-day bank-holiday weekend, is of that kind. One looks for signs of discontent, dismay, the disconsolate, and the disillusioned—all the disses, in fact—and, though they must be lurking, on these days they merely lurk. There is Partygate, the scandal surrounding Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s participation, or non-participation, in a series of Downing Street parties held in defiance of lock-down rules, and Brexit, which to a cosmopolitan outsider seems like the squalid, pointless mess it was always sure to be, but they are not on the day’s shipping manifest. What is manifest, instead, is a touchingly resilient holiday spirit.

Around 1 P.M. on Thursday, the Jubilee flyby flew by. Composed of composite elements of the British armed forces—first helicopters, looking at once comic and ominous, like giant double-winged dragonflies, then neatly organized runs of vintage propeller planes, flying worryingly low over the south of England—it finished with fifteen Royal Air Force jets forming, with what at first seemed peculiar asymmetry but then quickly revealed itself to be a giant “7” and an accompanying “0”—a virtuosic feat. The jets were followed by nine Red Arrows, the R.A.F.’s aerobatic squadron, which trailed the colors of the Union Jack: red, blue, and white (which are somehow differentiated from the American or French hues of the same colors; that all three flags share the same colors but are somehow always seen, on their home ground, at least, as distinct, is a small modern miracle).

Later, walking through Hyde Park, in an enormous multicultural crowd—as diverse as modern Britain is—had the same holiday feeling. One did not have to be an aficionado of nineteenth-century literature to recognize, in the pastimes on display, verbs in pleasant ways continuous with the past. Children larked, dogs romped, and weary grownups slumbered, while some enjoyed a restorative, and others were, well, deep in conversation. Meanwhile, parties of locals roistered and feasted—or, at least, emerged from a Pret a Manger. These clichés, too, seemed unforced. If people seemed less dressed up than they would have been at such an event seventy years ago, wearing shorts and T-shirts and jogging pants and sneakers—sorry, “trainers,” as the British call them—the hum and vibe of the city seemed to have none of the threatening energy that a London celebration can sometimes have, overcharged as such occasions can be, particularly when football-related. No, this seemed happy. Very cheery. Nice enough for now.

The Queen herself made an appearance on the familiar Buckingham Palace balcony, accompanied by the eighty-six-year-old Duke of Kent, along with Prince Charles, Prince William, Princess Anne, and Prince Edward—all resplendent, another applicable cliché, in tunic, sash, and medals—and various other family members. The Queen was immediately visible on every phone in every hand along the London streets, as she must, at the time of her coronation, have been visible on every black-and-white television in every shop window, and one realizes, even when not a monarchist (or not much of one), how much magnificence there is in simple persistence. Seventy years is a long time—in 1952, television was just beginning, a woman was not remotely considered Prime Minister material, Jack Kennedy was a skinny young congressman, and the Beatles were still boys.

Naturally, the Jubilee has inspired the British publishing industry. Countless new books have appeared on the Queen and her reign, most of them reverent if not worshipful in tone. There is even an official Platinum Jubilee textbook, distributed to primary schools across the nation, and presented to one primary school in particular by the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi—it is some sign of how much Britain has altered during the past seventy years that there is an Education Secretary at all (the post was only created in 1964; before that, there was only a minister) and that the current one is named Nadhim Zahawi. No republican manifesto seems to have made it onto the best-seller lists, though the Twitter hashtag #abolishthemonarchy certainly has had its moment.

It is, nonetheless, possible to read the literature of the Jubilee with a skeptical smile. The fine English parodist Craig Brown has written a best-selling book about the Queen’s late sister, Princess Margaret, called “Ma’am Darling,” which is, in essence, a critical anthology of royal clichés. Each turn in Margaret’s tale is taken chronologically, but they add up to an anti-biography, since the outlines of the actual person are much weaker than the lineaments of the public image, which is refracted through countless adoring worshippers at the royal fount—some of them such usually hard-to-fool witnesses as Kenneth Tynan and Gore Vidal. Each moment of the princess’s life is described not magisterially but provisionally and kaleidoscopically—first with the details related enviously by some diarist, or shared in some tell-all, and then with a comparison to how it was related by another diarist or shared in another tell-all. One realizes that to be forced into a uniquely public role is to be dissolved by it.

Celebrity, John Updike said once, is a mask that eats into the face, but where, for almost all but the very famous, some face remains, the royals were born with masks and seem to want only a chance to take them off and see what faces might lie beneath. That was Margaret’s case, it seems, and one feels for the imprisonment, even if the royal prerogatives she enjoyed—one can’t really call them “privileges,” in the American sense, as they carry numberless dreary obligations alongside the sweet stuff—can appear unbelievable. The custom of the country is that you can’t leave a party until the royalty does. That left many guests, friendly and unfriendly, waiting for Princess Margaret to be done partying before they could think of going home.

At one such party, Vidal is said to have mentioned to Margaret that Jackie Kennedy found the Queen, her sister, “pretty heavy going,” and the princess replied, “That’s what she’s there for.” Heavy going, gone on long enough, does lighten one’s verdict. It was hard not to be moved by the Queen’s appearance, as a reminder of the power of cliché to stir us, even when we recognize it as such. Some clichés feign at continuity; some reflect it. The Jubilee events feel persuasively traditional and national, even if, as an American, one feels left out.

The alarming but not surprising news arrived late on Thursday that the Queen was, again, having “episodic mobility problems” and so would miss Friday’s service at St. Paul’s, a reminder that the central indignity of old age lies in a machine no longer biddable to its owner’s purposes, or to the mind’s motivations. Beacons have been lit across the country—there have apparently been panicked emergency calls in Yorkshire, with wily Northerners rightly concerned about the fires—and street parties in the streets that want them will continue through the weekend.

“Never such innocence again,” Philip Larkin wrote about a photograph of soldiers taken in the catastrophic year of 1914—who at that moment looked to Larkin like ordinary people enjoying bank-holiday pleasures. Perhaps such innocence is less a thing drained and never to be replenished than an illusion fitfully sustained and capable of being sporadically revived, at least for an afternoon or two in June.

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