I gather from the emails I’ve been getting from home that Americans thoroughly enjoyed the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
When I was making my plans for the summer, one of my friends asked if I was going to attend. Well, I did and I didn’t. I didn’t even attempt to get up to London for the spectacle. Along with folks back home, I was glued to the TV whilst watching the fantastic array of boats in the flotilla.
And, I could add, nursing a mug of hot tea and thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t getting drenched to the bone like those wonderfully gutsy singers from the Royal College of Music!
As the lazy drizzle was thinking about turning into determined rain, the UK commentator had somewhat smugly observed, “That’s the beauty of a maritime event — the participants don’t mind getting a bit wet.” By the end, he’d lost his smugness.
So I missed the rain in London but I caught the local celebrations in Benson, Oxfordshire, and a right jolly occasion it was, too: band concert, cream teas, hog roast, steam engines, vintage bicycles and cars, kids’ games — all the fun of a fair with a spritz of Royal enthusiasm to give it some added zing.
For Americans, a “cream tea” is tea with scones (like a baking powder biscuit, but slightly sweet), the scones being topped with Cornish clotted cream (which is heated over hot water or steam and then allowed to cool slowly, producing cream so stiff it can be spread like butter, with a bit of a nutty taste), and jam. As I settled down to mine, two women were headed for the serving area, talking about Weight Watchers. I had the feeling if they were looking for Weight Watchers, they were headed the wrong direction. Guaranteed delicious, guaranteed fattening for us sedentary moderns, it dates from the days of yore when a lot of people were just that little bit undernourished, and rich cream was a not only a delicacy, but a bit of energy-giving nutrition in their limited diet.
People had been invited to come in ’50s dress. Not many had the items still stashed in their closets, but a few enlivened the scene by getting right into the spirit of things.
At the vintage bike display, people were allowed to take a spin around the field in a dual-pedal “buggy.”
Other vintage bikes included adult tricycles with one wheel in the back and two in front (supposed to be more stable in cornering), and a number of penny-farthings (those bikes with a huge front wheel and a tiny rear one), including some for children, and a modern reproduction whose owner, Grahame Catherall, rides in rallies. I asked to get a picture of him with it, but he offered to get me up on it instead. It’s not obvious in the photo, but it’s in a stand, so I wasn’t going anyplace. And I may look confident in the picture … but pictures lie.
Someone else told me why they’re built like that: before chain drives and gears were invented, the larger the front wheel, the more speed you could get, since each turn of the pedals gives exactly one turn of the wheel. I had supposed they could be dangerous if you lost your balance and fell sideways, but in fact the biggest danger was hitting a rut or a stone, and flying straight over the handlebars. Not surprisingly, when modern bikes were invented, they were known as “safety” bicycles!
Britons have a love affair with steam engines, even miniature ones. There were several on display, and the owners were taking people for rides.
After a few tug-of-war contests, the organizer announced a different kind — all the children versus a turn-of-the-century steam roller. About 50 kids pulled with all their might and actually managed to pull the gigantic engine back a ways — until the driver put it into gear. CHUG! … CHUG! … And with no resistance at all, except for a lot of screaming and laughing, the monster machine had its way.
While looking at a display of children’s art celebrating the Jubilee, I thought of the anti-monarchy feelings there had been in the air when I came back to America from Britain 12 years ago. There’s still a little bit of that, but this year people are happy with their Queen and her family. Several of the older people told me about their memories of the coronation, of watching it on the telly — there had been a huge jump in sales of televisions just so Brits could see the coronation — and the street parties, with tables set up right down the middle of the street and residents organizing a real festival.
Yes, Brits are fond of the Queen. Most of the criticism comes from people who point out that “She’s just a person, like us, and why should she have all that attention?” But many more people reacted like Bill Pattison, recently Benson’s Chairman of the Parish Council. He is neither staunchly pro- nor anti-monarchy, but he approved of them on the whole. “I think they’re better for the country than not having them — otherwise it’d just be the politicians. Better to have something constant and apolitical.” Considering the USA in an election year, I had the uncomfortable feeling Bill might have a point.
Bill was the main organizer for Benson’s Jubilee celebration, though he modestly said it was all down to support from the community. That community started planning things nearly two years ago. In the end, I felt the Jubilee wasn’t just about the Queen, or even about the institution of the Royal Family. Really, the whole gigantic celebration was about a sense of community. The Union Jacks, souvenir teacups, parties, parades, concerts and ceremonies were all an expression of British solidarity.
Of course, there are real divisions in Britain. Some British politicians are as far-out as some of our American ones. But the Queen and her family are there as a counterweight, a kind of stabilizer when the politicians start getting too self-important. It might be working. I haven’t seen the corrosive polarization we’re currently experiencing in the USA. Not that I want America to have a monarchy. But it might clear the air if we paid more attention to our similarities than our differences.