Essays: This Great Dace |
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This Great Dace

EVEN in the face of a blistering attack from the New Statesman, the monarchy survived. Though the Jubilee was exposed as a hoax, the people did not listen. At the end of the week, the Queen was still on her throne.

Metaphorically, that is. Actually she spent a lot of her time out and about. Fires of Friendship (BBC1) showed her putting the torch to a beacon in Windsor Great Park. The park, described by Raymond Baxter as ‘this marvellous green sward where Sir John Falstaff may have tripped a measure with the Merry Wives,’ was crowded with loyal subjects to a number exceeding even the total circulation of the New Statesman. Rain threatened — all week long it was to be either making threats or carrying them out — but the beacon burned a treat.

The ‘30-ton, 40-ft-high fortress of brushwood’ was the first of 102 such fortresses of brushwood due to be lit up and down the kingdom. Beacon signalled to beacon in line of sight, carrying the message that ... well, that it was time to light the beacon. The Queen looked happy. Cheers were called for by somebody entitled the Captain General of the Sealed Knot. ‘The rain has had absolutely no effect on anything.’ Finally it was time for what Baxter referred to as ‘the descent from the Royal dace.’ I had thought that a dace was a kind of fish, but repeated mentions of it by Baxter were eventually to convince me that a dace is a type of raised platform. Relays from Wales and Northern Ireland showed loyalty taking place in rain and Force 8 gales respectively.

After a perilous couple of days’ hiatus, during which the New Statesman’s revelations might easily have moved the populace to insurrection, the festivities officially resumed. The principal commentator for A Day of Celebration (BBC1) was Tom Fleming, whose favourite word is ‘great,’ in the sense of ‘large,’ although related senses are also touched upon, to the confusion of the listener. ‘This great dome ... this great National Service of Dedication ... there you see the great 300-year-old battle-axes ... Princess Alice ... splendid medieval sight ... Earl Mountbatten, a great-grandson of Queen Victoria ... and so the great procession begins to form up ... the great Coronation Anthem ... the great west door ... great.’

People who had slept outside St Paul’s emerged from their plastic rubbish bags like moths from a chrysalis to exclaim that it had been well worth the discomfort. ‘The showers of rain of early morning have passed.’ The Queen was in rosebud pink, Princess Anne in eau de nil silk with matching hat, the Duchess of Gloucester in soft yellow silk, the Prince of Wales in the uniform of a Rear Flight Admiral in the Welsh Underwater Commandos. ‘And the coach moves ... makes its stately way ... the eight fine Windsor greys ...’

Symbolically making a sharp left wheel in front of an employment agency, the coach ground to a halt before the cathedral. The Queen settled down to endure an ordeal of lessons and sermons, topped off by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who declared himself ready to back up anything Christ said to the hilt. ‘How right He was!’

Understandably still looking as sour as a quince, the Queen went walkabout through St Paul’s churchyard. ‘And how happy the Queen looks,’ crooned Fleming, over a shot of the Queen which suggested that she had just been having her teeth drilled, or had been listening to a sermon from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Fleming scaled new heights of fantasy. ‘The Duke of Edinburgh having his own joke ... his friendliness and directness ...’

Meanwhile Nationwide (BBC1) had been having a party in the studio. You could tell it was a party because Michael Barrett had his shirt outside his trousers. ‘Airborne the tribute, nationwide our affection’ was the slogan. Forced the jollity, slovenly its organisation, the party grimly rollicked on. There was pale jiving to the music of Humphrey Lyttelton. A relay from Wales showed a man kicking a red, white and blue football into a river, where it was retrieved by a rescue boat while a choir sang.

Water was the theme in The Thames Royal River Pageant and Fireworks (BBC1). Not only was the river full of it, but it was falling out of the sky also. Since music was involved, Richard Baker had naturally been deputed to help evoke the scene, but the main speaker was Michael Barrett, back again after a change of shirt. ‘We’ve had umbrellas up and umbrellas down again ... umbrellas, there’s one of them ...’

Raymond Baxter was on one of the boats in the pageant. We heard him as a voice-over, describing his excitement as he passed the Royal dace. The fireworks were held up while the Queen went walkabout. ‘Well, the fireworks should have started five minutes ago ...’ fussed Barrett. ‘The crowd still so happy, so content ...’ Barrett proved this with some impromptu vox pops. ‘Why do you stand here hour after hour ... in the rain ...?’ The boats and floats were pretty tatty, but the fireworks looked passable. Afterwards thousands of people chased the Queen back to the palace. It was a sight to gladden the hearts of New Statesman contributors. The citadel of privilege besieged by the masses!

While the angry peasants and proletarians went on shouting for the Queen’s head, Tonight (BBC1) examined the question of how the Jubilee had been reported to other nations. Sally Quinn of the American breakfast programme ‘Today’ had apparently said that the Queen looked cheesed off in St Paul’s. John Timpson and his hairstyle wondered whether it was really quite cricket to suggest that the Queen had looked cheesed off in St Paul’s. The unarguable fact that the Queen had looked cheesed off in St Paul’s did not come up for consideration.

A representative from the Soviet Press irrefutably said that there had been no monarchy in Russia since 1917. A Frenchman proclaimed his own homeland similarly devoid. It was taken as axiomatic that countries which had murdered their monarchs should take some kind of interest in countries which had not. Not that they were all that interested, oh no. After all, Britain had problems which perhaps the Jubilee served only to conceal. This assumption accorded well with the thesis advanced by the New Statesman, wherein Mr Mervyn Jones had argued that the Jubilee was tantamount to a planned deception.

I suppose the whole Jubilee has been a bit of a dream, but there are worse dreams to have. A Tass man who imagines that he is an inhabitant of a rational society is really far more lost in dementia than a bedraggled Briton staunchly waving a toy flag in the pouring rain. Rationality is largely a meaningless concept when applied to societies, which can’t be thought up — they have to happen. What we ought to ask of them is how just they are. On that score, Britain still does fairly well. Perhaps it could do better if it had more efficient ways of creating and sharing wealth, but only the hopelessly overconfident imagine that these would be naturally forthcoming upon the dissolution of the monarchy. I speak, of course, as an outsider, born in a country where money grows on trees.

The Observer, 12th June 1977