Well, it’s being billed as such a special event, something historic and special, so how can we not go? But the problems were entirely predictable. We predicted them, but we went anyway!
It’s the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, celebrating her 60 years on the throne. Someone’s had the idea of a regatta on the Thames, inspired by old paintings like the one that’s been blown up and plastered over a hoarding at London Bridge station. Caneletto, ‘The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day’, 1752!
On the day, the weather forecast is bad, but I decide the regatta is something I may as well participate in, whilst I’m living in London, so I set off with my companion into central London.
A few days earlier I’ve, by chance, been on a coach that has driven all the way along the south side of the river, and so have seen some of the preparations. Namely – vast quantities of portable toilets, block after blue block all the way along the Embankment, from the City, to Westminster, to Chelsea. I’m impressed that someone has addressed this issue (memories of being in central London for the turn of the millennium springing to mind, where there were no public toilets in sight and people – women included – were forced to make free use of the streets).
But it’s not the toilets that are the problem. It’s not even the weather, which starts out bad and gets gradually and then torrentially worse during the course of the day – such a shame when the previous week was nice and sunny, and people are saying that the nice weather came a bit too early.
The problem – the flaw in the whole idea – is that it’s not a good spectator event. All the best viewpoints by the side of the river are cordoned off for private use, including most of the bridges which have been allocated as ‘by invitation only’. For most of the areas where people have been encouraged to gather, there are no raised stands, only a flat road beside the river. So basically only those people who have reserved their place by the side of the river hours in advance, or otherwise fought their way to the front of the mob, have any chance of seeing a thing. Behind the front one or two rows who have line of sight of the river, are approximately twenty more rows of people pushing forward, crowding, straining for a glimpse of what there might be to see.
We have decided to head for the Embankment/Temple area, on the basis that if it’s busy in one spot, you might be able to move down further to find a better view.
Nothing doing. The crowd is solid in both directions. You push your way past people one way then the other, never once catching sight even of a glimpse of the water in the river, never mind what might be on it.
And the organisers must have known this, as every few hundred yards are giant screens showing the public pictures of what’s happening on the river right next to them, but which they can’t see.
We soon give up hope of seeing what we’ve come to see, but since we’re there anyway, decide to stay put in the vicinity for the duration of the event, not least because the crowds are so vast you can hardly move in any direction anyway.
We stand in the rain with everyone else, reluctantly looking at the screens, eating massively overpriced burgers, and surrounded by a cacophony of disappointed children complaining that they can’t see the Queen, or even any boats whatsoever. Vast numbers of parents, who presumably had made the effort so as to enable their children to witness a historic moment, had the difficult task of dealing with their children’s disappointment that day!
Time creeps by and gradually the flotilla of small boats passes by, the bells, the orchestras, the various other craft, and eventually the Queen & Co. We don’t see any of it. The Queen’s passing is marked by a Mexican wave of cheering along the river bank.
What a disappointment, what an anti-climax, what a waste of time! Far better to have stayed at home and watched it on telly!
Then it starts to rain even worse and as the crowd thins just a little, we manage to get within about five rows of the river bank and get the occasional glimpse of some of the sodden boats going past in the downpour.
I do see, in the distance, the puppet horse from the War Horse play (which I enjoyed so much) rear up on the top of the South Bank Centre.
I do manage to get one or two interesting ‘people shots’ with my camera, for example a bedraggled policeman standing against a lamppost, and eccentric people with painted faces waving flags.
Standing for ages in the rain by the side of the Thames during the Jubilee Pageant didn’t score very highly in terms of an interesting experience or a successful spectator event. (The horror of trying to get away afterwards wasn’t much fun either – soaked by the pouring rain and having to walk miles to find an open tube station, all the roads being closed and there being no buses or taxis anywhere near, and the few cafés and pubs that were open all packed and with queues outside.)
But it was certainly memorable and atmospheric.
(I doubt Her Majesty enjoyed it much either.)