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Tim Adams, Sunday 3rd June 2012 00:01
Joseph Bennett, the designer of the royal barge, was casting a positive aesthetic spin on the grey skies, light drizzle and gathering winds on the Thames on Saturday morning.
"Maybe we will have that classic drab 1930s look to the day tomorrow, very regal," he suggested brightly. Even so, when we spoke he had just been out to his car to get a few last-minute tubes of silicone mastic, to make sure his refitted royal vessel was properly watertight.
"We really want to avoid drips," he said, of the barge, which he hopes will have the feel of a "floating palace balcony, quite informal".
While earlier in the week Bennett's chief anxiety looked likely to be protecting the head of the head of state from too much sun, now the priority was keeping Her Majesty dry. Canaletto's sparkling Venetian canalscapes had been one inspiration for his design, but looking at the weather forecast Turner might appear a more useful artistic guide. "We are prepared for the worst, and hoping for the best," he said. "Whatever, though, it will be great fun."
Down at St Katharine Docks it was impossible to dispute that prediction. It was the inspired idea of royal pageant master Adrian Evans, enthusiastically endorsed by the mayor and the palace, to add water to today's proceedings, and as any student of Jeux Sans Frontières will recall, nothing else quite guarantees joyful unpredictability.
Who wants to watch another plod down the Mall in a gold coach when you can witness a thousand boats of all shapes, sizes and capabilities, competing for space under ancient bridges on a seven-mile stretch of choppy river?
The tall ships and assorted skiffs and yachts and clippers that will form the Avenue of Sail for the downriver part of the procession had started to come in on the Thames tide last Wednesday.
Early on Saturday morning all were anchored present and correct in their appointed moorings under Tower Bridge. The Shard up ahead was half in cloud; the turreted bulk of the Tower itself, outside which Beefeaters were all ears on crackling walkie-talkies, had seen it all before.
Walking around the harbour, and along the river path, ubiquitous union flags and pageant ensigns whipped in the wind and provided just about all the colour the light afforded, but the boats were also decked in history.
Some were reminders of pageants past, including the Amazon, the only unrestored survivor of Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee; others, like the Boadicea, a 200-year-old oyster smack from the Thames estuary, carried memories of this river's stories; and a few, like the diminutive Gipsy Moth IV and Suhaili, respectively the first single-handed circumnavigator of the globe and the first to repeat the feat non-stop, are bits of island iconography in their own right.
When he introduced the concept of the flotilla, the mayor, Boris Johnson, had spoken with boyish glee of the "royal quinquereme", and, never shy of affecting Churchillian rhetoric, evoked the spirit of Dunkirk "only more cheerful and successful". That spirit will be much in evidence both in symbolism and in fact. In these times of "Keep Calm and Carry On" anxieties the genuine emergency of 1940 is always a salutary example, and one materially preserved in many of the boats here.
Typical of that story is Tim Dansie's converted lifeboat, Stenoa, which he had brought up from the Walton Backwaters on the Essex coast, with an overnight stop at the Isle of Sheppey last Wednesday. The Stenoa did many years' service as the Newhaven lifeboat, but her finest hour, Dansie explains, was on the Pas de Calais beaches, from which she brought 148 soldiers home to Folkestone and safety.
Appropriately enough, after the war, Stenoa became more of an R&R craft. Dansie's father bought her in 1969 and refitted her as a family holiday boat, though she has been back to France several times, periodically, in Dunkirk anniversaries. Dansie's father shares a fighting spirit with his boat. Now 83 and suffering with Parkinson's disease, he will come down to Liverpool Street by train and be pushed across London in a wheelchair to be with his his sons and grandchildren. "We tried to suggest that it might be too much but he was having none of it, so now we are doing everything we can to get the old dog on board," Dansie says.
That enthusiasm to take part is at the heart of what the palace were hoping for from this weekend. Not everyone who has travelled to the river from far and wide, however, is coming to celebrate the occasion. Also opposite the Tower (which might once have imprisoned them) the Republic movement will be mustering up to 2,000 protesters against the pageant.
"Someone just called me up to say they are coming over from Northern Ireland. Others are coming from the highlands of Scotland and the tip of Cornwall," Graham Smith, the organiser, tells me.
He's not expecting any trouble. "The mood on the river will be everyone wanting to have a nice day out – a fact routinely interpreted by the shameful BBC as universal adoration for the monarchy." He hopes at the very least the protesters' presence "will encourage people to forget this idea of the monarch as some kind of mythical fantasy figure." What will his banners say? I ask.
"The obvious," Smith suggests, "Make Monarchy History and Don't Jubilee've It.."
Doubters will undoubtedly be outnumbered, however, at least beside the river, by the faithful. Like all the best quasi-mystical events this one will feature not only rituals of water but also the conjuring of fire and the breaking of bread.
Bruno Peek OBE styles himself as pageant master of the royal beacons, but really he is the nation's firestarter in chief. He got his break in national pyrotechnics with a tourist campaign called Fire over England in 1981, and has been keeping the home fires burning ever since. He's done Trafalgar beacons and millennium blazes but conflagration will surpass anything he has orchestrated before.
"We had about 1,800 beacons for the Queen's golden jubilee, we were aiming at 2,012 for this one, we are now at 4,212," he says. "The first one will be lit in Tonga, then we go to Malta, where they celebrated their honeymoon, Kenya where the Queen heard that dreadful news about her father and she became Queen. Finally we will have the four peaks of the home nations, all done for charity, and the national beacon which the Queen will light."
Peek is "dead chuffed" after two years' full-time work to be asked to hand "the jubilee diamond" to his monarch for this ritual. He's not worried about health and safety – "all under control" – or the rain. Already he is thinking about what happens after these fires go out. "I have my idea on her platinum jubilee," he says. "I'll only be 71. And before that in 2015 she will be the longest serving monarch so we might go again then."
The third critical element of the day's national communion is revivalist street parties, and if anyone could be said to be responsible for their re-emergence it is Tim Smit of the Eden Project. Smit has been promoting Big Lunches for three years now. It began as an idea for people just to get to know their neighbours, a way of overcoming British reserve.
"I was always hearing about broken Britain and all this crap," Smit says, "and I just thought it wasn't true. In a way, though, people had to be given permission to prove it."
The first year they had 750,000 people taking part, just knocking on doors up their roads and organising Sunday lunch. Last year nearly 2.5 million people got involved and a call duly came from the palace to see if they might join forces this year. Smit jumped at the idea. He believes he has royal sympathy for the idea that today's Big Lunch might become a fixture in the calendar, a British thanksgiving day, a neighbours' day, a celebration of what we all have in common.
"It doesn't really matter where you stand on the monarchy really," he suggests. "Events like this just revive the memory of us being part of a big tribe. And who could argue with that?"