Miserable snobs love to hate the celebrations
It was the spring of 2002, and in the Guardian, the satirist John O’Farrell was licking his lips at the inevitable failure of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. “Tragically,” he wrote mockingly, “this joyous anniversary seems to be regarded with widespread cynicism and apathy… Street parties, like the royal family, are just a bit out of fashion… So wave that flag and open that champagne. Because for a decade now, nobody has cared about the monarchy.”
He was right — or seemed to be. Only a few weeks earlier, the same paper had reported “panic at the palace over the lack of street parties”. The official Golden Jubilee website, exulted the Guardian, “bears a forlorn look. So far it lists a golden jubilee snooker and pool tournament in Plymouth, the planting of an oak in the village of Oxhill, Warwickshire, the planting of a jubilee garden at Cranmore infants’ school in Shirley, Birmingham, the placing of small fountains all over London — and precious little else.”
And then — what a comeback! When the Queen’s Jubilee weekend finally rolled around, it turned out that the Royal Family was only too fashionable after all. Two million people applied for tickets for the classical Prom at the Palace. A further million people packed into the Mall to see the handsomely coiffured Brian May kick off the Party at the Palace, while another 200 million watched on television.
And although the Sex Pistols re-released “God Save the Queen” for the occasion, their hearts weren’t really in it. As a youngster, admitted the erstwhile Johnny Rotten, he had taken exception to the Queen’s “Mother Superior” tone. But “they’ve mellowed that out. Charles is a really good-natured bloke who talks to plants. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
There have been eight jubilees since the first, held for George III in October 1809, and the story has always been the same. For months everybody predicts a humiliating fiasco. Nobody cares, and nobody bothers to organise anything. Then at the last minute, to the horror of university lecturers and Twitterstorians across the land, millions of strange people come crawling out from beneath their rocks, waving their Union Jacks and openly daring to feel good about their country. This, of course, is how Nazi Germany started.
Like all great British institutions, the first Jubilee was basically an exercise in sticking it to the French. The Napoleonic Wars were in full swing, the British campaign in Flanders had become badly bogged down and Wellington was slogging his way across Spain in the Peninsular War. So the country needed cheering up, and the beginning of George III’s 50th year on the throne provided the perfect opportunity.
Although there was virtually no central organisation, most towns were happy to plan their own celebrations, with local landowners footing the bill. There were ox-roasts and fetes, feasts and fireworks. People staged sword-fights and fired muskets, while the elderly king went to a service of thanksgiving. And there were special pardons for debtors, deserters and prisoners of war — though not, of course, if they were French.
For poor George himself the Jubilee was something of a last hurrah, since a year later he succumbed to madness. He spent the rest of his days endlessly weeping and tying and untying handkerchiefs, which is how most Guardian columnists are planning to spend the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee next week. But the success of the event set a precedent, and in 1887 Lord Salisbury — not exactly an obvious party-going Prime Minister, but appearances can be deceptive — decided that Victoria should have a Golden Jubilee too.
At first the monarch was less than keen, fearing (ironically) that people would think a national celebration rather too Napoleonic. But Salisbury prevailed, and the result was a huge success, with vast crowds lining the streets of London to cheer Victoria on her way to Westminster Abbey.
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Better than Qatar 2022. (Sion Touhig/Getty Images)