Picture credit: Robert Perry/Getty Images

The power of the pageant

Our enchanted, sometimes absurd, monarchy is one of the last focuses of common cultural experience

Artillery Row

Others have written in recent days with poignancy about why we (still) have a monarch — and the consequences for our constitution, how we understand ourselves as a people, and are seen by others. Pertinent questions indeed, especially as we steel ourselves to prepare to confront the sad reality of a future without Queen Elizabeth II. Beyond the whether and why questions of the Monarchy, how should we celebrate it, how mark the long service of our present illustrious incumbent?

We, the jive dancers, are firmly planted in the 1950s

Some would focus their celebrations on the person of Elizabeth II — whose qualities are rightly undoubted — as a means of drawing focus away from the question of the Monarch as such. Whilst fallacious, I think, to overlook that we celebrate Elizabeth Windsor because she is Queen, and celebrate her as Queen, it is right to celebrate the particularity of her personal contribution to the story of the British Monarchy, and so of the nation. How exactly we should celebrate, in a nation so denuded of its culture and so disconnected from past ways of celebration, is another question.

On Sunday, my wife and I participate in the Platinum Jubilee Pageant — dubbed by its producers the “peoples’ pageant”. This is the final event of the Jubilee weekend, concluding days of celebrations in Central London and across the globe. The pageant consists of thousands of performers, from the military element leading the charge, to the drivers of vintage cars, amateur dancers from each of the decades (like ourselves, swing dancing representing the 1950s, if you must know), and contemporary music and dance groups. The largest element — the ordinary, eccentric folk who like to dress up for a laugh, arguably represent the best of Britain.

Our section, a melee of oddballs and enthusiasts, is called the “time of our lives”, and involves performers from each of the decades of Her Majesty’s reign. We, the jive dancers, are firmly planted in the 1950s, in the wake of the Lambeth Walkers (curiously, pretty much the only group not influenced by the United States and not focused on youth culture, which tells its own subtle story about those influences on our cultural landscape over the 70 years), and followed closely by the 1960s flower power, a smattering of representative classic cars, daleks and the features of the remaining decades (with suitable national treasure perennials as required) right up to the Tik Tokking present day.

We are beings in great need of celebration, festival, theatre, liturgy

To the cynic, perhaps this all tells the sorry tale of cultural decline. Of a people lost at sea, searching without rudder for cohesive cultural identity, naively testing the possibility in a world of inclusivity, a world afraid above all of cultural exclusivism. Instead of proudly standing on the shoulders of past giants of our tradition, are we now just pressing rewind and repeat on an endless cycle of fairly arbitrary progressions of style and fashion, until that which we produce ourselves is just so much detritus no longer fit for consumption? One might take this thought further, as did the historian Oswald Spengler in Decline of the West, published at the end of the First World War, arguing that Europe was moving inevitably to its end, and would eventually dwindle into a purely mechanical simulacrum of its former greatness before disappearing entirely.

But complain though we might of a tired culture, drably repeating the same post-war cultural moments again and again until the wrinkly rockers are no more, we cannot escape our era and the reality of what is shared, at least to some degree, as a “common culture”. At times of national celebration, an element of cultural common denominator is inevitable. The Monarchy well understands this. Ever since Queen Victoria tied the currency of the monarchy to the standard of public affection, connection to the Monarch through common, often pop-, culture is an inevitable price to pay for the continuation of The Firm. Of course, the modern Monarchy deftly both serves as benefactor for the high arts, even as it also courts the firmly middle-brow to brace itself against the cold winds of pop-modernity.

The fact is, we are beings in great need of celebration, festival, theatre, liturgy. In running from established norms, we create anew in our own image. We live in an era of declining religious practice, but a booming increase in festival-going, pursuit of “the spiritual”, and shared story-telling. Choosing what to pick out and exhibit in our celebration is necessarily selective and partial. It involves a deliberate choice about what story we wish to display about ourselves. That this pageant involves a mish-mash of all the weird and wonderful waves of the last 70 years, with often little coherent linkage save for a narrative of variety, should not be surprising. But the chaos does not inhibit our being glad and rejoicing.

Gone (perhaps for now) are the days of monarchs leading their people into battle against foreign foe. Yet our need for solidarity remains. For want of battle, we can find such solidarity in festival. In days such as these, that need is met through celebration of a person who embodies our whole nation, whose story is inextricably tied up with the story of this place, with this time and with that of the past and future of our land. That unity of the many through celebration of the one — and one who has not put themselves forward but has been chosen — is the paradoxical genius of the Monarchy.

Fundamentally, the pageant is intended to be fun, to reflect that British quality of mirth for which British people and Monarch alike are known. The central role of the amateur enthusiast brings something of the magic and charm of the village fete to the world stage.

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