The wedding is over. Everything went very well. The image on the television screen looked just as we would have it look. In a year when the wedding guest’s vague fear that something might go wrong had taken on new dimensions, nothing splintered that image. Now we have taken a tentative step into day one of Ever After and look back at this generous distraction, like Philip Larkin’s Whitsun wedding guests: free at last and loaded with the sum of all we have seen.
There has been a feast of seeing. The handsome commemorative books setting this event in its context of past and recent history are dominated by photographs and illustrate well the bewildering range of ways in which we see the Royal Family, from the formal studies to the candid shot. I was surprised to discover in Anthony Holden’s book how recent a development this is.He quotes the Duke of Windsor: ‘I grew up before the age of the flash camera, when newspapers still employed large staffs of artists to depict the daily events with pen sketches ... Because our likenesses seldom appeared in the press, we were not often recognised on the street; when we were, the salutation would be a friendly wave of the hand or, in the case of a courtier or family friend, a polite lifting of the hat.’
The wedding was for most people a photographic event: a delectable photographic feast – but I found myself resenting more and more the cameras’ interference with my seeing. At times there was a feeling of being intolerably blinkered. The media tell us too much about themselves. I did not want to know that the cameras were already in position and that, well before the event, the alternatives of what our eyes might see had been decided. It did not comfort me that the commentators had done their homework, when that could only mean they had prepared in advance their own explanations of what we were to be looking at. On the day, our eyes were guided minute by minute from one improbable viewpoint to the next, but even then a final selection had to be made for us.
‘What out of all this,’ a commentator asked three middle-aged ladies, ‘is the one thing you’ll always remember?’
‘Oh, it had to be when they came out on the balcony!’
‘It was when she reached out and took his hand.’
‘Oh, the kiss she gave him.’
Obligingly, the frames were made to freeze. The wave from the balcony. The clasped hands. The kiss. The most formalised and general moments are selected for us and printed identically on 750 million memories.
The man from the BBC who monitored our seeing of the wedding from the 30 television cameras in St Paul’s promised us ‘plenty of close-ups of the leading players as well as the cast of thousands in the streets’. True to his word, he lifted our eyes high above the Mall, so that we saw the great mass of upturned faces at one moment and at the next were peering through Lady Diana’s veil. Was she nervous today? Might we see a tear? Does the camera extend our perception? Or does it, by seeing what our naked eye can never see, confuse our relationship with the thing we look at? Is it the camera or our own fantasies about royalty that drive us to these extremes of vision: the distant pageant and the intrusive study of the human face? It was with a sense of relief that I set out early on Wednesday morning to find a patch of middle ground and see what I could see from it, at my own height, at whatever distance, and through whatever obstacles chance provided.
A still dazed, almost colourless sky promised a day of continuing warmth. The Haymarket had the withdrawn quiet of a low tide. You could hear footsteps, No one hurried. Up side-streets came gusts of frying onions and horse. We passed a St John’s ambulance. A pretty young Welsh girl in their uniform sold us a programme. ‘I’m not sure it’s worth it,’ she said. ‘I’ve been up since four.’ Two hours to wait, according to the programme.
The crowd, by Admiralty Arch, stood, placidly soaking in the early-morning sun, waving occasionally to the people on the other side of the street, waiting for something to happen.
Policemen walked about in front of the curb, talking to one another, drawing their limp white gloves through their hands. Two young constables patrolled the narrowing passage behind us. ‘It’s bloody hot, mate,’ said one to the other. A Chinese lady held up her baby. People chatted quietly. Occasionally there were a few words of German, occasionally the gentle gloating accents of America. We agreed with the people behind us to let their children come up to the front when anything happened.
Nothing happened. Nothing makes movement and sound so delightful as standing still for two hours with nothing to do. It was luxury to hunger for them. To the right, Admiralty Arch screened the Mall. To the left, the road turned out of sight into Trafalgar Square. Ahead lay a lavish stretch of bare tarmac. Our arena. We stood in the sunlight listening intently for a hint of what might cross it next.
A sound like water on a mill wheel. A cheer. Flags on the opposite side of the road waved to and fro. A small troop of horses went past: policemen on white mounts with long white crimped tails. Dung fell steaming onto the road. We watched with absorption.
Another loud cheer. A West Indian sporting a white jacket with a red carnation in his buttonhole advanced with cart and shovel and broom. ‘Everyone has his own place in society,’ said the wise young man next to me. But this was a showman. His timing was right. He lowered his cart, drew a cigarette from an inside pocket, lit it with a flourish, threw back his head to inhale, savouring his moment. Then he set to work with a will.
More cheers. The City of Westminster sand-cart appeared. Two more men in white jackets and red carnations set to work. But these two ignored the crowd. They were artists. One swung the bright sand off the end of his shovel in wide, even arcs that just overlapped. The other swept it in from the edges to leave a perfect straight line.
Another cheer. For an empty coach. But what had seemed to be garish plush seats suddenly revealed themselves as the scarlet and gold tabards of the Queen’s trumpeters. And now a distinguished man rode past with white feathers blowing on his hat.
‘Who’s he when he’s at home?’
No one knew.
A distant vibration. Then the sound of a band marching. Cheers. The flags were up again, twitching to the beat of the music. A police band, its leader splendidly waving a long silver staff, marched in formation, wheeled, turned, stopped just in front of us. Cheers and a few cautious boos. Because they were the police? Because they had effectively blocked out the view? They stood at ease, big, handsome, genial men, of an age that policemen used to be. The drummer lowered his drum and removed his helmet. Very slowly he took off his leopard-skin tunic and settled it over the head of the man next to him. He straightened the flattened cat’s head between the other man’s shoulder blades. Together they fastened loops and tapes. We watched intently. Then the helmets went on again. The new man lifted his drum. The bandsman raised his staff. The music began. The flags twitched. The woman next to me sang. I sang. ‘Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner’, ‘Old Father Thames’, ‘The Lambeth Walk’, ‘My Old Man’. ‘I wish you wouldn’t,’ hissed the woman’s daughter. But numbers were on our side. ‘You can’t trust a Special like an old-time copper,’ we sang.
A coachload of Beefeaters went past. A coachload of ladies smiling and waving. Who were they? No one knew. A detachment of sailors lined the route by the Arch. A policeman backed his horse in alongside the band. ‘Clear a way there. Clear a way there, please.’ Two orderlies in red coats trotted in his wake with a stretcher bearing a guardsman, still at attention but prone, with his cheek resting against his bearskin.
‘Oh, poor thing.’
‘He’ll be on a charge, you know.’
‘It’s not fair, is it?’
There were more policemen on the Arch scanning the crowds with binoculars.
The constable behind us said quietly: ‘Keep an eye on that one, will you?’
‘Which one?’ This was a young St John’s Ambulance man.
‘That one of ours on the piccolo. Swaying all over the place. He’ll be down in a minute.’
But he held his ground: all seven feet of him, in his helmet – obstructing our view.
Church bells were ringing. What sounded like an angry demo was a sergeant giving orders to his men behind the Arch and their obedient responses. A sudden report was a balloon bursting. Tinkling bells came from a band of young men with shaved heads and saffron robes dancing in the street behind us. A girl in sandals moved into the crowd selling badges.
‘Have you got a licence to do that?’ asked our constable.
‘We’re a charity.’
‘Anyone know if Hari Krishna’s a registered charity?’
Someone said they thought it was. ‘Well good luck to you, dear,’ he said.
‘I love your lovely knees,’ he said to a girl squatting on the parapet.
It was getting close to the time.
‘She’s chickened out.’
But no. Sights and sounds were coming too fast now. The Queen’s escort in shining cuirasses and white bouncing horses’ tails trotted through the archway. Their leader suddenly set off at a gallop into Trafalgar Square. Cheers.
‘He’ll be on a charge.’
There was no room to open the programme. Was that Silverstick-in-waiting? Too late. The cheering was quieter now than it had been for the dustmen. Everyone was too intent on seeing. Then the upper portions of coaches and landaus, bright pretty hats, and, suddenly, between the policemen’s helmets and the flags and the cameras raised above the heads to capture what the eye cannot see, for a second, a face. A young face turned towards us against a green feather hat, an old face against a cloud of veil, and other faces more familiar still, smaller, more intense, invariably more beautiful than one had supposed, at once unreal and of such startling familiarity that it seemed a close relative was being swept past and trying to communicate above the din.
Then it was over.
‘I didn’t see a thing.’
‘But it was worth it.’
‘Oh, it was worth it.’
There were ample opportunities later to see it all much better on television: but I shall line every route in future.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.