Friday, July 20, 2007

To look at the Queen

When I was ten, my maternal grandparents arrived one day from Burton on Trent to live with us, after Grandma had a mild stroke. The brought their green and yellow budgie Barney with them, who got photographed for the local Burton newspaper because he was formidably loquacious. One of his offerings was 'Pussycat, Pussycat, where have you been? I've been up to London to look at the Queen.' Across the years the memory of Barney's voice rattled around my head as Clare and I drove up the M4 on the way to a Royal Garden Party and Buckingham Palace yesterday. We'd received invitations courtesy of the local Lord Lieutanant, with whom I've worked on preparing several civic services in recent years. It was his way of expressing appreciation.

The last time we went to a Royal Garden Party was over twenty years ago when we were in the riot-torn St Paul's Area of Bristol. We received invitations courtesy of local politicians who were none too comfortable about royalty and Garden Parties themselves and happy to see the invites put to use by others. I had no objections to going, either then or now. Prince Charles came and opened the new inner-city replacement primary school in St Paul's, I'd campaigned for several years to see built, and made the occasion special and unifying for the community. We appreciated that.

I find our royals very good at being considerate and hard-working at bringing people in communities together, despite conditions and concerns that tend to drive people apart. In fact, despite the tabloids, they do a better job than either politicians or the church in generating good-will that holds people together. And that's a view I've held for most of my life. Growing up in the Boy Scouts probably accounts for this more than anything else.

Anyway, we drove to some friends who live in Beaconsfield, changed there into our best outfits, and took public transport into London for the sheer pleasure of not having to fight with traffic and parking. Mercifully, the rain which threatened to pelt down all day from a dark cloudy sky managed no more than a perfunctory sprinkle while we awaited Her Majesty's walkabout.

The classic 'Engish Tea' food served to over 7,000 people was excellent - neat little sandwiches (including cucumber with a touch of mint), a selection of cakes and very nice ice cream. It was brilliantly organised. Her Majesty stopped and talked to a young Muslim couple and an entire Nepali family who were stood just a few yards from where weere. She looked well, and looked as if she was enjoying herself. She doesn't just preach about social inclusion, she practices it.

There were plenty of attendants surrounding her, but neither of us saw anyone with an earpiece, or muttering furtively into a radio, apart from the Bobbies who checked our i/d on the way in. There were a couple of guys with cameras on the roof, but the only evidence of crowd control and security were the charming ushers in top hats and tails, who joked with the crowd, as they made way for the 'walk-about', plus a dozen Beefeaters with pikes for stylish decoration.

Crowd watching was quite absorbing. There was such a complete cross-section of people in balanced numbers from all walks of society present among the guests. Uniformed organisations were well represented. Army, Navy, Air Force (UK and Commonwealth) Police, Fire, Ambulance (St John's Ambulance volunteer teams were proudly there 'on duty' and also as guests), Scouts and Guides. The diplomats had their own special tents, likewise specially invited guests. Their area was enclosed by a large semi-circle of chairs which permitted other guests to sit and VIP-watch while they ate tea. They also had a grandstand view of the Queen's departure, as punctual as her arrival on the dot of four.

Mayors and council leaders in the crowd were evident from their chains of office, war veterans by their hats or badged blazers. Clergy like me were identifiable by their collars, though most seemed to disregard the permission to wear a cassock. However, I counted at least half a dozen be-cassocked Bishops, and thought how embarrasingly conspicuous they appeared, standing out in loud magenta colour from the crowd as much as the Queen did in her peacock blue outfit. Members of other faith communities were also evident by their dress. So too the Scots. No doubt the Law, Politics, Medicine, Academia and other professions were represented, among the frock coats and lounge suits, as well as folk whose public service through charity fund raising, or a lifetime of conscientious caring through a voluntary organisation, afforded them recognition

In a way, most people there were representatives of one aspect of public service for the benefit of others. What the Queen, and other royalty do so well is to recognise affirm and uphold all those who 'serve one another and seek the common good', as one of our Anglican intercessory prayers states.

In her time, Mrs Thatcher declared that there was no such thing as 'society'. The idea was that people are mainly driven by self interest, everyone is an individual, and what people have in common can be evaluated by examinating 'the market' - what most people want. Society's not easy to describe, unless you start with ideas like serving one another and seeking the common good. Well actually they are ideals, values, aspirations to be strived for. Not necessarily things we want or know we want, but ultimately things we discover are more worthwhile having than things we think we need or want.

I like to think that our royalty understand and work to promote such unifying ideals, even if they may not always successful in living by them or communicating them. There's always a bit of a gulf between what we are and what we stand for. If there wasn't, the media would have no reason to bully and humiliate people for revealing their weaknesses and failings.

Just to be included in such a beautifully organised gathering, and have an hour to stroll around the marvellous Palace gardens, right in the roaring heart of London was indeed an honour, even if we didn't get to meet the Queen in person. It was a sound remedy to combat the feeling that all we have is social decay, wrought by the kind of selfish consumerism which seems to have diffused through the country since the Thatcher years - such that many growing up today no longer seem aware of anything different. In some corners of the world affirming altruism is still found.

We returned to our friends' house for supper and stayed overnight. Really heavy rain arrived overnight and persisted all through today, extending our return journey from two and a half to four and a quarter hours. We felt glad to have survived. We got back too late for me to celebrate the Midday Mass, and in the absence of a stand-in it had to be cancelled. Normally cancellations only happen because of snow or illness. Monsoon-like conditions are an altogether new phenomenon.

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