The River Thames is not the prettiest of rivers. It carries silt from upstream and often looks an unpleasant murky brown. It is healthier now though than it has been for centuries. Today I finally realised just how historically important this is. It was the backbone of England and therefore the British Empire. It was alive today in a way it has seldom been for me – because it was in use. Boats streamed past, from small boats carrying cadets, to a Maori Waka, to steamboats and the glorious boat carrying the queen. The river seemed at once sentient and much more important.
London, like most major cities is built on water. The same river brought the Romans to England, carried people to the tower, flowed past Shakespeare and his Globe, took people away to foreign lands, guided the Luftwaffe unwittingly in the Blitz, brought cargo from the Americas, Asia and Oceania, and glittered gently in the sun as I looked down from the London Eye. The Thames has flowed for millennia, widening and narrowing, freezing over, thawing out, carrying kings and peasants and thieves and lords.
There is an awful lot of hyperbole bandied about during royal events. The union flag flies high, people actually sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory,’ there are numerous programmes on the telly with ‘Great British…’ in the title, Victoria sponges, Pimms and cucumber sandwiches suddenly become intensely important. Patriotic fervour runs high, whipped to a frenzy by a media slightly cowed by recent events and running scared. What will Kate wear? Will it rain? Will there be protest? Will anyone fall overboard?
I can’t help but think that The Queen, a lovely and distant figure in a glorious hat would have preferred a cup of tea and a hobnob in the country somewhere and that all this pomp and ceremony is not really her thing at all. But 60 years of duty will prevail, she will stand in the cold for hours as she travels up the river, she will wave at people who think they know her, who think that they deserve a piece of her life because of who her father, and his father, and his father were. 60 years of being polite, of being on show, of duty to an outdated and alien ideal which seems to have little place in this modern world, of being powerful, but having no real power. Imagine, 60 years in the job!
So I’m glad, on this rainy day in London, the Thames was woken up from its quiet, inexorable journey to the coast and was brought alive by boats and people and bunting and flags and cameras and cider and icecream. As a celebration of the history that has always fascinated me, it just seems right.
And I hope someone gave those two pensioners a cup of tea when they came off the boat, it’s a long time for anyone to stand.