Sunday, June 3, 2012

I’m up early again this morning, enjoying a nice, relaxed breakfast in my room, while the BBC is playing in the background. From my walk to the local Pret a Manger yesterday afternoon I have a slice of lemon poppy seed cake, a cup of mixed fruit with mango, blueberries, and pomegranate seeds, and a bottle of apple juice. And for good measure, given the spitting rain and frigid temperatures outside, I heat some water using the electric kettle on the desk and use it to mix up a steaming mug of hot chocolate. According to the live news report on the TV, I’m going to need all the sustenance I can get.

This is London in early June, and while I wasn’t foolish enough to expect warm summer sunshine, I did plan for seasonable temperatures. In fact, while I was packing my luggage last week and deciding what to bring, I had looked at the weather forecast online and things seemed to be perfectly delightful, with highs well into the 70s. This morning as I peruse my wardrobe, it’s clear that I miscalculated. It’s in the mid-40s out there. Stoically, I pull on two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, and two sweaters, followed by a black rain coat with a nice, deep hood. It’ll have to do. I also fix a plastic bracelet around my wrist. The front desk at the Park Plaza Riverbank is worried that throngs of holiday-makers will descend upon the restrooms inside, and this identifies me as a legitimate hotel guest.

By a quarter past nine I’m standing on the embankment just outside the hotel, surveying all that is before me. I look west to Vauxhall and then east to Lambeth Bridge and beyond, where a thick blanket of fog has settled over Big Ben and the Neogothic towers of the Houses of Parliament. The crowd at this hour is in a thin, broken line, so I decide to join in, to be sure of a front row seat. This is what I’ve come for, and there is no use wimping out now.

I pull out a small, folding camp stool I had packed in my suitcase, open an umbrella, and settle in with some music on my iPhone. It’s going to a long wait until the start of the pageant in mid-afternoon. I’m grateful that the white ear buds help to block the wind as I flip through a British-themed playlist I’ve made for the occasion. How apt it seems now that I should be listening to Matraca Berg’s “A Cold, Rainy Morning in London in June.”

There is a long and glorious history of flotillas on the Thames, one celebrated this month, not coincidentally, by a special exhibition entitled “Royal River” at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of one such pageant that he witnessed in 1660, a year after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. According to Pepys, the king and queen sailed down from Hampton Court to Whitehall “under a canopy with 10,000 barges and boats, I think, for we could see no water for them.” In 1716, Handel’s Water Music was composed for King George I, and had its premiere from a barge on the Thames. And around 1746, Canaletto painted a majestic armada of boats beneath the towering dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in a canvas titled “The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day.”

Today, during what is formally known as the Thames Diamond Jubilee River Pageant, more than 1,000 vessels will sail from Battersea Park to Tower Bridge, making it the largest flotilla the river has seen in more than 300 years. Boris Johnson, the ever colorful mayor of London, has promised that it will be “like Dunkirk… only more cheerful.”

So far, despite the rain and the cold, Boris is right. Things are downright giddy among the million or so spectators that have lined the banks of the Thames by early afternoon. A man and a woman walk by in coordinating raincoats patterned with the Union Jack flag. Someone tall is wearing a cardboard mask of the Queen on the back of their head, and I’m amused to see her diamond tiara bobbing up and down above the crowd. My favorite, though, are two men—brothers, perhaps—who are holding court on the terrace just outside the hotel. They’re decked out in red, white, and blue from head to toe, from bow ties to blazers to sunglasses, and both are sporting patriotic Mohawk wigs. I call over to them and point to my camera, and they pose enthusiastically for me.

By now, I’ve fallen into an easy rapport with those around me in the crowd, and everyone seems surprised—and grateful even—that someone from America has come all this way to celebrate their Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

It’s 3:00 PM by the time we hear the Royal Jubilee bells that mark the arrival of the procession. Then we see the Gloriana. It’s a gilded barge rowed by more than a dozen straining souls, and there is a man in a red waistcoat and knickers perched on the bow, waving to the crowd in white gloves. I envy those gloves. By now, I’ve been out in the cold for nearly six hours and I can hardly feel my fingers.

An array of man-powered vessels follow—canoes, kayaks, gondolas, and dragon boats—each plowing doggedly through the choppy waters. They are succeeded by a squadron of Sea Cadets sailing under the flags of the Commonwealth countries. Then, at long last, comes Her Majesty, on a barge christened the “Spirit of Chartwell.” The boat is draped in red velvet bunting and swags of red roses, and under a gilded canopy I can see the Queen, dressed in white, standing resolutely alongside her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, and other members of the Royal family, including Princes William and Harry. All of the men are dressed in their military finery.

As the barge passes under Vauxhall Bridge, there are scores of drenched Brits cheering loudly along the shore—and at least one American surrounded by her new friends from Gloucester and Cheltenham—waving back with their Union Jack flags.

For the next hour, we watch together as the Dunkirk little ships pass by, along with a series of steam ships, working boats, and motor cruisers, including the Jolly Brit from the Royal yacht Britannia. But at just past four, the rain begins to pour at last, and after taking a quick picture of my companions, we say our goodbyes. They rush back to the tube and I duck into my hotel, dripping from head to toe. There will be no flypast today and no need to wait. There is a small group clustered around a projection screen in the lobby, watching the BBC’s coverage on TV, but all I can think about are the warm blankets on my bed upstairs.

Sometime later, feeling refreshed, I take a stroll to the east, all the way up to Westminster Bridge. The night is still young, but some of the street lamps along the embankment have already flickered on, confused by the fog and the brooding, gray sky. It’s a sodden and solitary walk. The buoyant crowds of the day have scattered and gone home. When I can’t find anything suitable for dinner, I turn and head back to the hotel with a craving for room service and a fat, juicy cheeseburger with fries.

It’s a decidedly American meal I eat, curled up in bed in my pajamas while watching a replay of the pageant on TV, but at long last I am warm, dry, and fully fed. As a columnist for the Telegraph will write in the morning, the inclement weather “really didn’t dampen the atmosphere; it simply made it more British.”

They are a hearty lot, the Brits. And today, I was glad to be among them.

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