Saturday, June 2, 2012

It’s a foggy day in London town, and there is fine misting rain. Nevertheless, I am up at 7:00 AM to get ready for the Major General’s Review, a full dress rehearsal for the Trooping of the Colour—the Queen’s annual birthday parade—which takes place in two week’s time. I wasn’t able to snag a ticket for the genuine event on the 16th, but this sounds plenty impressive as it is, minus (of course) the presence of Her Majesty, who one can assume has practiced quite enough over the past six decades.

My stomach is in need of a full English breakfast and in the elegant dining room downstairs at the Rubens I enjoy one while perusing The Independent, which was left outside my hotel room door. This morning there’s an article titled “60 Things You Never Knew about the Queen.” Some of them are rather indulgent and unconvincing, such as #4: “Even at the age of one, she had what I call ‘royal manners,’ one of her first nannies, Nanny Wilkins, once revealed.” Others are humorous, if downright obvious. Case in point, #57: “For some time now, Prince Philip has suffered from a compulsion to insult people, even heads of state, whom he meets.” But the comments about her children—that only Anne turned out “as expected,” that Charles wants to be “cleverer than he in fact is,” that Andrew would have been a “perfectly good regional manager for a carpets firm, and much happier,” and that Edward is “sweet, gentle, and hopeless”—come across as insightful and intensely human.

I stuff the newspaper into my bag and head out the door. There is a buzz in the air as I make my way down Birdcage Walk toward Horse Guards Parade, and at Wellington Barracks preparations are already underway. There is a cavalry unit lining up their caissons, and I pause for a few minutes to watch as steam rises from the horses’ nostrils in the cool, morning air.

The Diamond Jubilee weekend is about to begin and the city is teeming with people. At the far corner of St. James’s Park, I overhear one policeman say to another: “It’s fucking going to be like this every day, I tell you. For the next four days, it’s fucking going to be like this.”

I turn left onto Parliament Street and look for signs into Horse Guards Parade. First I see Stands F, G, and H, and later around the block, Stands A, B, and C, but someone has forgotten to include Stands D and E and no one knows quite where to go. After being directed to one entrance, than another and back again, I make it to my seat at last, perched in a corner on the highest row of bleachers. It’s a perfect spot for taking pictures.

The troops arrive promptly at 10:00 AM and for the next two hours, I snap happily away as a cavalcade of color marches in precision before me to the beat of drums and bagpipes and brass bands. There are Foot Guards and Life Guards, Scots Guards and Irish Guards. There are cavalry units, like the Blues and Royals, and the King’s Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery. Some wear tall bearskins that rest low and heavy on their foreheads, while others have pith helmets of polished silver and gold, ornamented by red horsehair plumes. It’s an astonishing spectacle that reminds me of the might of the British Empire. After all these years, they still know how to put on a show.

Afterwards, I am swept by the dispersing crowd into Trafalgar Square, where I duck into the café at the National Gallery of Art for a quick lunch made up of a coronation chicken sandwich and cupcake whose white buttercream icing has been stenciled with the red and blue stripes of the Union Jack. With the British, it seems, there are no details left undone.

From there, with some time to spare before a 2:00 PM reservation at the National Portrait Gallery, I decide to visit “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434) by Jan Van Eyck. It’s in the Sainsbury Wing next door, and for a moment, the long, slow flight of stairs to the second floor reminds me uncomfortably of Munich’s Alte Pinokothek, where I fell ill a year ago.

The exhibition I am waiting for is called “The Queen: Art and Image” and it brings together an eclectic mix of portraits of Elizabeth II from throughout her reign. Some are iconographic, others intimate. There is the Queen in Westminster Abbey, dressed in her coronation robes, wearing a crown and holding a scepter, but there is also an enchanting behind-the-scenes photograph from the day Diana married Charles, where the Queen is little more than a mother-in-law, an accessory to a growing celebrity destined to outshine her own. And then there is a luminous, holographic image by Chris Levine titled “Lightness of Being,” which captures the Queen with her eyes closed, resting between exposures.

By now, it’s mid-afternoon and the crowd inside the museum is hot and suffocating, despite the timed admissions. It’s time to get back to the Rubens, claim my bags, and grab a taxi toward the Thames. As I turn to leave, one of the hotel staff, a friendly man with close cropped hair and a thick Polish accent named Bogdan, asks if I was going to sneak off without saying goodbye. The staff at the Rubens have been wonderfully kind to me, and I remind him that I’ll be back in the few days. He gives me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and lifts my suitcase into the waiting cab outside.

The sun is breaking through the clouds—at least momentarily—as the driver takes me over Westminster Bridge and we turn west along Albert Embankment. The Thames Diamond Jubilee River Pageant is tomorrow afternoon and I want to be close by. I check into a large, modern room at the Park Plaza Riverbank, which is draped for the occasion in red, white and blue bunting and a sign that reads “Congratulations Your Majesty,” and then go out scouting for dinner. Directly in front of the hotel there is a glorious view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, but the neighborhood is otherwise rather barren. I walk up to Vauxhall underground station and settle on a take away sandwich from another Pret a Manger, and while I’m there I stock up on supplies—breakfast for the morning, and another sandwich and a Love Bar to get me through the afternoon, assuming I’ll be pinned in place by the crowds along the Thames.

On the walk back to the hotel, I feel tired, but excited, and I think again about what that policeman said in the park this morning: “It’s fucking going to be like this.”

Yes, I suppose it will. And won’t it be grand?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

I’m not going to do it.

That’s what I’m thinking at breakfast this morning. Really, I won’t. I’ve seen Her Majesty the Queen twice already. There is no need to stand in line for hours to see her yet again during the Trooping of the Colour. Surely, there are other, less congested things to do in London. I could go to Kew Gardens, for instance, or to Kensington Palace for lunch at the Orangery.

As I enter the lobby at the Rubens, I can overhear the concierge telling someone about the schedule for the day’s events, and where they might stand if they’d like to see the parade.

I think to myself: Been there, done that.

I wait until the concierge is free and then ask him for help in getting a theatre ticket for tonight. It’s my last night in London, and I’d love to see something. Actually, I’d love to see “War Horse,” but I’ve already checked online and tonight’s performance is completely sold out. Or maybe not. He holds up his finger and asks me to wait. He makes a call and snags me a premium ticket, but he’s appalled at the price. I hear him say into the telephone receiver: “£109! What does she get for her £109? Is the bloody horse going to sit next to her in the audience?”

Hee. Let’s hope so! I nod at him and tell him to seal the deal.

When I head out onto Buckingham Palace Road, I see a flurry of activity at the Royal Mews across the street and in a moment of profound weakness I turn right, instead of left toward Victoria underground station. I’m just going to take a peek, that’s all. It’s a quarter past ten and as I approach St. James’s Park, I can see a healthy crowd gathering. Perhaps, just maybe, I’ll stay for a bit to catch a glimpse of the carriages as they head down The Mall. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a parade.

The Royal Standard I saw flying above the palace yesterday has been replaced by a far larger version, and there are TV cameras mounted beneath it on the roof. The timing is perfect, actually. Within minutes of my arrival, the Household Cavalry begin to march and after a short lull, the Duchess of Cornwall and the former Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, emerge in a carriage with Prince Harry, followed by another with Prince Andrew and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, and finally the Queen.

I certainly don’t have a front row position this time around, but for a wait of no more than twenty minutes, it’s not half bad. Besides, the view of the crowd nearly swallowing the Queen—a sea of arms outstretched and cameras held high—is an intriguing one that says something about the enduring power of tradition in the modern age, or maybe just the lure of celebrity.

Within seconds, the carriages are out of sight and on their way to Horse Guards Parade for the Trooping of the Colour. By standing on Parliament Street during the Diamond Jubilee carriage procession, I couldn’t get anywhere near Buckingham Palace to see the royal family’s balcony appearance, so on a whim I decide to wander about for a bit. I’ll come back in time for the 1:00 PM fly past.

I walk up to Oxford Street and then to Gray’s Antiques in Mayfair. There are at least 200 dealers inside, but most are closed and after browsing those that are open, it’s immediately apparent that I can’t afford to buy anything anyway. I wish I was antiquing back in Stow-in-the-Wold instead.

I wander down through Green Park, where there is smoke rising through the trees from a gun salute underway, and arrive just in time to see the Queen and Prince Philip waving to the crowd from the balcony of Buckingham Palace, which is draped for the occasion in scallops of red velvet with gold trim. They’re soon joined by the entire family—Prince Andrew and his daughters, William and Kate, Harry, and even little Lady Louise and Viscount Severin, the children of Prince Edward and Sophie, the Countess of Wessex. It feels like a fitting finale to my time in London during the Diamond Jubilee, and when a squadron of RAF fly past spraying plumes of red, white, and blue, I take my leave.

I retrace my steps back through the park to Fortnum & Mason, where I stop for lunch in their newly refurbished Tea Salon, then head across the street to Ladurée for some Parisian macarons. I unwind back at the hotel for a while, pack my suitcase for tomorrow’s trek to Edinburgh, and then grab some tapas for an early dinner at the bar next to the Rubens.

My last night in London is a memorable one. The puppetry in “War Horse” is extraordinary and the experience is worth every pence of the £109 I paid. Before long I find myself forgetting that Joey and Topthorn are made of cloth and metal instead of flesh and bone.

The sky is black when I emerge from the New London Theatre onto Drury Lane, but even at this hour Covent Garden is a bustle of activity. As I make my way back to the Rubens one last time, I think of something that Samuel Johnson once said to his biographer and friend, James Boswell, who lived in Scotland: “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

I am reluctant to leave myself, but leave I must.