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Katherine Butler: Confessions of a tea-party republican

My heart goes out to republican-minded malcontents at this time. It must be dismal seeing the bunting go up in your street and have the papers gushing about how you should bake an Elizabeth sponge, when you regard the monarchy as a travesty that was outdated in feudal times. The great thing about being the citizen of an actual republic, yet resident in a kingdom with functioning royalty, is that you can marvel at the pomp and ceremony, completely free of inner conflict. You can – as I, an Irishwoman, did on Tuesday – hail a taxi and say "take me to Buckingham Palace" , without compromising your democratic values. Some of my English colleagues were full of contempt.

Understandable. But wouldn't you have to be completely devoid of curiosity, or humour, to turn down an offer of tea at the home of any Head of State, let alone an extremely rich one about to mark 60 years on the throne? If nothing else, such an event provides an opportunity for some first-class social anthropology, or if you prefer, gawping. With up to 5,000 people on the guest list, I was expecting long queues, airport-style security scanners, and perhaps fights breaking out over the scones. In reality, it was a highly dignified event that felt like a cross between a wedding (without the champagne or dancing) and the filming of a costume drama.

Yeomen of the Guard positioned themselves should any of us lunge at the Queen. Not that anyone would have been that vulgar. People travelled from towns and villages all over the country. They seemed awed into whispers as they toured the rose garden, sat quietly listening to the military band, or edged forward like children, for a glimpse of any VIPs. Nobody at all disobeyed the injunction about a hat being obligatory for women. The tea itself was worth the journey although the doll-sized plates were obviously designed to put you off scoffing too much.

There was, as always, a reminder, if anyone in England still needs it, of hierarchy: the velvet rope separating you from somebody posher or higher up in the class pecking order. So we found ourselves herded outside the entrance to the Royal Tea Enclosure. That's when Kate Middleton swept past, thin as a reed and lovely in dusty pink. She told somebody later she found the garden party – her first – a "nerve-racking" experience. Perhaps they hadn't told her about bread and circuses.