Thirty years separate the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer (as she was) in July 1981 and the wedding of their eldest son, William, to Kate Middleton, timed for spring 2011, but it could be three centuries. So much has changed in our attitudes to royalty, to class, to celebrity, to pomp and circumstance and to public behaviour that it's as though evolution has fast forwarded us from glorious optimism to disillusion in a single generation.
Those of us who were adult and sentient beings in July 1981 will never forget the wedding, not just for the spectacle of the day, but for the astonishing scenes of the night before. Like half a million others, I travelled to Hyde Park with friends to check out the royal fireworks and see what the crowds were up to. The crowds were rejoicing. I've never seen such excitement on human faces – not at a rock concert, a football match, a political rally or an Olympic event. Half a million people milled about the park, making little forays towards Buckingham and Kensington Palaces and the Mall, occasionally refreshed by lager and wine but mainly intoxicated by the proximity of so many ecstatic others.
It was a strangely feral occasion. The bright lights outside Buck House caught the shadows of a few hundred revellers moving among the trees beside Birdcage Walk and made them look like an alien host, a huge band of brigands in the woodland. Down the Mall, spontaneous dancing broke out, for sheer joie de vivre. You felt that anything could happen. I remember how a few thousand of us surged around Hyde Park Corner, carried along in the crush but wholly uncaring, amazed that sheer weight of numbers could stop the traffic at the busiest intersection in England. Braying, public-school voices called out, "Look – could everybody just... STOP MOVING so this bus can get past. Do you hear me?..." But nobody could stop. We moved together unconsciously. It was like the mystical gathering of hands that moves the glass on a ouidja board, spelling out the message "Don't tell us what to do."
Next day, along with a global audience of 750 million, I watched the wedding on television, glad to be out of the crush of 600,000 flag wavers. I admired the prescience of the many spectators who had brought pre-war cardboard periscopes, enabling them to see over each other's heads. I marvelled at the miles of iron-silk taffeta that had been crunched and crinkled into a train spilling all over the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, where its designer, Elizabeth Emanuel, fussed and fiddled at its edges for what seemed like hours.
I remember both bride and groom making mistakes in their wedding vows (Diana mangled Charles's name, inadvertently taking his father, Philip, in holy matrimony; Charles vowed to share all Diana's worldly goods with her, rather than his own). And, like the rest of the globe, I held my breath at the kiss on the Buck House balcony. A kiss on the mouth of royalty! Unheard of. A kiss that looked as if the kisser really meant it, her head angled and her jaw tilted to reveal her long, white, impossibly graceful, swan's neck...
But the newsreel footage of the royal wedding in one's memory screeches to a halt right there. For it was 30 years ago and a world away, and we know what happened to the bride and groom, and we recall the gloom and disillusion that descended on our hearts for years when we thought of the monarchy. "After such knowledge," wrote T S Eliot, "what forgiveness?"
So can we really break out the bunting all over again for Wills and Kate? Can we really imagine replicating the enthusiasm of 1981, that crazy joy, that dancing in the streets, that feeling of bliss-was-it-in-that-dawn-to-be-alive? The first indications aren't great. When the BBC's Have Your Say news web page first ran the story at 11.16am yesterday, and issued the provocative words, "What is your reaction to news of the royal engagement? What message would you send to the couple?" it provoked a toxic flood of teeth-gnashing, spittle-flecked abuse.
By 2pm, 400 reactions had been posted, among them, "There are more important issues to be debated than a royal wedding – like the coalition's destruction of the UK's employment market and welfare state," and "There are a million more worthy stories than the marriage of these two social parasites. Bluuurrgh!" and "Isn't it time we dumped this backward, archaic farce into the dustbin of history where it truly belongs and became a republic like every liberal democracy in the modern world?" and (my favourite, for the bovine reference) "SO – some privileged toffs are getting hitched, what of it? The days of cow-towing to monarchist freeloders [sic] is over."
Despite the chorus of bah-humbug malcontents, cheerier sentiments are available to the happy couple – "Congratulations to HRH and his fiancée and, er...about time too?" – but it's possible to detect an air of here-we-go-again, among the most positive. It's not difficult to see why. The history of royal weddings since 1981 has hardly been propitious.
Andrew and Fergie, getting spliced at Westminster Abbey in 1986, looked a jolly couple – the posh but hoydenish redhead and the handsome but bird-brained matelot – and their kiss on the balcony was a full-blooded, 20-second smooch, but it all lacked refinement. When Prince Edward married Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999, after the longest engagement since the Hundred Years War, we'd slightly lost interest in Charles's siblings.
It was interesting that Edward was allegedly known for a while as "Dockyard Doris", but we couldn't get very excited by him or his bride. Prince Charles's second marriage, to Camilla Parker Bowles in 2006, was a tiny, muted echo of the great event a quarter-century earlier – a civil service conducted at the Guildhall, Windsor Castle, from which the general public were excluded – almost as if their collective memories of the big day might somehow blight the Prince's second wedding like a gas cloud.
Charles's nephew, Peter Phillips, gave the world another first in 2008, when he married Autumn Kelly at St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle: he had already sold the story of their romance to Hello magazine for a reported £500,000. Never before, for some reason, had the royal family thought it necessary, or appropriate, or permissible, to flog their anodyne confessions to the press or allow proletarian (or, come to that, foreign) snappers into their lovely home and do it, not for charity or for some cosmetic royal PR, but shamelessly for money.
The pursuit of filthy lucre was probably the last thing on the Queen's mind in 1996 as she contemplated the divorces of her older sons, Charles and Andrew. She was rapidly approaching her own 50th wedding anniversary. Why were they unable to keep things going even for 20? (Her daughter Anne, the Princess Royal, had announced her separation from Mark Phillips in 1989, after 16 years.)
In 2011, it's rather a surprise that a wedding is deemed a necessary step for a royal and his sweetheart. If William and Kate merely moved in together in their agreeable home in "north Wales", it would raise few eyebrows. The chances of Ms Middleton, aged 28, being in possession of her "V-plates" (as some commentators archly describe her virginity) are slender indeed, given that she has already lived with the Prince in a flat in St Andrews and a cottage on a country estate. Only the thorny (and ancient) question about the power of bastards to inherit property might concern them. And of course the royal family no longer pretends to occupy the role of moral exemplar that they were once presumed to occupy. Not since the royal affairs, the divorces, the remarriages, the teen-rebel royals photographed outside Bouji's nightclub, the SS fancy-dress uniform. In the last three decades, the Royals would have terminally forfeited all the knee-bending, cringing reverence that was once their due, had it not been for one thing: the Queen. While she remains alive, a distant echo of ancient royal dignity still reverberates around the Palace, and stops us losing patience with the whole moth-eaten brocade.
A few parallels can be drawn between 1981 and 2010. In 2010, we're in a chasmal, dismaying economic crisis, a new Tory PM is desperately trying to make huge cuts in public spending and there are riots in London government buildings. In 1981, unemployment figures were above 2.5 million, a new-ish Tory PM called Mrs Thatcher was desperately trying not to implement 20 per cent increases in public-sector pay (as promised in her manifesto) and there were riots in Toxteth, Brixton, Southall and Moss Side.
When it comes to royalty, however, things are different. Thirty years ago, the monarchy was something we felt good about. If we only half-cared for Prince Charles, and we only half-cared about his status as heir to the throne, we felt somehow complete, wholehearted, intensely satisfied about the 20-year-old girl he was marrying. It was a convergence that seemed right and true, that promised (absurdly, in retrospect) a happy future for the life of the nation, despite all its troubles.
Now, because our expectations of royal weddings have been blighted, we should, technically, be post-monarchists. But I'm not sure. I suspect that this wedding could break the trend of disillusion because of one thing: the digital revolution.
As a result of the internet – the chirping global cacophony of blogs, tweets, Facebook gossip, websites and iPhone communications – we all take a more direct personal interest in each other's lives than ever before. And when the full blaze of digital inquiry is turned upon William and Kate – as it already has been – the great British public will find itself more intimately connected to the courts of royalty than it has for decades. This will be the first Twitter-generation royal splicing.
Commoner will twitter unto royal correspondent, who will twitter unto stand-up comic, who will tweet Stephen Fry, who will be fruitily droll unto his millions of followers, all suddenly caught up in royal-watching. The net, combined with the magazine world of OK and Heat, Closer and Grazia, has made us feel we almost know the royal pair. We know their likes, who William's best friends are, where Kate Middleton buys her frocks. Thousands of us will feel slightly miffed that we haven't had our Facebook invitation to the wedding. It's one of the great paradoxes of the era that we feel closer to the royal family than ever before, while in fact we're farther away from them than ever before.
Will technology save the royals? Instead of holding up makeshift cardboard periscopes to see the happy couple, half a million people will hold up their iPhones, as if in technological supplication to a newly-wed pair, whom they see as something between chat-show celebrities and Facebook friends. In the teeth of all sense and logic, this could be the first truly democratic royal wedding.