Tomorrow morning at 6am, my daughter and I will be making our way across London to West India Docks, where we have a rendezvous with a very important and rather venerable lady. I mean my mum, God bless her.
Her narrowboat, Galatea, will be in the first row of the narrowboat flotilla in the Diamond Jubilee Thames Pageant tomorrow afternoon.
Galatea is moored at St Pancras Basin, home of the St Pancras Cruising Club, who have 10 boats in the flotilla. They are used to taking their boats on the Thames – they do the London Ring every year, where they sail along the Regent’s Canal to Limehouse, out into the Thames and up to Brentford, where the Thames Lock allows access to the Grand Union Canal.
My mother camped out with her friends the night before the Coronation to get a good view of the proceedings, so it’s rather appropriate that nearly 60 years later, at the age of 82, she is taking part in a salute to another distinguished old lady – the Queen.
If you look carefully, you may catch a glimpse of my mother, beaming proudly, as she steers her craft down the Thames. The narrowboats are in formation, five abreast, and to be in the pageant you had to prove you could handle the boat. There can’t be many women of that age who are capable of taking the helm. Oh wait, there’s one on the throne.
I’ve never been quite sure whether my mother is so much a fervent royalist as an indefatigable party animal. I know that when the House of Windsor marks a momentous occasion, she is always up for a celebration. Indeed, my first memory of television was crowding round a tiny screen to watch Princess Margaret’s wedding in 1960.
For us Britons, royalists or republicans, the Queen has been a part of our lives whether we like it or not. The royal family’s story, so alien and yet so familiar, mirrors our own - it’s just that their births, marriages, divorces and deaths receive huge publicity.
Today it is fashionable to think of the royals as quasi-celebrities. For my mother’s generation, however, the King and Queen had shared the hardships of wartime. When the Queen Mother said she was glad Buckingham Palace had been bombed because “now we can look the East End in the face”, it sealed a bond of loyalty, a belief that they were “all in it together”, to use a now infamous phrase.
But I think that’s why the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee has tugged gently on a heartstring that many of us didn’t realise we possessed. There is something about that wartime experience – and the stoicism of those who endured it and who still make a contribution to our world – that commands increasing respect. Seen from the pampered perspective of the 21st century, it seems inconceivable that people got up in the morning after a night of bombing and went to work as usual; that they put up with rationing (which went on for nine years after the war); that children were sent away to stay with strangers.
My mother and her brother were evacuated first to Riverhead, Kent – a location deemed to be safer than their south London home. In fact, it was directly beneath the flight path from Biggin Hill airfield, where RAF Spitfires would sally forth to intercept incoming German aircraft during the Battle of Britain. The two children, 10 and 8, would stand and watch the dogfights, cheering when a Messerschmitt went down.
As a child, listening to my mother’s stories about the war, I came to the conclusion that it was an awfully big adventure – a bit like Girl Guide camp, but with explosions. A naturally positive person, she is impatient, like so many of her generation, of the modern fondness for introspection and “emotional intelligence”.
She does not expect the Queen to unburden herself to Piers Morgan, or to take part in a reality show. She thinks the Queen personifies traditional British values: courage, discretion, the ability to get on with the job without whingeing, to pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and not claim damages for post-traumatic stress disorder.
I think that’s what we’ll all be celebrating this weekend.