From the tacky to the awesome, her life passed before her eyes

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The Independent Online

So she made it. Though it is still two weeks until the Queen Mother hits her century, on 4 August, the nation paid its respects (and relief that she is still around) in style yesterday in a 90-minute display that combined the awesome with the tacky, the noble with the downright surreal.

So she made it. Though it is still two weeks until the Queen Mother hits her century, on 4 August, the nation paid its respects (and relief that she is still around) in style yesterday in a 90-minute display that combined the awesome with the tacky, the noble with the downright surreal.

Horse Guards Parade is an unprepossessing squarebasher's playground, transformed by raked seating and prefabricated corporate chalets into an arena that initially suggested a British version of Gladiator. By 6.30pm it had become a temporary home to thousands of costumed marchers, vintage Rolls-Royces, banners, balloons, garish T-shirts and a bewildering array of animals. One curious highlight was when a camel, representing the Worshipful Company of Grocers, appeared to curtsy in front of the Queen Mother.

The nation's top centenarian endured this multitudinous march-past, this endless, polychromatic promenade from under a small cupola supported by four pillars festooned with ivy and pink flowers, the Prince of Wales by her side. Behind them, up in the Royal Box, no fewer than 21 other royals were crammed together: Princess Margaret, the Duke of York, the Countess of Wessex without the Earl, Peter Phillips, Lady Helen Taylor, the Duke of Kent. Near by, picking up royalty status by association, was a smattering of parliamentarians: Betty Boothroyd, Geoff Hoon and Chris Smith. Of the Prime Minister there was no sign; nor was the star turn's daughter there, or the Duke of Edinburgh. They stayed away, apparently unwilling to upstage the old girl. She arrived in a gorgeous black barouche, drawn by two white horses. She entered the arena to the strains of Walton's "Crown Imperial", and inspected the Household Cavalry to the tune of Perry's "I Was Glad" from the coronation in 1937.

The sun streamed down on her, the crowds waved, and the Queen Mum, a vision in powder pink, waved back, supremely unbothered by all the military palaver.

The first half of the show was formal, correct, as stiff as the metal gantries that threw an iron bridge across St James's Park from the back garden of Downing Street to the royal war bunker covered in ivy. In front of me sat a line of Chelsea Pensioners in red uniforms and tricorn hats. Alongside them were some naval top brass in the spectacular headgear of Sir Joseph Porter in HMS Pinafore. Elsewhere in the crowd, straw hats and pink cardigans proliferated, while sturdy young men stood in shirt sleeves and dark glasses, possibly some of the prize-winners in the tabloid press's 1,000 free Queen Mum tickets bonanza. Behind me a little girl asked: "Do we have to stand, Daddy?" "Yes," he said. "Why?" "Those are the colours of the Royal Artillery," he replied through clenched teeth as he glared at the disrespectful sitters around him.

They released 100 doves who flapped off towards St James's Park, saw the glassy chalets in their way, turned and headed off towards Piccadilly. The pageant began. The 20th century passed before us in a blur: the first motor cars, Beatrix Potter, Boy Scouts, war. Cheap effects abounded: the suffragette movement was evoked by a tough-looking dame chained to a railing, Lawrence of Arabia by a cardboard camel, and the First World War by some glum infantrymen with blood-stained bandages. Flappers, Hollywood movies, bathing belles and Butlin's redcoats all bustled across the sand. Vera Lynn appeared in a Jeep. A burst of Come Dancing gave way to the Land Girls, the arrival of the Belisha beacon was heralded by a pantomime zebra, and of Picasso by a horrible daub (eek! modern art!). Everest, The Mousetrap and the rise of the Berlin Wall were just as briskly evoked and dismissed. The Sixties gave way to decimalisation (tiny children with gold and silver fright wigs), followed by a gaggle of punks (no V-signs or gobbing, though) and it all ended with a very small nod to the Dome and the Channel Tunnel. To the Queen Mother it must have seemed as though her whole life was flashing before her eyes.

Yet it was only the start. For the next 30 minutes it was the turn of all the charities with a royal connection to display their fondness for their super-patron. Hundreds of them marched into the arena - some whose connection to the Queen Mother was inscrutable, some more obvious: The Salmon and Trout Association, The Bible Reading Fellowship, Friends of the Elderly, The Girls' Brigade. Some had made more effort than others, the Mothers' Union (with a truly hideous giant golden-faced Madonna carrying a baby and a globe) easily outclassing the comparatively downbeat Hastings Winkle Club. "Party on Ma'am," read the float from The Children's Society.

The Queen Mother thanked everyone for "coming from far and near to take part in this lovely day". If it turned the centre of London into a provincial village fête, full of cuteness and pathos, that's the effect that this extraordinary woman sometimes has on the whole nation, on what's left of the Commonwealth - dammit, on the whole world. Just look what happened to the camel.

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