Let's party like it's 1981: The day Britain had a right royal knees-up
Thirty years ago, the nation embraced the wedding of Charles and Di with a flurry of street parties. Why are we so reluctant to repeat the experience this month?
Nostalgia isn't what it used to be. In 1981, when Charles and Diana married, there was a chance that a "fairytale wedding" held some assurances for the future. But that was 30 years ago, and things were different. Back then, the way to celebrate the romantic union of a socially-awkward royal and his Sloaney bride was to hold a street party. In 2011, only 4,000 road closure applications have been requested across England and Wales for William and Kate's big day, meaning a third of all councils haven't received any.
On 29 July 1981, though, a community knees-up was all the rage. Photographs from that day are grainy; but the images show a moment when the famous British reserve was momentarily put on ice, and people came out from behind their front doors to meet their neighbours. Up and down the country, Britons turned their streets into party zones, which typically meant hanging bunting fashioned in the colours of the national flag, setting up long trestle tables piled with homemade food, and wearing Union Jack hats. Around 700 million people worldwide were excited enough to watch the wedding ceremony on television; many people remember the local party more clearly than they recall the pictures of the royal couple.
Simon Ashley, now a Lib Dem councillor for Gorton, Manchester, was 14. "I remember it being important," he says firmly. In the months running up to the wedding, neighbours got together for house meetings, and the community rallied around to transform the little cul-de-sac in Blakely, Manchester, into a patriotic party zone. There was a bar in one of the garages, and a DJ, who played ELO's "Hold on Tight" every 15 minutes.
"It was a lovely sunny day," Ashley says. "There was a girl I fancied there, but she was more interested in the DJ and older boys." The party wasn't an outpouring of royalism, he says – just an excuse to have fun. What really stood out for Ashley wasn't Diana's dress or the party games, but the rabbit supper (his mum wanted to cook something special for the neighbours). As far as his brothers knew, it was chicken.
"They loved it when they thought it was chicken; as soon as they heard it was rabbit, they kicked off!" No rabbit for school teacher Kath Horwill, who was six at the
time, and remembers celebrating in a local street at Wall Heath in the West Midlands. She had the ubiquitous street party experience ("I wore a Union Jack hat and sat at a trestle table eating party food"); under the red, white and blue bunting hung between the windows of the houses, there were games in the day and, at night, a disco. This was no half-hearted affair. "One of the neighbours put their stereo system on their drive and we danced in the street," she says. "I can remember it being exciting because there was so much hype surrounding the wedding, but I think it was the party itself that I was most excited about."
For children who were a bit older, the parties were a chance to celebrate the wedding with an alcoholic drink or two, while their families were otherwise occupied. "I was just 16 and had an unfortunate incident with cider," remembers Simon Willins, now a carpenter. Colin Miller, a graphic designer, who celebrated in the East End of London, also remembers "a few cheeky beers, even though I was underage". But more than that, it's the memory of over 700 people congregating outside – and just having a good time – that has stayed with him. "It was quite surreal. Lots of streets were throwing parties," he says. "Back in 1981, the East End was still populated by East Enders, loads of extended families and a very strong community. I remember feeling safe in the area. We had a laugh hanging out of windows putting bunting up," he says. "We asked people to move cars; one person refused, so a few blokes bumped the car out of the way."
Everyone brought something to share: buffet food, crisps, sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes and lemonade were laid out on wallpaper pasting tables covered in themed tableware. And despite the volume of people, the police weren't there for crowd control: "I seem to remember two policemen turning up and joining in, having a dance," Colin says. All this boogying was carried out in a claret-and-blue Fred Perry shirt, Levi's 501s, and Penny Loafer shoes.
The soundtrack was a little more urban than what Charles and Diana's official guests might have been dancing to: strains of Madness, The Specials, punk, reggae and ska wound out through the bunting and played late into the hot summer night. "We went wandering around later in the day and joined in with other parties going on. Everyone wanted to celebrate the happy event and get as many people involved as possible to make it a good day. One area had a large West Indian community and we partied there until very late."
Those were the celebrations in the heart of the city; meanwhile, the party that Abigail Sawyer, now a BBC producer, went to in Sevenoaks, Kent, was all about the children. Abigail was eight, and the cul-de-sac she lived in with her parents and three-year-old brother Bill was mostly populated by young families – "There was a real appetite for a party," she says.
After watching the wedding, they all piled on to the street, which had been cordoned off (despite the general lack of traffic) and the "turning circle" transformed into a spot for all the tables. Bill proudly told everyone his middle name was Charles, and there was no shortage of entertainment. "Each of the drives off the turning circle had some sort of game on it," Abigail says. "My dad ran the 'Chuck-a-Welly' stand, based on who could throw a welly the furthest. All the children received commemorative mugs. I think the mums were given tea towels – no gender stereotyping there! I just remember it being a hot blissful day when everyone came together."
Bee Allen, an IT specialist, also lived in Kent, but for her, the celebration was to be somewhat less conventional. Her family lived in Chevening, the village where it was rumoured that Charles and Diana would make their official residence, in Chevening House (they didn't). Bee was eight, her friend Louise was nine, and together they came up with a unique performance to mark the occasion.
"We were totally blown away by the romance and wedding, and decided we were going to choreograph an entire interpretative dance to Holst's The Planets," she says. "It was like a restoration masque – there was an allegorical storyline full of royal imagery that was meant to represent Charles and Diana. Herne the Hunter definitely made an appearance at one point. I remember we spent ages rehearsing in my parents' garage."
The girls performed it on the drive during the barbecue her parents hosted. "We also wrote to the palace inviting Charles and Diana to come and watch a second performance. Which they didn't, sadly, but I remember being absolutely certain they would come."
Not quite as left-field, but heading in that direction,
was Sam Wallace, a writer, who was five at the time. He and his three-year-old brother Ed lived with their (republican) parents in Stevenage, and they dressed up as Worzel Gummidge and a wizard, respectively, to take part in the fancy-dress competition in their cul-de-sac. "It was won by an older boy dressed as Adam Ant, which was a bit more edgy," Sam says. Years later, on questioning his father about why they celebrated a royal occasion, it transpires he wasn't keen on the boys joining in, but their mother had insisted they weren't to be left out of the fun.
"It's a happy memory," Sam says. "My brother and I used to play cricket and football on the street, but it's the only time I can remember everyone being out there together – it was very exciting," he says. "It was a sunny day, old people were out in their deckchairs, and we were well aware we shouldn't be celebrating the royals."
Of all the memories of 1981, nobody seems to reminisce about their local council providing training days on how to set up a street party, or the neighbours getting together to consult an information pack on the subject, just two of the "resources" to be found in the blessed age in which Will and Kate have decided to marry. "What is a street party?" asks Northamptonshire County Council's website ("Street parties and fêtes are get-togethers that groups of residents arrange for their neighbours"). Newham Council is providing a "street party planning pack" with information on how to apply for a grant of up to £1,000.
Are officials worried that people won't want to do it on their own? To engender the spirit of celebrations gone by, even the flags and the bunting so fondly talked about are being given out for free by some councils. An attempt at promoting something tangible, maybe, in an age where more people are likely to Tweet their opinions as Kate walks up the aisle than celebrate in the open air with their neighbours.
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