Amy Jenkins: A privileged old lady and a nation in thrall

Click to follow

Glastonbury can be a pretty sweaty place but that's not the reason that Prince Charles – an incongruous visitor to the festival this week – is in bad odour.

A case in the High Court heard that Charles's heart sank when he saw the modernist design for the redevelopment of the Chelsea Barracks site in London and he wrote to the Qatari prime minister in May 2009 objecting to the plans. The Qataris pulled out, and yesterday Mr Justice Vos found for their partners, the CPC group, in a contract dispute, calling the Prince's interference unwelcome and unnecessary.

It's not often that the royals step out of line, which is why we tolerate them so placidly. The Queen is unerringly dutiful and she was at it again this week. On Thursday, she put in an appearance at Wimbledon to give Andy Murray a boost, and two days earlier she had one of her vast Buckingham Palace garden parties. There were 8,000 guests and I was one of them. My husband had been invited for his good works and I – rather grumpily – agreed to go along. I wasn't expecting to enjoy it. A friend who'd been before said it was a dreary experience and all you get for tea is a dried-up piece of Battenburg cake.

But to my surprise, stepping from Hyde Park Corner into the back of the Palace garden was undeniably thrilling. Suddenly the traffic sounds were muted, and the air was fragrant with roses. There was the chink of tea cups and the distant, comforting parps of a military brass band. It was like being in a pleasure garden in the 19th century. Clergy of all sorts – a bishop in fuchsia pink robes – paraded past, followed by academics in mortar boards and gowns, soldiers in full dress uniform, park rangers in jodhpurs and riding boots, as well as countless "ladies" in satin, feathers and heels.

On the vast central lawn, the waiting crowd gathered on two sides of an imaginary pathway snaking towards the royal tea tent. No ropes held them back – just a pervasive and powerful hushed reverence. Down this path processed the Queen. She stopped every now and then to talk to specially selected guests and us onlookers did nothing more than silently ogle.

What is it about the woman? Although the 2007 television documentary about the Queen, Monarchy, was mostly famous for a sneakily edited trailer that manufactured a royal huff (and the demise of a BBC controller), what the programme really portrayed was a Queen who works like a war horse. I would pay good money not to have to breakfast with minor Danish royalty, lunch with South African diplomats and dine on goujons of small talk. The Queen, it seems to me, deserves the (not very much) money she gets from the public purse. Whether it's right that she should have inherited such enormous private wealth is another matter, of course, but as an ambassador for the country she clearly earns her biscuit.

Having said that, I suspect her hard work has very little to do with the feelings she engenders – at royal garden parties at least. Perhaps people were curious and just wanted to get a good at look at her, but that wouldn't really do justice to the extraordinary atmosphere of the occasion either. The truth is that the feeling in the air was one of absolute devotion. We may as well have been wearing animal skins while making obeisance at sunrise to some kind of stone goddess.

There is certainly a jolt of recognition when you see her. If you're British, you've probably seen an image of her face every day since your birth. That's a deep level of recognition. I know someone who dreams about the Queen once or twice a week. The Queen is a Freudian archetype – a feminine ruler who may not technically govern, but who is nonetheless deeply embedded in our national psyche. When I saw her close up, I thought for a mad moment that she was my grandmother – long dead – and that she would be bound to turn and recognise me.

It'll be very interesting to see how things change when Charles succeeds her – but even then I suspect the national attachment to royalty will overcome any reservations. Evolutionary science tells us that humans are programmed to live in hierarchies and Tuesday's garden party was an absolute celebration of the old certainties – or the certainty that we like to imagine there used to be. God in his heaven, the Queen on her throne, and everyone in his or her place – ie, tamed into a uniform, a role, a job description.

Two days later press reports of Prince Charles's visit to Glastonbury pointed the opposite way – to the egalitarian nature of our society. How things must have changed, was the general consensus when an establishment figure like Charles visits a music festival. "It's classless here," said Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis – which is an absolute joke considering the festival's rigid hierarchy of VIP wristbands and backstage passes. Only airline seating arrangements are more status driven. Which leads me to conclude that one kind of hierarchy just gets replaced by another – which is always my reservation about becoming a republic.

My other reservation is the rebranding. Imagine if everything that is now royal in one way or another, from the Horse Guards to the Royal Mint and the Royal Mail, was rebranded with a new republican logo – perhaps something like the one chosen to brand the 2012 Olympics. I'd have to leave the country.