Howard Jacobson: Pushing, shoving, mawkish singing – my unmissable day out at the Jubilee pageant

Parents conjured children from their pockets and hoisted them onto their shoulders

Related Topics

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, burned on the water. Only a shame I didn't get to see it. It wasn't for want of trying. I'm not a pageant man myself, but my wife's imagination had been fired by Antony and Cleopatra when she was young, and I accepted that the spectacle of a queen on a river – whether or not there would be pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids, fanning her in the rain – was not one she could bear to miss.

Not being a pageant man doesn't make me a republican. I wouldn't say I am, in principle, a royalist either, but it isn't necessary to choose. I feel about republicans much as I feel about atheists. Both have so much palpable reason and good sense on their side that it's astonishing they haven't realised that most of us long ago saw what they see but don't act on it because palpable reason and good sense are not what we are made of. Quite simply, the model of rationality that atheists and republicans propose is inadequate to the subtler forms of unreason that guide humanity.

They are thus the loneliest of men, forced to witness the grand spectacle of existence from the outside, bemused by the mysterious swirl of contradictory emotions and confused loyalties that makes life a marvellous mishmash for everybody else.

Call me, therefore, a pragmatic royalist. As I find royal families, so I take them. And I find this one both engrossing and comforting. Though the Queen has never put a protective arm around me, I feel protected by her. Don't ask me to explain that.

I accepted, anyway, that we should be present at the pageant if we could be, and so, months in advance of the great event, we set about finding a place to observe it from. But we have become a nation of obsessive gawpers and you cannot plan early enough for anything that involves standing with your mouth open, wearing funny clothes and waving a flag.

Once it was Eton you put your child's name down for before he was born; now it's a Madonna concert or the opening of a new shop selling trainers. So the staff of every riverside restaurant and bar we made enquiries of laughed in our faces. Ditto the reservation managers of every hotel with even a glimpse of the Thames. We pounded the riverwalks and bridges for obscure vantage points. But wherever we went, we found others already marking out their places. We might as well have been trying to get into Abercrombie & Fitch without having reserved a place in the queue.

And, then, just as we were on the point of abandoning hope, friends rang to say they'd found an outdoor table at a restaurant by Vauxhall Bridge. The last available outdoor restaurant table in London. And with the most perfect view. We became intimates of the manager so he would not forget us. We ate there every night for a fortnight to check we were still on his list. We told him we'd counter-gazump anyone who tried to gazump us. And on the day itself, we arrived seven hours before the pageant was to begin, as I thought well before a soul would be about.

Picture, then, my consternation upon finding the space between our table and the river already occupied by citizens so unequivocally monarchical that they'd taken up their positions at first light, some having been there from the night and even, I suspect, the week before. Reader, they had slept out! Republican sentiment stirred in my breast. Had these people lost their wits? I would not have slept out to see Cleopatra herself.

I complained to the manager. What was the point of a table with a river view if we couldn't see the river? He explained he didn't own the riverbank. I didn't see any advantage, at this stage, in asking him who did.

With every minute that passed, more and more people arrived with Union Flags painted on their faces and champagne bottles stuffed into the pockets of their cagoules. They found space where there was none. Some carried little stools. One man, already over 6ft tall, set up a step ladder on which he mounted a tripod. The garden, which I'd counted on to preserve our view, was flattened.

The English might love a flower but they love seizing an advantage still more. "Hey!" my friends shouted at every new act of vandalism, but not only did the offenders ignore us, people who'd also lost their view took their side, as though the assertion of one's right to grab the best position going was sacred, no matter that you were the victim of it yourself. A strange, contradictory atmosphere of sentimental allegiance and brute individualism was in the air. People hymned the national anthem even as they shoved and barged and elbowed their way to the front.

You're a shover or you aren't. When I first used the London Underground, I'd let train after train go because I couldn't bear to engage in the violence necessary to get aboard. Eventually, of course, you learn to push as selfishly as everybody else. But you hate what you have become.

And now here I was faced with the same dilemma, made more acute because I knew how much my wife had been looking forward to this. We found a ledge to stand on. Others found a higher ledge. As the boats approached, the few narrow spaces I thought we'd be able to see through closed. Parents conjured children from their pockets and hoisted them on to their shoulders; cardboard periscopes went up, arms holding cameras went higher.

As the mawkish singing began, all that we saw of the barge she sat in were the backs of heads of children waving flags, the flashes of phone cameras, and human nature (my marvellous mishmash of humanity) red in tooth and claw.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most