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

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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.

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