The Queen and I have so much in common

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The Independent Online

That expression on the Queen's face when she came out on to the balcony of Buckingham Palace and surveyed the million cheering people gathered in The Mall – what do you think it meant? Was it a look of quiet satisfaction that the day had gone well? Was it gratitude or pride, or even embarrassed surprise? Was it awe?

That expression on the Queen's face when she came out on to the balcony of Buckingham Palace and surveyed the million cheering people gathered in The Mall – what do you think it meant? Was it a look of quiet satisfaction that the day had gone well? Was it gratitude or pride, or even embarrassed surprise? Was it awe?

Of course it wasn't. We must suppose that whatever else she is, the Queen is also that inexplicable test tube of chemical disappointments we call a person. Therefore there could have been only one thing she was thinking, let the multitude wave and sway and chant itself however hoarse. "Is this it?" she was wondering. "Is this all there is?"

I had been asking myself the same question only the day before. In Hay-on-Wye. You know Hay-on-Wye, famous for its second-hand bookshops, and site of the best of all literary festivals. I have been doing Hay since its earliest days, hence the term "grandfather of the festival", which I heard on more than one passing person's lips this weekend. Families pointing me out reverentially to their children – "There goes the grandfather of the festival." Ironic. I keep my son on a retainer not to humiliate me with a grandchild, I begrudge my seed where I cannot be certain of the fecundity of its aftermath, and now I am become grandpops by another route. They will not let you grow old with dignity. This, too, the Queen will have been thinking.

I didn't have a million people at my event. Hay's too small for that. And anyway, I ban flags and singing when I'm talking. But I didn't do too bad. A full tent. This is all writers care about at Hay – how full their tent is. A less than full tent and people start talking. There are some writers – though I will not name names – who employ locals of a not too obviously rustic complexion to be on standby when they're performing, ready to run in and occupy empty seats.

Hence the extraordinary knowledge of contemporary literature you find among all classes of the indigenous population of Hay. Every year they sit through discussions on the death of the hero, the closed text and the crisis of the sign in post-colonial English and American verse.

A full tent, I grant you, begs a question. How big was the tent? I say my tent was full, and what is more there were signs everywhere announcing that my event was sold out – let me repeat that: sold out – but there were also signs announcing that I had been moved from tent A, where I was originally meant to be talking, to tent B.

Now there is more than one way of interpreting this. I may have been moved because I was sold out and needed a bigger tent. This presupposes that tent B was bigger than tent A. But what if tent A was bigger than tent B and I had sold out only after I had been moved to the smaller tent? Had I been downsized to spare me the embarrassment of an empty big tent, and was I being given a full small tent only by way of encouragement and consolation? Were they patronising me – me, the Grandfather of the Festival?

Unaware of what's afoot, your audience (such as it is) smiles up at you. You look down into the eyes of each of them. Nice, they think, that you should bother to acknowledge them individually. What they don't know is that you're counting them. What they could never guess, furthermore, is that you're thinking of some excuse to leave the stage just long enough to visit the other tent and count how many people are in there. That you don't do any such thing, that you stay and do your best by them, even though they number only three or four hundred, tells you something, I believe, about the human spirit.

And so it is with the Queen. She swallows the indignity – "Only a million, Philip, and the majority of them pre-pubescent girls only here to gawp at Diana's boys" – and soldiers on.

The one thing we entertainers and agitators of crowds quickly learn, even if it doesn't help soothe away our disappointments, is that there's no calculating when people will turn out in numbers or why. You don't necessarily get your biggest audience in Hay for your best book. And those who do come to hear you are not necessarily your most sympathetic readers. Crowds are unintelligible, their movements strange to themselves, their impulses beyond words. So it is not irrefutably clear to me that what we have seen in the past week is an outpouring of unequivocal love for the monarchy or any sort of principled royalism resurgent.

I managed to put in a few hours on The Mall and around St James's Park myself, before Hay, on the evening of the classical concert in the Palace. As neither royalist nor republican, I had no reason to cheer or boo anything I saw. Of course I didn't wave a flag, but I didn't object to being close to those who did, not least as it was impossible to tell what they were waving flags for. It wasn't quite patriotism, there was too much easy mirth around for that. But nor was it irony. They just did it.

They sat on the grass, drank champagne, laughed and joked, were passingly impressed by Zadok the Priest and more than passingly stirred by Pomp and Circumstance, and otherwise took simple pleasure in the rituals of being alive in a peaceful public place, which included, on this occasion, sometimes waving a flag, sometimes wiping your mouth on it.

What any of them would have said about their politics had you asked them, I have no idea. Nor does it matter. In the end, only ideologues think in stark alternatives, left or right, monarchist or republican. The people, in their mysterious wisdom, move to a more subtle rhythm of the heart. And if that sometimes keeps them out of our tent, we must live with it.

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