Jemima Lewis: The royalism that dare not speak its name

The truth is, I would love to have a street party: in a different age I might even have organised one myself

Tuesday 17 December 2013 05:25

One of the very few things I remember from my early childhood is the Silver Jubilee. I was just about to turn six. It was a hot, bright day and our long suburban street looked thrillingly festive, with Union Jack bunting streaming from the lamp posts and an enormous table laden with food snaking down the middle of the road.

My little sister and I wore red, white and blue ribbons in our hair. The grown-ups wore plastic Union Jack hats, which slipped to the side as the jollities wore on. One of our neighbours – an extremely dignified Frenchman of advancing years – was so overcome by the spirit of celebration that he tried to skateboard down the street, with disastrous results. I had no idea what all this was in aid of, but it was excellent fun.

Everyone of my age has similarly vivid memories of that strange, rather magical day when people suddenly spoke to their neighbours. Yet no one I know is doing anything for the Golden Jubilee. Even those of my friends who have children are studiously ignoring the whole event. I suspect that they, like me, feel a bit guilty about being such killjoys – but what can we do? It's just the way we are: a generation of cynics, embarrassed by such things as patriotism, community, royalty and silly hats.

For us, the traditional symbols of British pride – the flag, the Queen, the national anthem – are tainted by vague, uncomfortable overtones of racism and colonialism. We have been brought up to be ashamed of our island story, and not without reason. Reading about the chaos in Israel, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Kashmir – close you eyes and pick a troublespot – one can only cringe at the mess the British have made of the world.

But it's not simply remorse that makes us reluctant to celebrate. It's also a kind of snobbery. Patriotism and love of royalty used to be traits that cut across the class system, but now they are considered profoundly down-market, like doilies and bad diets. Deference towards the monarchy has become the preserve of genteel, lower middle-class spinsters and people too old to know better. As for Union Jack-waving national pride: that is dangerous terrain indeed, best left to working-class thugs with shaven heads living in the racially-fraught hell-holes of Bradford or Bermondsey.

The middle-class intelligentsia doesn't dabble in such murky, jingoistic waters. University-educated media types like me know what is expected of us. We are cool, detached, ironic and – cowardly. Of course we feel some affection for our country – patriotism is a natural instinct in everyone – and of course we'd like, just once, to feel part of a community. But we don't dare do anything about it – we hardly even dare admit it – for fear of what other, cooler folk might think of us.

The other night I was watching Diners, the BBC Choice programme in which secret cameras record people's conversations while they are out for supper. The comedian Jenny Eclair was chatting to a much younger man, another comedian. He had already demonstrated his right-on credentials by making a joke about the Queen Mum's funeral (something along the lines of: "Why is it that no one can be bothered to vote, but they'll queue for hours to see what, for me, is a racist in a box with a £4m overdraft?").

Despite this warning signal, when the conversation turned to the jubilee, poor Eclair forgot herself. "Do you remember the silver jubilee? It was brilliant," she gushed, recalling how she wore a garland of flowers on top of her poodle perm and ran around kissing all the boys. "But what for?" asked the young comedian, evidently baffled that anyone cool would have participated in a royal celebration. Shame and uncertainty rushed across Eclair's face. "But it was like a street-party atmosphere," she blustered. "It was great. Or am I thinking of some other event?"

How I sympathised with her self-consciousness. The truth is, I would love to have had a street party for the golden jubilee: in a different age, being of a naturally bossy bent, I might even have organised one myself. But I am a child of my time. I am paralysed by the fear that my neighbours might think me a swot, a goodie-goodie, a nosy neighbour or – worst of all – a racist. It's absurd, when you come to think of it: I don't dare get involved in an event designed to bring the community together, just in case it should be seen as somehow divisive.

That's the trouble with being part of an enlightened, sophisticated, post-modern generation: it makes the simple business of having fun so damnably complicated.

The writer is the editor of 'The Week'

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