The Queen was 90 fifty days ago, but the weather is supposedly better in June so the official birthday celebrations were held back until this weekend. On Friday she went to a commemorative service, Saturday was the usual Trooping the Colour plus a flypast, and yesterday saw a big street party along The Mall. Called The Patron's Lunch, its aim was to celebrate all the good works done by the hundreds of charities whose patron is the Queen. And it did this by charging each charity £1500 for a trestle table and some nibbles.
The Mall was sealed off overnight so that seventeen hundred tables could be laid out, with a central strip left free to allow the ceremonial to take place. Those with invites were asked to turn up from 10am, so they could all be bodyscanned before potentially meeting a member of the Royal Family, despite no part of the outdoor event kicking off before noon. Whatever they left the house in, by the time they arrived it was raining, and some were already regretting their choice of garb. One bloke in short sleeves and sunglasses dripped alongside his cocktail dressed wife, while others had been so intent to turn up in kilts that they'd given no thought to weather protection whatsoever. The organisers had decreed in advance that umbrellas were banned, presumably for reasons of visibility, so some guests had turned up in ponchos made from binbags before getting their hands on the officially sanctioned semi-transparent version.
For those not fortunate, or rich, enough to have got their hands on a ticket, an alternative means of celebration had been arranged. Were this a football tournament they'd have been called Fan Zones, such are the kind of hardened groupies these places attract, but here they were called Live Sites. And so the devoted found themselves either at the top of Green Park or in the middle of St James's Park, depending on which side of The Mall they were approaching from, with little chance of ever getting round the cordon to the other side. On their way they were greeted by the free Union Jack disher-outers, who are always present on these royal occasions, attempting to ensure that all the flags being waved featured the name of their glossy weekly celeb lifestyle magazine.
The early birds made a beeline for one of two places, either immediately in front of the big screen or round the edge of the seating area beneath a tree. Precipitation levels over the next two hours suggested that those who'd grabbed the limited under-branch space had made the wiser choice. Red, white and blue hats, brollies and jackets were much in evidence, while one middle aged couple sat in beach chairs wearing gold paper crowns as if they were on the throne themselves. A lot of those present were ladies of retirement age, in groups, but many families had also turned up en masse to bear witness to the magic of the monarchy.
There was nothing to watch on the big screen until the event began, nothing except a carousel of marketing messages disguised as information.
At the Patron's Lunch merchandising tent business wasn't brisk for souvenir teatowels or a £7 pack of branded paper cups and plates. All the Celebration Makers seemed busy talking to each other, perhaps because there was as yet nothing to explain, occasionally pausing to hand out a telecommunications-themed flag. The Green Tea Monkey was somewhere inaccessible, which was a shame for anyone hoping urgently for a hot drink. The Entrepreneurs weren't doing a roaring trade, which hopefully taught these youthful trainees about the substantial meteorological risk involved in flogging ice cream in summer. But the company with the most to gain, or lose, was Marks and Spencer.
M&S had taken on the responsibility of providing the contents of the celebration hampers handed out to all the paying guests, an uncollated version of which was available in their pop up shop. This sounded good, but was in truth a temporary room lined with chiller cabinets and racks of crisps, plus a central slalom area leading to the tills. Here you could purchase Four Nations sandwiches and crown-topped pork pies with piccalilli, as well as more ordinary sandwiches (naturally including coronation chicken). To their credit, the price of each item was the same as you'd pay in a supermarket, even down to the 3 for 2 offer on the sandwiches and the half price strawberry punnets. But it was the bottles of soft drink that were selling best, perhaps because the Pimm's tent hadn't yet opened.
As the rain continued to pour down, I left the revellers to it, fleeing past further hordes of charity representatives queueing in uniforms, plastic sheeting and red trousers. They'd need their standard issue ponchos once the event officially began, the precipitation only easing off shortly before the royal walkabout. And by the time the fuchsia pink queen trundled back down The Mall from saying her few words the sun had even come out, and for long enough to allow the parade to take place unsplattered. Thespectacle was probably best seen at home on TV, where at least there was a functioning kettle if not the opportunity to shake a minor royal's hand, plus a red button option to turn off the obsequious commentary.
By 5pm the staff in Westfield's M&S were marking down the pork pies and the smoked salmon in the Patron's Lunch chiller cabinet to half price, and a herd of bargain hunters crowded round to grab some birthday swag for tea. The curtain has now come down on this weekend of official celebration, and ardent monarchists must wait some time for an event of similar magnitude. The Queen's 95th probably won't be celebrated with such gusto, if she gets that far, overshadowed by the potential Platinum Jubilee the following year. As for the possibility of reaching the birthday where she gets to send a telegram to herself, best not enter into undue speculation at this time. But let's hope it's hampers and carriages again next time, whenever that might be.