Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Defining Image of Great Britain

How to sum up this weekend? For anyone reading this post months from now or from some remote corner of the globe, it is the weekend of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Republicans have been snorting and chuntering about 'how much of their taxes have paid for the blah blah blah'; old people have been dewy eyed about dear old Liz; Huw Edwards has been up to his usual voice-over trick of stating the bleedin' obvious; and everyone has become an expert on the history of the British Monarchy.

Surely, it is on this weekend that we find the true essence of what it is to be British. Surely there will be one snapshot, one image, one face which can be plastered on billboards in travel agents from Washington to Wollagong to get people to travel to our glorious island nation; to visit our tourist attractions; to take photographs outside our discretely renovated ancient buildings; to buy our unimaginably crappy merchandise and souvenirs, covered in pictures of double-decker London buses and bulldogs. Well actually, there is.

It could be the Queen. An 86 (I think) year old woman stood on her feet in the driving rain for hours on end waving at soaking wet people drift past her on the world's least pleasant river. This after 60 years of life spent shaking hands and pretending to be pleased to see people. 60 years of uncompromising integrity, unfailing dignity, unflinching faith, boundless kindness, generosity, love, care and commitment to her nation and her people. I would dearly love to say that that is the essence of what it is to be British, but I think that would be overly optimistic. I would love to say the behaviour of a Nation and Commonwealth mirrors that of its Monarch. But it doesn't, and that image of her persevering through the wind and rain, literally and figuratively, is not that defining image we're after.

It could be the Duke of Edinburgh. He has 4 years on his wife, and he still stood there waving even more vigorously than her all afternoon. He has chuckled, grumbled, grinned and offended all manner of people for almost all of his married life, having sacrificed a naval career. You might think this thoroughly imperfect, rude, often obnoxious, often hilarious, committed, wholehearted and genuine bloke is perfect for our defining image of Britishness. But, without meaning to be overly pedantic, he is, in fact, Greek. Just saying...

It could be the thousands of people stood in the Mall, waving their Union Flags with 'The Sun' emblazoned across the middle, singing the National Anthem, and not knowing the second verse. Having a ball at the Jubilee concert. But I reckon nobody complained about much, so they are not authentic as our defining image.

No, for our defining image we have to rewind to Sunday morning. We have to zoom in to a soaking wet park in the Fifth Worst City In The World. My Church had long planned a 'Big Jubilee Lunch', with inflatable slides, cage football, climbing tower, face painting, coconut shy. When your budget comes from tithes and council grants, that counts as 'the works'. But then, 'Alex' intervened. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, try http://joshramble.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/maybe-next-year.html. If you can't be bothered, that means the weather took a turn for the worse.) It rained. And rained. And rained. The inflatable slides invoked the evil god of Elf and Safety, and refused to come. The coconut shy, the football, and the face painting gazebo lay derelict. In any other nation on Earth, they would have had a committee meeting, and decided to go home, and do something warm, dry and sensible.
Not here. No, these Britons obeyed every patriotic cliche in the book. They kept calm and carried on; they made do and mended.
Men were sent home to fetch tarpaulin to reinforce wind-battered marquees and gazebos. A man with a Ukulele played 'Here Comes the Sun'. A boy with a trumpet played 'Is This The Way To Amarillo'. Picnics were had under shelters, on tables which should have been filled with activities for the myriad visitors, who had decided to stay home. Terrible jokes were told over a waterlogged microphone, as anorak-clad, trenchfoot-suffering people trudged through the headwind across the saturated field, pretending to be happy and find the jokes funny. One kettle, between about a hundred people, went ten to the dozen for five solid hours, as men, women and children warmed themselves with the tepid fruit of its labour.
This, truly, was the Britain which has, throughout the centuries, looked the odds in the eye and shouted a resounding 'No!'. The Britain which has made a fool of common sense and logic. The Damp, Bankrupt Rock in the North Atlantic which no army, neither Hitler's nor Napoleon's has been able to overcome for 946 years.

So, what of the defining image? The organiser of the lunch was a woman called Julie. For months, Julie had planned and advertised and cajoled and persuaded this event into existence. In about 20 minutes on Sunday morning, it collapsed around her ears. The rain poured, the attractions cancelled, the crowds, after a collective net-curtain twitch, stayed at home, and the minions started grumbling. Whispers of 'cancel, cancel, cancel' rang around the park.

All of a sudden Julie disappeared, and we all thought that final discussions were taking place before she announced that enough had become enough, and it was all over. Instead, she emerged from a tent, and took our breath away. Stood there, with her soaking wet hair plastered to her forehead, a silly Union Jack hat on, a blue translucent waterproof poncho on over the top of a red fleece, and Union Flags protruding from her pockets at all angles, she was the ultimate image of Britishness. She was dripping with defiance, determination, and above all, rain water. With great ceremony and theatre, she looked round at all of us agape volunteers, drew a deep breath, and in as sonorous, booming, and Churchillian a voice as she could manage, announced, 'We are carrying on.'

And there, dear friends, we have the defining image of our country. Glorious, eccentric, ridiculous, lovable, defiant, damp, cold, honest, hilarious. Great Britain

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