Each day, if we bother to listen, the world stands at the ready to teach us something. Yesterday, while attending one of the numerous and if not state-sanctioned then certainly state-encouraged diamond jubilee street parties, I had occasion to glean a bit of insight about the ever-imbricated relationship between England and the United States. I was a guest of my friend A — you’ll remember, the one who is a crafting wiz, who inspired me to try cooking enough food on one day for a month of meals (although I only ended up cooking enough for a week – I don’t know if that means I eat too much or if I cooked too little…), and an endless source of laughter and wisdom in all forms — and unlike A and family, I was not given a blue sticker to wear. The guests, you see, wore red stickers. So we could be easily identified and booted, perhaps? I doubt it would come to that — everyone was not only very nice (and a few were more than a bit sauced) but they were full of tales and musings about the street, about the street party — “there hasn’t been one in the 48 years I’ve lived here!” exclaimed an enthusiastic woman unflinchingly wearing a tiara — and about the jubilee overall. Children had their faces painted, a steady stream of musically inclined neighbors took to the microphone to croon some tunes, plastic stemware and open bottles of wine and other means of imbibing were featured prominently along the long line of tables, and the bunting. Oh there was bunting hung with care, as far as the eye could see. Triangular Union Jack flags hung from plastic twine along the fronts of houses, overhead like streamers, and decorated the eating areas and more than a few women’s skirts and men’s shirts.
When the hour struck just past six in the evening, everyone began to stand at the behest of the already-standing who flapped their arms enthusiastically upward. So we stood and from the musical end of the street streamed a familiar tune. I was moved to stand a bit straighter and words started to come out of my mouth. What I was unwittingly singing, as was A, were the words to a song that children in the States are taught in school known as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” But why would they be playing that in this near-London town? Everyone around us, it turns out, was singing different words and so A and I kept our voices quiet as we kept singing. The tune of the American patriotic anthem is the same as the British national anthem “God save the Queen.” How this fact either escaped me all these years or failed to materialize in my memory as a known fact, I’m not sure. But I didn’t fret and instead enjoyed this quietly transgressive, oddly historicized moment in which a song can hold such a multitude of meanings. It was a light moment, a celebratory one … and yet, with the fates and acts of world’s humans not too far from the collective consciousness, I couldn’t help but acknowledge, however momentarily, John Berger’s implied admonition “A singer may be innocent; never the song.”
In that moment, however, I chose to stay present and revel in the delightfully (and more than few ghoulishly) painted faces, the neighbors being neighborly, and the consuming of foods and tunes. As an outsider — and particularly as the Jubilee festivities and commentaries about the festivities are going on — the oft-cited notion that at some point in human history the sun never set on the British empire is one that isn’t too far from the front of my mind. More than a few of the news presenters commenting on the Jubilee throughout the day’s televised coverage implicitly referred to the complicated relationship of England with the rest of the world throughout the years, of the tension involving such displays of extravagance at a time of relative worldwide austerity, of the long history of public perceptions and commentary about the presiding Queen. The overwhelming visual scene, however, was one of masses of people simply enjoying themselves.
Earlier today, my travel companion, who was particularly eager to take in the pageantry, and I wandered down to the Thames. Clearly we did not arrive early enough to secure a coveted viewing spot and after attempting to see something — anything! — near Waterloo Bridge, we made our way to Blackfriar’s Bridge, closer to the end of the day’s flotilla. That’s right, I said flotilla (and I will likely say it again). Although I jokingly noted that the thousand strong fleet of seaworthy vessels making their way down a seven-mile stretch of the Thames River had been organized in honor of A’s arrival and, coincidentally, birthday, today’s flotilla is actually a long-standing royal tradition reminiscent of this painting by Canaletto depicting the boat-filled Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day (circa 1747).
In a post that has not yet made it out of the drafts stage, I started to talk about traveling and seeing new places with familiar faces. As happy as I am for A and family to experience the many riches this city and country have to offer, I am especially overjoyed to have a small chance to overlap with their time here and to see again and anew what has started to become slightly familiar; and at the same time, to relax into the comfort that comes with shared prior experiences, conversations, and affiliations.
One of A’s new neighbors who was sure to introduce himself to us, perhaps because we were outed as “new” and therefore “different,” was particularly keen on making it known to us that where A had taken up temporary residence was a “very good neighborhood” and good place to live, safe for families, a place without worry. I thought again about his earnest pitch while walking as one among the purported 1.2 million revelers on the London city streets and couldn’t help but think about all the moments in which we humans are constantly trying to find audiences for our stories and for the chance to get the stories across in just the right way. What are the stories to glean, then, from these snaps taken in town today — I offer them here sans captions:
happy birthday, a! 🙂