Cue the drums and pipers: The Brits celebrated six decades since Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne last week, with a visit to both Houses of Parliament at the ungodly magnificent Palace of Westminster. I came with breathless anticipation as a guest of Virgin Atlantic Airlines to take in the spectacle of it all, and to check in on London’s preparations for this summer’s 2012 Olympics.
As the jumbo 747, with its distinctive “Pride of London” emblazonedjust below the pilot’s
window, taxied down Dulles Airport‘s runway for takeoff, the 400 or so passengers were greeted on the PA by a Special Friend of the Queen: “Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. You may recognize my voice. My name is Richard Branson and I’m the founder of Virgin Atlantic Airlines. Thanks for flying with us and have a pleasant stay in London or whatever your final destination may be…”
The passengers of Virgin Flight 22 bound for London’s Heathrow Airport could not mask their delight in being greeted by Sir Richard, giving him a rousing ovation and a few footballer-like hoots and hollers. Sir Richard reciprocated the love, strolling down the twin aisles of Economy and Business, greeting the clearly delighted passengers and shaking more than a few outstretched hands.
Branson had been in Washington for an over-the-top State Dinner hosted by the Obamas for the British Prime Minister David Cameron at The White House, and I’d met him the next morning after he participated in an Atlantic Live summit at The Watergate about the global failure of drug interdiction policies.
Sir Richard is seemlessly a pro at making the men cheer and the women swoon. He is graciously kind to a fault. Or as one of the also-gracious Virgin flight attendants put it: “He’s a fabulous boss, and kind to all of us. I do find him a little shy, though, don’t you think? But don’t get me wrong; we find that very appealing in Sir Richard.”
We arrived at Heathrow the next morning to an archtypical London day: Overcast, foggy, and a bit chilly. But the cold drizzle was achieving little in dampening the unbridled enthusiasm of Brits on St. Patrick’s Day, as they celebrated their ancient neighbor to the north with generous pints of green beer, those silly floppy clover hats and raucous revelry practically everywhere in the pubs of Piccadilly and Covent Garden.
The British are celebrating a lot these days as they head into their annual “Silly Season,” a 90-day ritual of social bonding and beer-fueled celebrations.
The Queen’s 2012 Jubilee unoffically kicked it all off, with thousands of Jubilee celebrations and city-by-city visits already planned for the Queen across the Commonwealth. During a period of austerty, she’s foresaken her private rail car and is taking public trains instead. Upcoming: Royal Ascot, Henley-on-The-Thames and Wimbledon, all to be capped off by the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, starting in late July.
Overseeing it all is the Queen, the legitimizer of an imperial commonwealth of 54 far-flung nations, from Australia to the Falklands. The rarely-quoted Queen has only made five visits to both Houses of Parliament, and each matriarchial address was more stirring, more memorable as the next. It’s all about the bonding of her Commonwealth: “We all enjoy the benefits of a Union that keeps us together,” she reminded her subjects at her 1977 Silver Jubilee.
It is a monarchy that has had its fair share of rocky moments (The Royal estrangement with Princess Diana and her untimely death, for instance), but the brighter moments of her sovereignty appear to outweigh, such as the undoing of Apartheid in South Africa and her oversight of a long, arduous period of de-colonization.
At 85, she appears to enjoy her job more zealously as ever, and her subjects appear to value her
six decades of devotion to the throne. One BBC report said that Buckingham Palace was receiving upwards of 1,000 letters per week from her subjects, thanking her for her unbroken service. Even the most hardened and cynical Royal Watchers on Fleet Street agree that it has been a long, successful reign.
England has enjoyed a real head of steam around the Diamond Jubilee, with 3,000 to 4,000 street parties that have already occurred (four times more than last year’s Royal Wedding, a BBC commentator noted), and which have served to lift economic spirits across recessionary England.
Arriving last Tuesday at precisely 2 o’clock at historic Westminster Hall trailed by Prince Philip (who’s a ripe and tart- tongued 91) and by a procession of trumpeters in ceremonial procession, the Queen was greeted by the speakers of both houses of Parliament, of The House of Lords and House of Commons.
“We celebrate your stewardship of your office and we rejoice in this Jubillee,” pronounced Baroness de Souza, the speaker of the House of Lords. “This is the first of many celebrations across our country. Today you’ve come to the Constitutional heart of your democracy where we look forward in great anticipation the unveiling of your new stained glass window.”
“Your Jubilee will be celebrated with joy as you lead 54 member countries and we work to share our experiences and to promote democracies,” she concluded. “We look on with admiration and pride, and we hope you’ll enjoy the peace and plenty.”
John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, said that that time had been better preserved when she took the throne in “this hallowed place 60 years ago, with all of the challenges ahead.”
“You know how to lose yourself in the service of others,” he said. “And you have moved with the times…This is a much different U.K. than 1952; this is a land where people live in a fully multicultural society. This is a nation of many races and different values.”
He concluded: “You have become to many of us a kaleidescope. The Queen in a kaleiefdescope country, in a kaleidescope commonwealth.You have provided us with 60 years of stability, certainty, sacrifice and service.”
The Queen, attired in a mustard yellow suit and perfectly-squared yellow box hat, was flanked by Beefeaters as she took to the podium. “I am most reassured that I am the second sovereign to address you for our Jubilee. During my 60 years I have greeted 12 Prime Ministers. The experience of old age can be beneficial.”
As her husband Prince Philip sat patiently behind her, she made a rare attempt at humor: “Prince Philip is well known to declining compliments of any kind, even after all of those overseas tours. My old association with him has taught me that often the best way to communicate with him is to say as little as possible.”
Concluding her brief remarks, the Queen said: “The Commonwealth has flourished and grown over time. I have signed over three and a half thousand bills into law. The Houses of Parliament are a continued source of vital support. The support of my family has been without measure.”
With that, the National Anthem was played and the Queen departed into a sea of waving Union Jacks and unbridled cheers of support.
God Save the Queen.