Workmen scattered shovelfuls of sawdust onto the southern roadway of Trafalgar Square so that coach wheels wouldn't slip. A small boy in a yellow slicker shouted, "Here come the horses, mum" and waved a mini union Jack as hard as he could.
Necks craned. An American television crew on a stand above me, and a Japanese crew on the sidewalk beside me, trained lenses on a lone gray horse trotting toward us beneath Admiralty Arch. On its back sat a policeman, ramrod straight.
And the dress rehearsal for Britain's royal wedding procession was at last under way, amid a gathering mood of excitement, national unity, and world attention that major royal occasions generate so well.
It was early on a Sunday morning. Heavy clouds hung low. To get here in time you needed to have awakened before 6 a.m. The route from Buckingham Palace to St. Paul's Cathedral was already lined with Londoners and tourists -- more evidence of the affection and interest the British royal family commands.
Despite the gloomy weather, despite the lack of full dress uniforms during the rehearsal, the people came. And as the First Division of the Sovereigns Escort (household cavalry) trotted into sight from the red paved mall, and sped by surprisingly quickly around the square and up the incline to the Strand, it was clear just how much people appreciate good news, color, and sparkle, in the midst of economic recession and social strife. The crowd was happy, smiling, cheerful. Another small boy near me bounced up and down after the Queen's escort had gone by, chanting "ding ding ding-a-ding" to imitate the jingling of harness chains.
"Yes, well, it's great, isn't it?" Said a woman behind me to her husband. He nodded. It was two attractive young people getting married, but it was more: it was tradition, a link with hundreds of years of history.
It was continuity -- the heir to the throne marrying, with the promise of his own heirs to come. It was Britain forgetting its unemployment and inner city riots for a moment or two and simply having a good time.
Newspaper headlines tell of almost 3 million out of work. Industry sees no sign yet of an upturn in demand. The Conservative government has been trying to hammer out new ways of creating jobs in riot-struck inner cities from Liverpool to London.
The wedding itself will cost at least a L500,000 ($934,000). The country could lose as much as L1 billion ($1.87 billion) in production on July 29, which is a bank holiday. That perennial critic of royal extravagance, Willie Hamilton , Labour member of Parliament for Fife Central, says he plans to read a book and work in his garden rather than watch the nuptials.
Yet a recent Marplan poll for the Guardian newspaper reports 67 percent of the British people saying the costs of the wedding are justified, with 29 percent opposed. The fairly high "opposed" figure could be due to so many people in the north and west being out of work and angry with the establishment in general.
Seventy-six percent said the advantages of the monarchy as a whole outweighed its costs. The royal figure most people want to visit their own community remains the Queen, with Prince Charles close behind. Lady Diana, who appeals to many younger people, has already overtaken Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother for third spot. Least favored royals: Princess Margaret and Princess Anne.
The wedding has also created enormous worlwide interest. The British Broadcasting Corporation has never mounted a bigger production. Some 750 million people will watch around the world on television. The world's press corps is scouring London for every last scrap of trivia. Lady Diana's brief attack of pre-wedding discomfiture July 25 was treated by the British press as headline news.
The American Broadcasting Company is said to have hired a Boeing 727 jet to bring to London its tons of extra equipment and TV staff.
Meanwhile, the dress rehearsal illustrated the pageantry, the tradition -- and the security problems -- of any big royal occasion at this time.
Pageantry. The very lack of full dress uniforms whetted the appetite of onlookers for the splendor of the day.
The Sovereign's escort wore khaki instead of their usual gold and blue. It had already rehearsed in full uniform along Rotten Row some days before: "We hadn't worn the cuirass [breastplates] since King Khalid of Saudi Arabia was here," explained an adjutant to newsmen at the time. They're heavy you know, and they confine the neck somewhat." It takes each man eight hours to prepare his full uniform. They carried their silver swords pointing straight up as they rode. Their empty scabbards jounced against stirrups. Horses snorted and strained.
Mounted police were plain in dark blue. On the day, Assistant Commissioner Wilfrid Gibson will sport a cocked hat with plume of swan feathers, velvet gauntlet cuffs embroided with silver oak leaves and acorns, silver and black shoulder cords on his dark blue tunic, silver oak leaf lace stripes and his trousers, a silver waistsash, boots, spurs, and white gloves.
Other mounted men will wear silver aiguillettes and "pouch belts" worn diagonally across the chest, and originally used for carrying messages.
Coaches in the rehearsal were closed, but their maroon paint and gold and crimson trim, was splendid indeed.
In all there are three separate processions going to St. Pauls: the Queen's (eight coaches in all, including her immediate family, and the families of the dukes of Gloucester, Kent, and Princess Alexandra) Prince Charles (accompanied by his brother Prince Andrew in the 1902 State Landau drawn by four grays), and Lady Diana Spencer in the Glass Coach, made in 1910.
On Sunday we waited half an hour between each of the three processions to the cathedral. The Crown Equerry accompanied each one, timed it, and supervised it, then raced back along the route by car to accompany the next.
A magnificent royal Rolls Royce moved past at one point, its royal crest above the windscreen sheathed in a black cover. Drivers of some of the smaller coaches in the Queen's procession had wrapped black water- proof rugs around their legs. Gorgeous red and gold postillion cloths were covered in clear plastic.
If (perish the thought) it rains on the day, the Queen will use the ornate, roofed-in Irish State Coach, Prince Charles moves to the similarly covered Scottish State Coach, but the bride stays in the Glass Coach, which is covered (and specially lit with flourescent lights) as well.
As the entire procession returned from the cathedral, the empty 1902 State Landau leading the way (the royal couple will be in it on the day). It took only six minutes to pass me.
Security. Police were everywhere, lining Trafalgar Square, facing the crowds (as they will be on the wedding day) but sneaking looks at the horses anyway.
"Whose is that camera up there?" Asked a police captain to an American crew, pointing to the top of a building on the square. (It was British.) "Will all you people be here on the day? All right: I will need you to tell me about any faces you don't recognize."
He spotted my green tie with Irish harps on it I happened to have bought in Dublin. "Don't wear anything like that on the day," he said, only half-joking. "We home in on anything like that."
The possibility of violence or even attempted assassinations by the Provisional wing of the Illegal Irish Republican Army rev mains only too worrying to police and armed forces.
Every building on the procession route has been visited by police, spokesmen say. Names of people who have to work on the day have been submitted. Doors onto the route will be locked.
Police dogs will help search selected buildings on the day. Police have asked onlookers to report anything suspicious to the nearest policeman at once.
(Police "Notes for Guidance of Spectators" also advise: "Don't bring chairs, stools, or boxes to stand on. . . . Don't bring camping fires or camp beds . . . . Do remember, "thieves love crowds . . . .' Do beware of street photographers after huge profits, street traders offering amazing bargains, and street gamesters suggesting chances to easy money through gambling.)
Thousands of extra police are on duty around the city. Battersea Park, on the south bank of the River Thames has been turned into a police camp, under strict security.