At the head of a 1,000-ship flotilla, Queen Elizabeth traveled by royal barge down the Thames on Sunday, launching a summer of pomp and spectacle here that includes the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games.
Hundreds of thousands braved the rain on river banks and bridges as Elizabeth – celebrating her 60th year on the throne – waved from her vessel, the Gloriana. Two Olympic oarsmen helped row her red and gold-leaf barge seven miles from Chelsea Pier to Tower Bridge.
The Olympians were a reminder that the show-boating in London has only just begun, with the 2012 Games opening here next month. The grandeur befits a city at the center of global trade and finance, with Elizabeth harkening back to traditions of English naval power. But it also contrasts with Britain’s double-dip recession, deep government spending cuts, and a half-century ethos here of self-deprecation.
Some Londoners welcome the showcases as an expression of endurance and a chance for celebration even amid hard times.
“It is a very depressing time at the moment if you listen to news and watch TV, it’s all doom and gloom. It gives people a chance to celebrate and come together,” says Brenda Simpson, a retiree who waited six hours with her husband and sister on the banks for a view.
“There are certain things that need to be celebrated,” says Naveka Perera, a Londoner originally from Sri Lanka. She feels that England left a positive legacy of infrastructure and development in her home nation. “You’ve got to respect her for everything she’s done for [this] country and for Sri Lanka.”
Charlotte Fenwick, a teacher from Norfolk, says the monarchy makes England distinctive. “It’s the only thing the UK’s got left – we provide entertainment and pomp and ceremony,” she says. “But not the weather.”
Not all agree
However, the event also drew protesters who expressed outrage at the opulence at a time when her majesty’s government is slashing government spending.
“It’s obscene. In these days with so many people out of work, to have such spending on all this,” says Lucy Craig. She was unable to reach a small area set aside for protest owing to the crowds which kept many from seeing the event. Some spectators climbed railings or bought periscopes to catch a glimpse above the bowler hats and hand-held Union Jacks.
Ms. Craig agrees the queen draws tourists to England, but says she’d rather have people come to see the country’s national health care system, not gawk at celebrities.
According to the palace website, a private charitable trust called the Thames Diamond Jubilee Foundation will cover the costs of the river pageantry and other events during the four-day jubilee.
The celebrations started Saturday with Elizabeth attending a derby at Epsom Downs. On Monday, the queen will attend a concert at Buckingham Palace, followed by a lighting of thousands of beacons around Britain and the Commonwealth.
The national holiday period ends on Tuesday with a thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral that will feature a children’s choir. The royal family will then process by carriage from Westminster Hall to Buckingham Palace.
For the most part, the country has embraced the celebratory spirit of the jubilee. The Olympics, however, are starting to stir up significant community backlash here. Respondents in a YouGov poll last week found 52 percent planning to watch the flotilla on TV or in person, far more than the 21 percent planning to watch the Olympics.
“I would love to start a revolution around the Olympics,” says Gerhard Jenne, founder of Konditor & Cook bakeries. Initially excited about London winning the Olympics, he has been turned off by Olympic officials cracking down on unofficial uses of the rings symbol. “I think they are spoiling it for people. I think they are pushing it too far.”
The massive security preparations for the Games have also annoyed residents. The Games will see the biggest mobilization of security forces here since World War 2, along with 11 miles of electronic fencing, drones, sonic weapons, and a warship in the Thames.
Plans to deploy anti-aircraft missiles on the roof of an apartment building in East London brought a couple hundred residents to a charged community meeting last week. Alex Kinny, a local teacher’s union representatives, said of the Games: “It’s obvious that local people are becoming bystanders in this corporate event.”