FOR a long time as I was growing up I had no opinion about the Queen. She was neither someone I looked up to nor someone I opposed, she was simply the Queen. She was there, on the throne, and that was that. But over recent years I have come to think about the monarchy debate, brought into prominence I suppose by certain recent royal events, and I have come to a firm conclusion not about the royalty or the fact that we have a monarchical system but about the particular person who happens to be our Queen.
As with every good story, the road to this decision begins with an orphaned girl in Uganda. But not just her: a drumming band from the slums of Nairobi features too, as does a blind, left-handed guitarist from the Gumatj aboriginal mob in Australia. To make sense of this, we must talk about Gary Barlow.
Captain Barlow, of the good ship Take That, has put together a song for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. It takes the form of a patchwork of on-location recordings of people from all over the commonwealth, including the aforementioned African Children's Choir, the Slum Drummers of Nairobi and the brilliant Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, among many others. Each was recorded, and wished to take part, in order to make a present for a woman they had not met. What is more remarkable, however, is that many of these artists are coming to the UK, leaving their countries for the first time, to perform the song for the Queen at the Diamond Jubilee Concert tomorrow night at Buckingham Palace. Such is the effect she has.
Last month, Rachel and I, along with members of her family, attended the Windsor Diamond Jubilee Pageant in the grounds of Windsor Castle. As an addition to the annual Windsor horse show, this was a four-night event attended by members of the royal family, in which representatives from many of the countries the Queen had visited throughout her reign demonstrated or performed in whatever capacity they could in a two hour spectacle in her honour. Of course the show was largely horse based, with Karabakh horses and Cossacks and Royal Canadian Mounted Police and many others displaying their mastery, but there was also music, dancing and, in the case of the Cossacks, gravity defying acrobatics, on horseback, at full speed. Not only were the nations represented by officialdom, but indigenous people, too, were performing - Maori, Aboriginal, Solomon Islanders and Artcirq among others. Even Alan Titchmarsh was there. I felt guilty that up until the show started I had no clue as to what I was about to witness, having agreed to attend after the kind offer of tickets from my mother-in-law without any knowledge of what it was. My guilt arose because the event was a sell-out, and I was certain many who would have been eager to have attended would have missed out because of my nonchalant acceptance. I didn't know what it was so I wasn't excited, and I certainly had no clue as to how big a deal it was.
It was massive. Hundreds of riders from the furthest reaches of the planet had come, with some of the biggest names in the entertainment and equestrian worlds featuring. There were the Chilean Huasos, steering their beautiful equine companions in a diagonal canter in front of the main grandstand; wild west cowboys rounding up loose cattle; the Omani Royal Cavalry, standing atop their steeds or mounting while their horses stood from lying, adorned in beautiful regal clothing; the aforementioned Cossacks and Azeri Karabakh horses; the Watoto Children's Choir; a display of complete mastery by the French horse whisperer Jean Francois Pignon, the only performer to enter the arena with free, unbridled horses and ponies that followed his every move (and were later joined by their whinnying foals); and much, much more. Narration by Alan Titchmarsh was to be supplemented the following evening - when the Queen herself attended - by Dame Helen Mirren, Martin Clunes, Rolf Harris, Freema Agyeman, Omid Djalili and Sanjeev Bhaskar. In short, this was a big deal.
Some may know that I, historically, do not get on with horses. Furthermore, horse people have a stereotype I'm not altogether comfortable being around and the sighting of a clothes stall on site called 'Totties' set my cynical side into overdrive. By attending the night before the Queen we were subjected to a selection of good but clearly replacement artists - Susan Boyle and Joss Stone, for example, were due only to play the following evening; similarly, we got Angela Rippon instead of Helen Mirren. After the truly astounding Cossack display it seemed rather ridiculous to be expected to applaud the arrival of each of the royal horses and carriages, in turn, being ridden or occupied by people who, despite having devoted themselves to the family for decades, were unknown to the audience. The show itself was, as with all royal occasions, hardly cutting edge. And of course, in the absence of the Queen, we were graced by the presence of royal Z-listers Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. Noble and charitable they may be, they're hardly up there with the big shots.
And yet. We had a wonderful time.
I loved it for one very simple reason. Normally, the presentation of indigenous cultures is for touristic purposes, to show them off not out of respect but to please, thereby cheapening them. It's as if they are inferior and put on show to be gawped at insultingly. But the pageant, on the contrary, presented them in a positive light, a showcase out of respect of the many different cultures that exist in the world. Gawping was replaced by informing of peoples, cultures and traditions. This, then, is the legacy of the Queen - she does not judge, does not mock, but respects.
If this is the legacy of the Queen, then this is the legacy of our country. We respect. That’s something I can subscribe too.
The curious thing is that in this country we do not see the impact the royal family has on how we are seen, and, indeed how hard the Queen works. That phrase is rather overused and is perhaps misleading, the cause of one quip I saw today during the Thames flotilla: "Look! She's carrying an umbrella. She DOES work hard!" On my travels I have several times been asked by others about the Queen, or Princess Diana or the royal family. It seems that some in other countries care much more about our figurehead than we do. With this is mind I care now much more about the image she portrays of us elsewhere. To create this image she has devoted 60 years of diplomacy, shrewdness and command. At this point I shall decline to mention our actual government or my opinion of any heirs to the throne.
And so to Gary Barlow and his song, which, I’ll be honest, I don’t really like. But I love what it stands for and how it has been made. It is, again, a showcase of diversity in a manner that respects that diversity, all in honour of a woman that allows such a thing.
Many have been critical of the various events hosted for the Jubilee weekend, either as a waste of public money or simply as twee, pedestrian affairs. Royal events do not push boundaries and are not cutting edge. If they had to compete to earn airtime they would not succeed in our culture of instant gratification, seeking always to be bigger and bolder. But this is not what they are about, nor should they be. They are supposed to be wholesome, inclusive events that bring families together.
Wholesome, inclusive, family: three words that summarize the person that is our Queen. I rather like her.