If you live in a developed country and last week you were not on a wilderness backpacking adventure, a religious retreat, or a coma ward, you probably know that Prince William got married on Friday.
As soon as the engagement was announced American readers asked me to write about it. But with two people I don’t know getting married, what could I possibly have to say? Somebody suggested I could report on the media hype here, but there was hardly any then, and wasn’t much more until the final couple of days before the event. At the announcement of the engagement, newspapers said cynically that the wedding was timed to cheer up a nation in the midst of funding cuts and rising unemployment, and pretty much left the subject there, though they did publish more than usual about Kate Middleton’s wardrobe, spurring sales of any dress she wore.
Readers asked what my friends and neighbors thought about the upcoming wedding, and pretty much everyone I know seemed to think the same thing: isn’t it great that we get a day off? Parliament voted to make the wedding day a public holiday, what the British call a bank holiday and Americans usually call a Monday holiday. (Both terms come from long-ago legislation designating official public holidays.)
Whether the newspapers were right about the politicians merely wanting to give us bread and circuses I couldn’t say, but the Prime Minister certainly did encourage us to celebrate in Britain’s traditional way: street parties. It’s not as long-established a tradition as many here, where every other village seems to have an antler dance or a fair that dates back eight hundred years or so. Still, ever since the armistice that ended the first world war Britons have marked important occasions, especially royal events such as weddings or jubilees (anniversaries of the monarch’s accession to the throne), with street parties.
The last round of these celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, that is, the 50th anniversary of her reign. You close the street to traffic, set up tables so it looks as though one long table runs for yards and yards along the centre stripe of the road, and then you and the neighbors load up the tables with food. Sounds good. So for Prince William’s wedding day, the government wanted to see us out there partying in the streets, too, except that by giving people the day off they actually reduced the number of street parties: people weren’t here to celebrate because they were off on vacation (UK: holiday).
Good Friday and Easter Monday are bank holidays already, as is May Day (our Labour Day). But Easter seldom occurs as late as it did this year (April 24), so the three holidays came in a cluster. Throw in the extra Friday off for the Royal Wedding and people with Monday-to-Friday jobs realized they could go off to France or Spain for eleven days and only use up three days of annual leave (US: three vacation days), so millions of them left.
But I don’t have that excuse; I was right here, and I did want to see the wedding. A reader asked whether I would go up to London to see the wedding procession. (Insert here the obligatory not-really-funny joke about my invitation to the wedding having been lost in the post; lots of people tell that one and don’t we split our sides laughing?) I suppose I could have gone and waved the flag with everybody else, but even with so many people leaving the country altogether, there would be a million or so lining the streets, the half million without stupid hats trying to see over the stupid hats of the other half million, and I hate crowds. I’d just as soon watch it on television.
In the last few days before the wedding, all but the most die-hard Republicans—which here means those who want to abolish the monarchy—did get caught up in events. The couple managed to keep a lot of the arrangements secret, which generated as much interest as the details that couldn’t be hidden such as the live trees, some of them 20 feet tall, that workers manhandled into the Abbey. For those who said the royal wedding was a waste of public money there were Royal Wedding commemorative sick bags, while some royalty fans went to extremes; you may have seen photos on the internet of Bristol plumber Baz Franks, who spent 6 hours at the dentist and paid £1000 to get Prince William and Kate Middleton tattoos on his front teeth.
As coverage ramped up, the press devoted significant airtime to who was and wasn’t invited. Ex-prime ministers Blair and Brown of the Labour Party were not invited, but Tory ex-prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major were. The day before the wedding the invitation to the ambassador from Syria was withdrawn for diplomatic reasons.
Costs were considered: the families of the bride and groom may have paid for the wedding, but the public had to pay for the security. Part of the decision to hold the wedding at Westminster Abbey was to keep down costs, as St Paul’s is farther away and security cost tens of thousands of pounds per mile. Security was easier on the route to the Abbey anyway, because almost every building the royals passed is government owned. For days before the wedding, police officers checked the route, looking into storm drains and opening up the boxes housing Walk/Don’t Walk buttons to make sure no one had planted bombs there. But the money saved by shortening the procession route was spent again when Parliament made the day a public holiday; police, guards, snipers, and presumably even sniffer dogs get double time for holiday work.
Things had changed since Charles and Diana’s wedding: Prince Harry was called a best man rather than a supporter (supporter is the usual term at royal weddings), and the bride wore a dress that made her look like a grownup; I might go so far as to say the bride wore the magnificent dress this time, while in Diana’s case, the dress was so overwhelming it seemed to wear the bride. William and Kate were formal without being stiff; they looked like they were trying not to break out laughing at the altar. You could see they actually like each other. And thank goodness that in 2011 we could forego the embarrassment of medical inspection to prove virginity. Thirty years ago, a doctor had to peer up Princess Diana’s dress to verify that all was intact, as if she were an expensive animal to be checked out by a vet before the purchase was binding.
So I enjoyed the wedding coverage and all the associated stories—the verger who was caught on camera turning cartwheels up the nave of the Abbey after the service, the little bridesmaid unhappy with the noise, and the reactions around the country. In London, the mayor gave the couple a tandem bicycle, Morris Men danced in Kate’s hometown, and in Abingdon in Oxfordshire the town council threw currant buns off a roof to crowds below, as it has done to celebrate royal weddings all the way back to 1761. (That’s when George III married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, which you may already have known, but which I had to look up.)
After the wedding I stopped in at our village street party, but didn’t stay, as it turned out to be a sad little affair, mainly for children, held in the car park (US: parking lot) of the Royal British Legion building. So I can’t offer you photos of a real live British traditional street party, but you can several such photos here.
Nationwide over 5500 requests were made for permits to close the streets, including one for a party hosted by the Prime Minister. Presumably you didn’t have to have a permit for a party on the first Armistice Day, but today there’s a fair bit of paperwork. A former mayor of Guildford, unhappy with the bureaucracy, told me that along with their applications for street closure, Guildfordians had to include risk assessments (outlining everything that could go wrong and what they would do if the worst did happen) as well as proof of insurance. Perhaps there would have been more parties in Guildford if residents hadn’t been required to apply for street closure a month in advance and do heavy-duty paperwork. Up in London, the Prime Minister presumably had someone to do the paperwork for him, but at least Guildford residents were spared the usual application fee of £104 (about $170); the Borough Council waived such sums to encourage the national celebration.
By now the tons of rubbish have been swept away from local streets as well as from London thoroughfares—where the main problem along the procession route was horse dung, from what I’ve read—the eleven-day holiday period is over and it’s back to business as usual. The concerns about security, protocol, ceremony, and wardrobe can be packed away until next time, though I do wonder—do you think William will wear that snazzy red Irish Guards uniform when he and Kate go out on their tandem?