It was one of those summer days that promised to be bright with a blue-sky backdrop, the kind that we Brits complain so bitterly happen so rarely. Down here on the south coast, within spitting distance of the Channel there was an early morning mist with the freighters and ferries on the Solent sounding their foghorns as they steam through the haze.
An hour or two later and the rising sun burned off the early morning haze, visibility was back to normal and the background music of ships’ sirens fell silent. Around here people hardly notice, but it’s a reminder that this is an island nation. A week ago this island nation was gearing itself up for the Queen’s diamond jubilee. There was bunting everywhere, union flags flying from the most incongruous places, pictures of Liz ‘n Phil as they were back in 1952 adorning shop windows. Street parties were being prepared, while some of us just looked forward to a four-day weekend. At least, people with proper jobs did.
It seems almost that it was only last week that the Queen had her golden jubilee after fifty years with the family firm, and it seems slightly unreal that she’s now been in the job sixty years. On the other hand, it seems half a lifetime ago that the silver jubilee took place in 1977. Hang on… that was half a lifetime ago when we lads spent the silver jubilee bank holiday on the beach at Gilkicker Point, ogling girls way out of our league, passing cans of precious light ale between us and watching the fleet review taking place on the Solent.
That was a different world. No faxes, let alone email or the web. Johnny Rotten was still an angry young man. There were flares and sideburns and Pan’s People on Top of the Pops. A Ford Cortina was still a thoroughly cool set of wheels while a Capri was what a man needed to go with the sideburns and flares. Cigarette advertising was everywhere, vegetables were sold by the pound, petrol was in gallons, five pints could be had for a quid and there were still men who would say without embarrassment that they bought Playboy for the articles. Yeah, right.
Thirty-five years on, Middle England is still firmly behind the royals, this week, at any rate. I find it hard to take a position either way. I should by rights be a committed republican, but instead find myself unable to take the cartoon royals and their pomp & circumstance seriously. I prefer to fall back on amused indifference, although I didn’t find it quite so amusing being told to ‘piss off, mate’ by Princess Anne’s minder when he reckoned I’d got to close to her with a long lens at one of those supremely dull events the royals at least manage to visit with dignity and without yawning.
This odd dysfunctional family of carefully hidden feuds, infidelity, tantrums and wrecked marriages is one of those anachronisms that we Brits do so masterfully. The strange real-life, real-time royal soap opera keeps the families of hundreds of tabloid journalists around the world fed and clothed when these unfortunate characters would otherwise have to find themselves proper jobs. Allegedly, the royals keep the tourist industry ticking over to the tune of several billion a year although I’ve no idea how this balances against the cost to the taxpayer of keeping the Windsors in palaces and polo ponies.
It would be interesting to know how the cost of keeping this bunch of people in fancy dress in so-called power (when in reality they have precious little real power) would stack up against the cost of a presidential election every four or five years. Brits look suspiciously on the presidential jamborees taking place across the water in Europe every few years and in the US where the candidate with the best hair and the biggest budget seems to be the one to get the gig, regardless of merit. The idea of it doesn’t sit comfortably and the thought of who might be up for the job if it were ever to be advertised isn’t a pleasant one.
Situations vacant: President. Would suit former prime minister or middle-of-the-road rock star. Must have own teeth and hair. Presentable wife an advantage.
Hours: Negotiable. Some weekend/evening work required.
Accommodation and company car provided. Excellent holidays and pension package available to the right candidate.
Send CV, references and confirmation of present salary. No time-wasters.
Mind you, if the job’s just about smiling, making interesting comments and shaking hands with dignitaries, then Joanna Lumley or Michael Palin would be perfect candidates. If only it were that simple. Surely they’d be too clever to want it. What genuinely sends shivers down the spine is the thought of an earnest President Blair striding the world stage in a new semi-regal incarnation. It’s a classic instance of those who would be most anxious to get the job being the last ones who should be allowed anywhere near it.
Incidentally, this time of year is also CrimeFest time, with writers and readers gathering in the city of Bristol to talk crime fiction over panels and interviews during the day and in the bars and restaurants after dark – and an excellent few days it was. CrimeFest has grown rapidly from something that didn’t look likely to get off the ground to start with to a very decent event, this year with some big hitters in the shape of Frederick Forsyth, PD James, Jeffrey Deaver, Sue Grafton and Lee Child all speaking to sell-out audiences along with us lesser-known types.
It was a year ago at CrimeFest that I encountered Colin Cotterill in the Marriott hotel’s bar, where he told me about his friend in Thailand who had a crime blog that needed some new contributors. So here’s to another year.