The red-faced, middle-aged man with the bullhorn standing in London’s Oxford Street cut straight to the chase.  “If,” he shouted, “Oliver Cromwell had been here today and had seen us all bowing and scraping to this ridiculous old woman and her bloody kids, he would have started another civil war . . . Wake up!” the man bawled, his voice rising in counterpoint to the hoot of a passing black cab.  “It’s like if Charles I turned around while he was on the scaffold and said, ‘Nearly 400 years from now you’ll still all be paying to keep my family in the lap of luxury.’  ‘Meanwhile, we’re going to cut your head off, though,’ says Cromwell.  ‘Yeah, maybe, but the last laugh will be on you, mate . . . ’”

The man with the megaphone was alluding to the fact of Her Majesty the Queen’s official 90th birthday this past June.  It may have been Britain’s once-fabled reputation for good manners, or merely a disinclination of pedestrians nearby to engage in a public debate with a heavily amplified lunatic, but during the ten minutes or so I watched no one bothered to stop and remonstrate.  Perhaps some of the passersby were simply bored by the whole subject.  As a nation, Britain has become accustomed to marking milestones in the reign of Elizabeth II.  Her Silver, Golden, and Diamond Jubilees generated an outpouring of affection from the people she has served as sovereign for 64 years, longer than any of her predecessors.  Imagine for a moment that Harry S. Truman was still resident in the White House.  The Queen has even reigned long enough for her to remember the last occasion, exactly 50 years ago, on which England won an international soccer tournament.

Unlike you or me, the British monarch in fact enjoys two full-scale birthdays.  The celebrations began on April 21, when she actually turned 90 years old.  This date is generally considered too early in the year to afford the peak weather conditions for the outdoor component of the public ceremonies.  So over the weekend of June 10-12, millions of Britons got the bunting out once again for the climax of the party.  The celebrations began on Friday morning with a national service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Bathed in glorious sunshine, the 689th successive Lord Mayor of London (as opposed to his lowly civilian counterpart, the recently elected Sadiq Khan) led the procession, holding aloft the monarch’s Pearl Sword as the opening hymn—“O Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness”—rang through the baroque cloisters.  Somehow it only adds to Britain’s long and much remarked-on tradition of reverence both for costume pageantry and individualism (or “diversity,” as it is now known) to record that the Lord Mayor himself, the holder of an office that began life in 1189, and who defers only to the sovereign in his enjoyment of certain ancient powers, rights, and privileges associated with what the website calls this “quintessentially British role,” is actually a somewhat eccentric, Swedish-born former shipping magnate named Jeffrey Evans, who takes his summer holidays at his family’s ancestral home on the Baltic coast.

No royal occasion in Britain is complete without its rows of intrepid fans camped out in the nearby streets waving their bedraggled Union Jacks and little cellophane bouquets of flowers, and the thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s was no exception.  Scores of people were already gathered at the foot of the cathedral when I visited at five that morning.  Maria Scott, 45, a housewife from Newcastle in the north of England, told me that she had already been in place for 14 hours.  She seemed like a normal enough person even so, and I asked what special attraction the Queen had for her.  “She’s the mother of the nation,” she said.  “She’s got a special place in the hearts of the British people, and we want to celebrate with her.”

A retiree in his late 60’s named John Loughrey was sitting nearby on a canvas stool, clutching his birthday tribute of balloons and a card.  He lent a certain historical perspective to the proceedings.  The royal couple was “just like Queen Victoria and Albert,” he told me.

After the service, the Queen, Prince Philip, and the Prince of Wales went on to host a deputation of visiting Commonwealth governors-general for a formal lunch at Buckingham Palace.  Such events are not known for their frugality.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, the prime minister, and the American ambassador Matthew Barzun were also in attendance, along with two other locally famous 90-year-olds—Michael Bond, the creator of Paddington Bear, and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.  In the midst of this I was reminded of the occasion almost exactly 50 years ago when in the thick of the Vietnam War the likes of Frank Sinatra, John Kenneth Galbraith, Alfred Kazin, Lillian Hellman, and sundry Kennedys dressed up in ballgowns and pussycat masks and paraded into Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel, while Pete Hamill, then a cub reporter for the New York Post, stood in the mob outside calling for the tumbrels.  I asked Mrs. Scott on her flattened-cardboard seat outside the cathedral what her plans were for later that afternoon.  “We’ll take the coach home,” she said, “have a cup of tea, and watch it all over again on the telly.”

The two Britains were even more starkly on display later that Friday night.  While many ordinary citizens attended street parties or lit bonfires to demonstrate fealty to the monarch, English soccer fans expressed their own innate patriotism in the traditional drunken clashes with opposing supporters before their team’s European Championship tie with Russia in Marseilles.  According to the Daily Mail

Frightened families fled in terror as the brawling erupted near a tourist market. . . .


The thugs were throwing beer bottles at police officers . . .

Journalists and photographers carrying official accreditation were hit by riot police wielding batons.

Following the skirmishes, England fans continued to sing about the IRA and German bombers being shot down.  At one point they were singing: ‘F*** off, Europe—we’re all voting out!’

French police arrested 43 Russian and 27 English supporters.  Six of the latter were swiftly tried, handed suspended jail sentences, and given two-year bans from traveling to France.  There were at least 35 serious injuries, including a 51-year-old Englishman who received repeated blows to the head with an iron bar, and who was later said to be in “critical but stable” condition in hospital.  It seems the local gendarmes reacted with their familiar combination of laissez-faire indifference and extreme violent intervention.  After posing for some time by their vans, the police at length inserted themselves into a pan-European brawl among the English, French, and Russian contingents outside the curiously named Queen Victoria pub in central Marseilles.  Rebekah Vardy, the wife of the almost incalculably cretinous England star Jamie Vardy, remarked of this incident on Twitter: “That has to be up there with the worst experience EVER at an away game! Teargassed for no reason, caged and treated like animals! Shocking!”

In a snapshot of most ordinary Britons’ concerns, at least as interpreted by the national broadcaster, the five stories on that night’s main BBC television news were, in descending order: soccer hooligans; Brexit; Muhammad Ali; local floods; the Queen.

On Saturday morning, June 11, much of Britain again went into full VE-Day mode, with a wide assortment of royals positioned on the front balcony at Buckingham Palace, an estimated crowd of 20,000 flag-waving fans packed into The Mall below, and a thunderous flyover of what remains of the RAF.  It was a day for continuity, patriotism, and pride.  (And rain.)  Thirteen-month-old Princess Charlotte delighted the crowd by making her balcony debut.  They may be divided by 89 years, but based on her reaction to the whole spectacle the young royal would appear to share her great-grandmother’s love of Britain’s displays of state pomp and ceremony.  They were not alone in their sentiment.  Malcolm Robinson, 74, who had traveled to London from Toronto especially for the occasion, told me, “You still can’t beat the British for a parade.  Or its lousy weather.”  Two young women from Alabama, “doing Europe,” as they repeatedly announced, asked in all seriousness if the celebration had something to do with the soccer tournament taking place in France.  I had to break it to them that, alas, not even the remote prospect of England winning the European Championship would be thought sufficient cause for a full ceremonial turnout of the House of Windsor.  Perhaps more typical of the spirit of the day was the reaction of Paul Capper, 50, a funeral director from the south coast of England, who arrived in his professional livery of top hat, black tie, and tails.  “No, I’m not working,” he assured me.  “I wore the suit as a sign of respect.  The mood in London today is absolutely amazing,” he added, before handing me a business card and inviting me to get in touch could he ever be of service in the future.

In sartorial contrast to Mr. Capper, the Queen chose a vibrant green coat by designer Stewart Parvin and a matching hat with a cerise corsage.  “Neon at 90,” remarked one excited headline.  “Kermit the Frog,” dared a Twitter troll.

By a happy coincidence, the queen’s consort of 69 years, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, celebrated a milestone of his own that weekend, turning 95 on the day of the thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s.  There had been some concern about the duke’s health in the weeks beforehand.  An old Royal Navy man, he missed the commemorations marking the late-May centenary of the Battle of Jutland on the advice of his doctors.  The funereal tone of some of the accompanying news reports may have been premature, however, because the affectionately known Phil the Greek (he was born on the island of Corfu) was back on parade just a week later.  His first engagement since his illness was to tour a hostel for homeless military veterans in Limehouse, East London.  Over the years, the duke has achieved a certain fame both for his impeccable devotion to “the firm,” as he calls the royal family, and an endearing ability to cut through the niceties of state protocol and simply speak his mind.  His visit to the servicemen’s hostel, which had recently attracted unwanted publicity after residents had complained of being unceremoniously evicted at the end of their statutory six months’ tenancy, proved that he had lost none of his flair for nautical directness.  “When are they going to throw you out?” he asked the first inmate he met.  The duke would still seem to represent good value for money to the hard-pressed British taxpayer.  He carried out 219 official engagements at home and 34 overseas in 2015.  This figure was dwarfed by the Queen’s 309 domestic engagements, but was still five times greater than that of his two younger sons Prince Andrew and Prince Edward combined, while the duke’s grandsons Prince William and Prince Harry managed 304 dates between them, the last named contributing a meager 48 domestic and 54 foreign public events for a total of 102 appearances in the year, although it might in fairness be added that until June 2015 he remained a serving officer in the British army.

Sunday, June 12, brought the peculiarly English climax to the proceedings, which at once combined the country’s genius for ostentation and display with its equal faculty for improvisation and stoic forbearance against the odds that has to be our true gift to the world.  This was the appearance of the monarch and her consort being driven down The Mall in an open-top State Review Range Rover, otherwise known as the Queenmobile, to receive the adulation of the 10,000 or so souls who had previously gathered there to enjoy a $225-a-head Marks & Spencer “deluxe picnic hamper” before catching a glimpse of their sovereign.  (The contents of the hamper comprised some paper plates bearing the royal insignia, a small selection of sandwiches, a pork pie, a plastic bowl of “Posh Raspberry Royal Dessert,” which you might recognize as a pot of yogurt, and a can of “especially-blended” Pimm’s liqueur fruit cup, which tasted like brake fluid.)  This being early June in London, it poured rain throughout.  Down in The Mall, the paying public had been banned from bringing umbrellas and had to rely on thin plastic ponchos thoughtfully included with their lunch baskets.  I went down to investigate and received three distinct responses, according to national origin.

The first, from a bedraggled lady from suburban St. Louis: “We got soaked before we could even get the ponchos.  We were sent to the wrong entrance, and then had to walk miles around.  There were lines everywhere.  I’ve paid over $200 for this.”

The second, from a shirtless and impressively portly young man, also an American visitor: “There’s cops everywhere, no port-a-potties, and lousy cellphone reception.  I mean, you literally can’t get a conversation going, and we’re standing in the middle of London.  It’s a f—–g joke.”

The third, from a middle-aged Englishwoman, a Union Jack draped around her shoulders and sporting a somewhat lopsided plastic crown: “We’re here to see the special lady.  We’ll put up with anything.”

Nodding his assent, her elderly husband added, “We’re from Yorkshire.  We’ve got webbed feet.”

The Sunday Times meanwhile reported:

She wept when the royal yacht Britannia was decommissioned, but organisers of the parade to mark the Queen’s official 90th birthday hope the appearance of a model of the vessel will put a nostalgic smile on the monarch’s face . . . Britannia entered service in 1954, and [the Queen] was distraught when Tony Blair scrapped the yacht in 1997 as a cost-cutting measure.  She appeared to shed tears at the vessel’s decommissioning ceremony . . . Both Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh are said to be looking forward to seeing “Britannia” sail down The Mall . . . 

I was there to see this moving representation of Britain’s former maritime glory, and can report that what was on show was not so much a “model” or a “replica” of the original HMY Britannia as it was a bulbous rubber-puppet caricature of the vessel, wilting badly in the rain, and held aloft on poles by half-a-dozen scowling teenagers.  It got its own special ripple of applause.  After that affecting display of our island’s seafaring history, a troupe of scantily clad dancers writhed and groaned their way through what appeared to be a native fertility ritual, while someone else held up a sign saying “90” in gold-painted cardboard numerals.  The queen herself looked radiant in her cerise coat and matching hat, although she and her husband did not linger.  At one point, the Duke of Edinburgh bent down to speak to his Range Rover’s driver, and it was clear both from His Royal Highness’s facial expression and the vehicle’s subsequent rapid progress down The Mall that what he had said was some close equivalent of “Get on with it, man.”

In all, then, a classically British confection of pageantry, budget-conscious improvisation, indomitable cheerfulness against the odds, community spirit (with hundreds of individual street parties going ahead, despite the teeming rain, throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), and even a sprinkling of old-fashioned, 1970’s-style dissent.  Amidst all the Union Jacks and bunting there were a few antimonarchy placards on display, and one luxuriantly bearded man informed the crowd assembled for their lunch in front of Buckingham Palace, “We’re opposed to celebrating hereditary privilege and power!  Our message is to the millions of people who detest the monarchy . . . The whole country isn’t in love with them.  It’s a minority interest.  We’ll keep on going until the monarchy is abolished!”

On hearing this, an elderly lady wearing a sodden floral dress, with a plastic shopping-bag pulled over her head, gestured to the man to join her at her nearby picnic table.  “That’s nice, love,” she smiled sweetly.  “Would you care for a Pimm’s?”

Beyond that, there was no interaction at all between the man with the beard and the general public, and the police later reported that they had made exactly one arrest during the course of a full day’s festivities on The Mall, and that this had involved a dispute about the ownership of a bicycle.  Everyone went home wet but happy to contemplate England’s seemingly rosy prospects in their next European soccer match against lowly Iceland, and the apparently foregone conclusion to that week’s Brexit referendum.  But that is another story.