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30 May 2012

The royals: bigger than Mao

Prince Philip nears the height of the Oxo Tower; Andrew’s teeth are the size of windows.

By Sophie Elmhirst

They went up slowly, one by one. First, a toothy Andrew, then Charles, smug in his uniform like a kid who’s raided the dressing-up box, and finally the smiling Queen in hat and gloves.

From the Thames-side, seventh-floor windows of the New Statesman offices, the staff of this historically republican magazine watched as a giant, black-and-white image of the monarchy in its preferred pose – grinning from a balcony – was uploaded to the front of Sea Containers House, the building across the river from our own. The image, taken during the Silver Jubilee celebrations, covers the entire block (70 by 100 metres). Prince Philip nears the height of the Oxo Tower; Andrew’s teeth are the size of windows.

From certain angles the photograph seems to fill the sky, so that as you walk down John Carpenter Street (on which our office resides) Charles’s buckles and medals bear down on you like a flashback from a very British sort of nightmare, or an oddly patriotic alien invasion.

The picture is far larger than the portrait of Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square. (I know this reference is unfair in implication but I use it simply to make the comparison with other giant, two-dimensional images in public spaces. Thank you.) It resembles a sloganless advert and if we weren’t in such a disconcertingly royalist moment, you might think it was a parody or the work of an anarchic artist whose next step is elaborate defacement – the urge to draw a fake moustache on Charles is almost overwhelming.

Banana man

But it’s in earnest. The image will act as a backdrop to the Jubilee “river pageant”. The Queen – resplendent on a barge – will, on 3 June, drift past the flag-flutterers and gaze at herself, magnified. She will have had little say in the matter, such is the strangeness of her position. Nor will she have had much sway over the swarm of Jubilee-themed tat that now surrounds us. I don’t mind the celebrations and I admire the doggedness of someone doing an awful job uncomplainingly for 60 years but I resent every corporation in the land trying to muscle in. The monarchy is part of the structure of our state: an expensive, unelected element.

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But who cares, when you can make a buck? The Jubilee is trendy, part of our love affair with the 1950s, “vintage” and distressed wood (rush to John Lewis for a Ben Sherman Union Jack vintage print belt, £35, or Very.co.uk for a vintage Union Jack shower curtain, £11). Residents of east London are holding bunting-strewn street parties to simulate one of those sepia-tinted photos they like to collect because they’ve got that vibe, because things from an era when this postwar, grief-stricken country was just coming out of rationing are suddenly bang on trend.

I don’t understand it: this sugary nostalgia for an innocence that never was. For anyone similarly bemused, there’s something to look forward to: the dismantling of the giant riverside image, which will inevitably involve Charles being slowly peeled off the front of Sea Containers House like a banana skin from its fruit.