I saw no swans in St James’s Park today, only pelicans and pigeons. It was 1pm and people were walking through on their way to Buckingham Palace. A woman hummed as she admired a flower bed. Bored kids on a school trip sat on a wall, their necks wrapped in travelling pillows.
On the Mall there were no cars. Instead, every 20 metres or so there was a television camera and a presenter. I walked past Alghad TV, then TeleMadrid, then NBC. Most voices were foreign – American, Japanese, Spanish. This was a global spectacle.
People were here to await the arrival of the King – and they were happy waiting. One man with a thick beard reminisced about his time at a local paper during the Silver Jubilee in 1977. His companion, a woman in a wheelchair, said she was in Cornwall at the time. They’d just met today. They were happily remembering together. There were no tears; this wasn’t 1997 and the aftermath of Diana’s death. Instead, there was an acceptance of change and anticipation for the new.
At the end of the Mall, I walked through the Dominion Gates, which lead on to the roundabout in front of Buckingham Palace. The bollards on the pavement are embossed with the letters “ER” – Elizabeth Regina. Will these now be uprooted and replaced? (In the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown, red post-boxes still bear the emblem of the late Queen’s father, George VI. They are no longer in use.) When a Royal Mail van drove through the crowd and into the palace the crowd chuckled and applauded. An American woman told her friends about her breakfast. Even a day like today couldn’t escape the ordinary.
The crowd was growing. People clambered over the 2,300 tonnes of white Carrara marble that constitutes the Queen Victoria Memorial in front of the palace. Two helicopters buzzed overhead, poised to capture the bird’s eye view. Elsewhere, a young man told his friends as they walked away, “I don’t like the Union Jack. I like the English flag.” A schoolboy wearing a pinstripe blazer pushed past me before politely apologising. He’d missed a maths lesson to be here. His dad followed; his wool tie knotted in a full Windsor. They wanted to be part of it, to get their glimpse. Attending an event like this made them feel more important. It connected them to something bigger.
Then the King and Queen Consort arrived, driving through the crowd in a limousine. Phones were hoisted overhead to capture the moment. The Union flag was replaced with the Royal Standard, signalling that the monarch was in residence. Behind the palace gates, the King’s Guard, their heads a plume of black, stood inside their regal sheds looking distant and small.
What was the difference between the man with the palace and the man on the pavement? When king and subject shook hands over the fence, the need felt mutual. “Long live the king,” a lone woman shouted. No one felt the need to join in. They were too engrossed by the spectacle in front of them. “Oh yes, wow,” one man whispered as he finally saw his new King.