‘I haven’t heard of any parties being planned’
Patrick Hayes talks to residents of one London borough on why they won’t be getting the bunting out on Friday.
Street parties planned for the royal wedding are noticeable by their absence. However, the broad lack of interest in making plans to celebrate the wedding is not down to the stifling red tape of local councils, as many claim. Nor is it a sign of the population becoming increasingly republican in sentiment. Instead, the muted reaction reflects a broader political and cultural disarray, which is nothing to be celebrated.
In 1918, following the announcement that the First World War was over, families in Lancaster Road in the east London district of Walthamstow flooded out on to the street to celebrate. Rows and rows of bunting were strung across the street and tables were brought out of houses and on to the road to form a giant dinner table on the road. People dressed in frocks and Sunday best to mark the occasion.
A street party held on Lancaster Road in 1918 to celebrate the end of the First World War.
The same thing happened after the Second World War. Doris, a senior citizen who has lived in the borough her whole life, recalls that every street seemed to have a party and, despite the war’s age of austerity, managed to find flags and worked together to make an occasion of it.
For all the lively, celebratory street parties held there in the past, no bunting can be seen to be draping from the windows of Lancaster Road in 2011, a week before the royal wedding. In a telling phrase, many of the residents I speak to on a sunny evening tell me there are no plans for a street party ‘as far as I’m aware’, suggesting that even if a party were to take place, the whole street hadn’t been working together to make it one to remember.
A view of Lancaster Road as it looks today.
‘I’m the nosiest person on the street’, one man told me as he washed his car, ‘and I haven’t heard of any parties being planned anywhere’. If there was one would you go? ‘I suppose I would, yeah, it’d be nice. But I’d be a bit shy to go and talk to people about it and make plans.’
This encapsulated the attitude of many of the residents I spoke to. A young Italian guy told me ‘yeah I’d go if there was one, why not? But I’ve only lived on the street for two years, so I don’t really know anyone.’
The sense that many people on the street don’t really know one another was supported by a thirtysomething Englishman who, carrying his young toddler, told me that while he wasn’t a supporter of the monarchy, ‘it would be good to have an occasion to get people out from behind closed doors so we could have a bit of community spirit and get to know our neighbours better’.
Doris agreed, but told me with a sigh, ‘it’s not the same spirit any more. We did all know our neighbours [when we organised parties] years ago, but things are so different now. Now people seem too busy at work, won’t let their children go out and play and seem to prefer to stay in and watch television.’ She noted that even at the ‘Tea Dance’ for elderly residents at the community centre, no plans had been made to celebrate the royal wedding. ‘There may be some special cake at the dance next week, but no one’s mentioned anything yet.’
An elderly gentleman told me that because it was such a ‘mixed’ neighbourhood, it seemed strange to think people would celebrate the royal wedding. ‘Over 50 per cent of people around here now are from different countries’, he said in a matter-of-fact way: ‘putting in the time and effort and going through all that bother with the council to celebrate an occasion that doesn’t mean much to many people any more, doesn’t really seem to make sense.’
These comments are reminiscent of the tortured debate that has been taking place about street parties in the media. While there will be numerous parties taking place across the country, the number will pale in comparison to previous celebrations of national events. Unlike the times when, as elderly residents can recall, there were parties on almost every street, the London borough of Waltham Forest, of which Walthamstow is a part, looks set to host only 28 parties on Friday – among a population of nearly a quarter of a million people. The situation is worse in Bolton, which has only had four applications for street parties at the beginning of April, compared to 100 for the wedding of Charles and Diana and 427 for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Hull has reportedly had no applications at all.
There has been lots of grumbling about how difficult street parties are to organise and the expense and time needed to prepare for them. And, of course, there are the health-and-safety concerns and red tape, with many councils insisting that hefty sums are paid for insurance of street parties and getting residents to jump through all sorts of hoops and fill out lengthy forms weeks in advance. Insurance companies have also been adding to the concerns by warning that street parties could lead to a spike in burglaries.
This isn’t the real reason people aren’t organising street parties. Nor is it, as some have speculated, due to the inconvenient timing of the event or insufficient notice. Instead, the lack of a sense of anticipation in the run-up to what, in previous times, would have been considered a major national event reveals a sense of discomfort, a confusion about what Britishness is.
This is reflected by commentators who question whether we should even try to define Britishness in a ‘metanarrative’ fashion anymore. Aren’t we all too different for that? Some have been engaging in handwringing about whether or not it’s right to fly the Union Jack. One critic even condemns the idea of street party as ‘the most jingoistic of all events’, arguing: ‘Our England is far more vibrant and cosmopolitan. Crucially, it has been enriched by the multiculturalism of the postwar years.’
Even the most ardent of republicans have had to accept that the absence of street parties is not a sign of republican sentiment. While claiming that ‘I will only celebrate anything to do with royalty when one of them dies’, former Housemartins singer Paul Heaton admits his fellow citizens in Hull lack his anti-royalist fervour: ‘The real reason no one in the city wants to hold a street party is a mix of indifference and general suspicion of authority.’
Commenting on an ICM poll published in March that claims 79 per cent of British people are indifferent to, or don’t care about the royal wedding, Peter Tatchell comments, ‘Monarchy is losing its lustre. It’s becoming just another strand of celebrity culture and soap opera.’ Graham Smith, campaign manager for anti-monarchy lobby group republic, observes: ‘Most people in this country aren’t that bothered about the royal family or the monarchy, they don’t really care that much one way or the other.’
There is nothing positive for republicans in this kind of political and cultural disarray. Indeed republicans, more than anyone, require that there be a sense of A People, Oneness, a centre that citizens could cohere around. But this sense of unity should be defined by the people, not a monarch.
The absence of street parties taking place during the royal wedding reflects the profound sense of confusion about what it is to be British today. While it would be a mistake to be nostalgic for a golden age when local communities made elaborate collective preparations to celebrate national occasions such as royal weddings, this absence of a shared sense of Britishness is nothing to party about either.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.
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