I cannot find a shred of support within me for the institution of the Royal Family as currently manifest in the UK. I find abhorrent the wealth and the supremacy of class and privilege, all funded from the public purse.
When the Royal Wedding date was announced I knew that the people on the estates I work on would want to celebrate. They would celebrate a top knotch family wedding between some of the richest people in the world, paid for out of public funds. These great people on these estate would donate and borrow and fundraise and gather together bits and pieces of money and donations of food and geegaws and they would share whatever they could find to mark this right Royal occasion.
It would be national doffing of caps.
This is the East End of London and despite the encroaching capitalist in-your-face plate glass shimmy and the sneering ‘Fooled Ya’ of the Olympic lie (turning, by a slight of hand, an ancient cattle route into High Street 2012 – but only where it shows- all fur coat and no knickers,) despite all this I knew that the people of these estates would push the boat out in their celebrations.
This would happen, I knew it would because ever since I have been collecting play memories from adults in the area I have been shown the crumbling shreds of long treasured and papery skin smoothed photographs. These ghosts of hard-soft beloved faces, these treasures of unimaginable worth, taken on a camera that few could afford, with film that was used sparingly, with as many people crammed in as possible to make the most use of the snapping of the time and event, and finally processed and printed in a costly lab, snuggled, when utterly dry, into a fancy little card doily envelope with scooped guilt edges, wrapped in glass paper and slipped into a Very Special Album that some-one had splashed out on- (‘I’ll go without meat for me for a while. This should have a Proper Place. It’ll be sommat to hand down to the grandchildren-godwilling.’) And still the photos are brought out and shown on the special days when some-one sits down and says ‘talk to me, tell me the stories’. And the photos show shadows of faces all of whom can be named, and the pub and houses, and we still know who did the bunting , who the landlord was, how much the neighbour drank, what was sold in the shop just out of sight and how much it cost…
What I am being shown in these worn card miracles is nothing to do with The Royals. It is to do with the markers in lives that were seldom celebrated, seldom captured and went, largely without the communal ‘do you remember’ moment that the coronations weddings, anniversaries, jubilees add to the counting off on the rosary of shared lives… the years and months stamped into memory like a toddler footprint into wet concrete… we will always have June 2nd 1953. It is a touchstone.
Terrance remembers being selected as one of the children to go from Mile End to wave flags outside Westminster Abbey. Kathleen has the street party photographs from her whole life saved in chronological order pacing out her years. Each of them is a perfect time capsule.
So we set about finding some funding for these events. We wanted to lift the burden a little. The big society is all well and good but. There is a real cost…There was loads to do, organising street closures, doing battle with the obstructive officials from Tower Hamlets -who insisted that all children needed skin tests for each different type of face paint that they would be using, as well as gaining parental consent for each child whose face was painted.
Tables were borrowed, barbecues bought, gazebos haggled over. This being ‘yer ol’ East End’ Photographers and film crews from ‘outside’ were clamouring for position with almost the same intensity as the cenotaph crew vied for the best position to snap Pippa’s arse.
Meanwhile on the two estates, there were battles about who was going to benefit most from what. And there were acts of unbelievable generosity. The old miseries playing hard to get and the old faithfuls taking on the burden of the responsibility for the planning. Tried and trusted and characteristically understated, ‘I love a bit of organising’.
Car trips were made, on behalf of the estates, to Asdas on the Isle of Dogs and hatchbacks were filled to groaning with mountains of hot cross buns and crisps and juice. (‘No. We ain’t buying booze. This party is for the kids, for them to remember’).
On Wager Street they wanted a karaoke and a plasma screen and the tables were laid out like the cross of St George on the square…..the marquees were filled with tables heaped with pristine food sealed in silky cling film and guarded from pre-event nibblers by a Matriarch and her Staf.
In Eric street the bunting had gone up the evening before. Construction teams working on the regeneration and new building of the street had been cajoled into cherry picking the best spots to tether the tiny flappings and the larger rectangular union Flags with the ‘happy couple’ superimposed into an oval insert in the heart of the four nations. A curious choice of icon The Sun had made.. never had a Royal looked more inbred or a rather pretty commoner looked so Essex.
In my home the day started early for a bank holiday. I was expected in the party zone for an 8.30 start. The wedding coverage started at 8.10 on the Today Programme. Was Edward Stourton really sounding nervous? What on earth were the pruned and preened and plumed early bird guests going to do for the next three hours in that freezing cold austere un-yielding room? The Dress.. What would she wear? What would her mother wear? Who would make a fashion gaff? What would the behaviour of the tiddly Royals be like? Was she nervous? Was he nervous? Was The Queen nervous? And Dianna… a difficult situation with Camilla,, and Why no left wing politicians? And why the human rights violating lackeys of ruthless dictators? And did this tell us anything about the political attitudes of the newly weds… oh and The Dress….
Perhaps because I was so delighted to be discharged of any responsibility of cluttering my brain with any more of this drivel (even Radio 4 can do drivel), I was strangely warmed by the thought of spending the day with the fantastic people of Eric and Treby and Bede Estates. I am always excited to be in their company and to be with them for a day of specialness was thrilling. I had made it quite clear from the outset that the place I had chosen for myself on this day, was behind the camera lens. From there I could watch the beauty unfurling. I would not be an encumberment, not a guest to entertain and feed. I would not be an organiser, that would be like a stranger marching into a little known home and starting to re-arrange the kitchen cupboards. I could not, in all honesty, join as a celebrant. So I made my place behind the lens. A safe place. A portable hide.
And the wonders that I saw and heard that day……
…’Its like we are all married to each other. We fight and argue all winter and then the sun comes out and we have a great big love in. We have argued about this party for weeks now, but we will all have the best time together today’.
Caroline beaming and glowing, seeing the master plan on her clip board coming to life
Bengali boys ruffling up florists ribbon with such care and delicate attentiveness to make perfect the rosettes in red white and blue to adorn the gazebos.
A princess on a scooter with her Biker Grandad.
Three visitors from the next door estate coming clad out in a melange of Red, White and Blue, right down to the detail of the earrings.
The pub so full of bunting and flat screens that it was hard to fit the punters in, and the burly bloke fine tuning the patriotic frills in the smoking shed out back. ‘Looks nice dunnit?’
The plastic bowler hats that make every one like a chipper pearly King or Queen (’300 quid they wanted to come and visit the event £300!’)
Running back and forth between the two parties on bin bag or gaffer tape errands. Snapping as I went.
‘Bunting for Josie? Yes the corner shop just donated theirs to her.’
‘What do you mean you can’t stay for the party? Your daughter’s Football championship? Tell ‘em you’re ill.’
‘Remind me we will need to find more serving dishes for the Big Lunch…’ ( Note to self, bring Mums serving dishes back her for them, she will not need them again.)
The balloons bouncing and tugging Cathy until I thought she would be carried away, which would definitely have happened had this been a story book. She would have been carried up into the air above the stilly path of High Street 2012, nee the Mile End Road. Up where the air is clear: up beneath the circling helicopters with their eagle eyes trained down on minute specs of wealth far below them. From up here Cathy would see quite clearly the other street parties in Tower Hamlets. There is the one on the Glamis Estate. Look there are the parties acknowledged by Pravda, the local council endorsed/imposed ones. The Mayoral dicatat that there WILL be fun and festivities in The Park. The people WILL come out and show their joy over this event and they WILL bring their own food. With her clear sight she could see the little wriggles of parties all over the city, all over the country.
She descends, still holding the red balloons, feet elegantly turned outwards into the square on Bede estate. ‘It’s a jolly holiday with Cathy’.
The plasma screen keeps cutting out.
One little hooded boy has been transfixed from the first. He has sat alone watching the cheering crowds and the jeering cars occasionally waggling a union flag in a sort of desultory ‘I am supposed to be waving this thing ‘ sort of way.
Now though, the ranks of the viewers are swelling. The sound of cheering from The Mall is getting more and more hysterical. Chairs are pulled up in from of the screen. A semi circle of optimum viewing, flocks into place and Avril –who has not been to bed because she was preparing the cooked meats- swings into action with a fancy tea service and good strong cups of brew to be sipped and clinked and paused over at times of greatest wonder.
‘They all think I am so hard but I’m a real softy over things like this’
And ‘our She’ cups her chin with her hands and her happiness is transparent, radiant. She is immersed in the magical fairy-tale, golden-shimmering, happy-ever-afterness of this.
At this moment I see her as a woman who has, all her life lived as a Cinderella. She has worked and worked and worked and learned to fight and felt claustrophobia in her phenomenal brain, frustrated by under expectancies. Here for her, now, is a moment when a fairy godmother, not hers but at least SOMEONEs fairy godmother has pulled it off, and the pumpkincar is drawing up to the abbey and the crowd are screaming like the Beetles have just materialised dancing with Michael Jackson and the camera is nosing in on the car that until now has just been a polished sheen of reflected sunlit glory. And I think I have never seen a woman look more glorious or more happy. Her face shines with expectation of delight. Her squabbling children have been dismissed with fleas in their ears, the cup of tea is good and hot, she has her beloved neighbours with her and the big black shiny car door is just about to open to reveal….
……The plasma screen cuts out as the car door is opening. There are seconds of un believing silence, during which all that is shown on the screen are the faces of the watchers, caught watching themselves on a redundant piece of technology, expectant mirrored faces, all primed for the ONE Moment of the day. The first glimpse of The Dress. Instead of seeing whatever whipped cream confectionary the fairy tale dreamers have spun from gold, they see their own faces betrayed, let down. With a shared cry that could have sprung fresh from the lips of Eliza Doolittle at the moment when she realises the hurt and insult that is being perpetrated upon her, the women utter, with a single voice, her cry of humiliation and anguish, “Ah-ah-aw-aw-oo-oo! ” They rush off to the nearest of homes and crowd in unceremoniously to make up for The Lost Moment of Viewing.
I, behind my lens, am amused by the sudden changes and scatterings . The square, a burgeoning party until seconds earlier, has been rapidly deserted, flags and serviettes fluttering to the ground in anti-climactic downward spirals.
Those of us without a home to go into on the estate, Cathy Poppins, Henk the Reliable Youth Worker, Penny the Snapper, we watch the ceremony through glass and glass over the shoulder of Christine who is in her soft cream dressing gown chatting to her Pomeranian, who had narrowly escaped being dyed red white and blue for the occasion.
Back on Eric Street the castle is bouncing, the cocoanuts are shying, the Duckies are being hooked, the faces are painted, (the consent forms are signed but the skin remains untested –there are limits of reasonableness.) Food tumbles out of doors on every side.
Tiny fairy tale cakes with golden rings atop the icing. Fragile little mouthfuls of sweetness in union flag fru-fru cup cake skirts, a superb ‘Guess the weight of the’ cake, complete with its own Fascinator bobbling in the light breeze that flutters the many many many many flags.
The young lads, locally feted for their incredible dance skills, do an impromptu performance for the gathered crowd. I watch the boys, black and Chinese, dancing with a light footed step that spurns gravity. I looked at the crowd watching them, a rainbow of ages and colours and class and genders and faiths and orientations and convictions, gravity forgotten.
The smell of the barbecue is coming from The Corner.
It was on The Corner that countless generations of young and irritating but essentially good natured young people hung out and chatted.
The cheapest youth project in the world.
When the Secured by Design agenda translated this gathering as loitering, the wall was pulled down and replaced with galvanised metal railings. One of the young people managed to save one of the bricks. A memento of a place that was the only place that was theirs. Their little bit of England.
But today the space that used to be behind the wall and is now behind bars, is a thick cloud or meat-rich smoke that makes even vegetarian taste buds yearn with an instinctive, rather than cultivated, desire. A good willed gaggle are joining in the party. They are blissfully unaware that to every one else, they are a crowd of Bengali Muslim men partying alone. (‘If that was white blokes they’d be up in arms’.) They only realised later how they had looked. They had been caught up and absorbed in their experience of The Moment. (‘Next time we will bring the barbecue up the street and cook for everyone’) Well, that will make the Big Lunch even more special.
An urgent errand to Bede estate. Tanya has run out of bin bags. Tanya has had to take time off work to run this event. Tanya normally wears her carers uniform like a statement of fact, today looks like a hard working beauty, She has worked for days on end…. ‘Don’t go on Pen, This is what we do. This is how we live’. ‘Right you are Tan..’ and off I go, explaining to a hack visiting from the Italian press what exactly it is that she is seeing playing out around her. It is a mystery to her. The local press latch on, do they understand much better than she does? Do they get the nuances?
And on Bede the excitement is mounting. The pony and trap have arrived. A tiny little pony and cart are stolidly ploughing a furrow up and down Wager Street carrying cart loads of giggling children (consent forms all signed.) And Christine, now resplendent in her party get up, is almost bursting with the fun of it. And Helen, attending to the details and the structure underpinning the fun.
And the Bengali Mum Giving her little baby to two of the white residents who had grown up on the estate, so it could have a ride and have its photo taken.. for the memory. ‘You don’t remember this my darling but one day when you were very little, there was a fairy tale wedding, we didn’t see that but we took a picture, see, this lady Shelia and this lady Chris held you in their arms while you went on a ride in a cart drawn by a white pony up and down Wager Street. Yes Wager Street right here! Imagine that my love. That’s something to tell your grandchildren.’
And the white resident seeing her little known Bengali neighbour moving through the square with her children. ‘Here She. Hold this can, they don’t like beer. Hey love, you know this is for you and the kids too. You can join in come on, get something to eat, there’s Halal, give the kids a balloon’.
A feat of organisation and miracle of things that could have gone wrong. A kaleidoscope of tiny stories and images with nothing to do with Royalty. The sleepless nights of planning and preparation and cooking and cooling meats.
The matriarchy is in full sail.
The men willingly follow in it’s wake and help out in unexpectedly delicate ways, like sticking rosettes to the gazebo, tenderly placed and firmly fixed with black gaffer tape.
At the end of day a passing line from a bloke, quiet throughout, watching always watching and now, I realise, smiling with a great fondness. ‘Next time we will have a party that runs all down Eric Street. It will join up these two estates.’
The Royals are being used as an excuse for these wonderful people to party together beneath the Union Flag.
I started the day with a hard heart. I took images of the flag of St George from behind so that it read ‘!dnalgnE’ and caricatured a country that has gone through the looking glass and beyond. White queens expecting poverty to pay for the lushest wedding in the world at a time when health, education, social services, our holding mechanisms, are being reconstructed and workers are sacked and expected to volunteer to do the jobs they had been paid for. I was capturing the evidence, the facts exposing the obscenity of the extremes of our country. And I ended the day watching a man with a wry loving grin and a bigger dream of more unity, next time.
There are still shreds of bunting to be seen.
And I am very late in sorting out my photographs and sharing them with the party people. They keep asking for them. They are looking forwards to looking back.