Knowing my distaste for mass jollification, many friends called last Friday to ask whether residence in Amsterdam had enabled me to “escape” the British royal wedding.
True, I’m not really one for street parties, but I had no wish to cold-shoulder the event conceptually, like some grumpy, chippy Lefty who thinks the Civil List would be better spent on subbing every subject of Her Maj by about 30p a week. And anyway it was a great thing for my threeyear-old daughter to watch with her grandmother, who happened to be staying (“Look, Nana! Horses! Soldiers!”), and I myself was curious about the style and music (sluggish tempo, I thought) of the ceremony. I was also glad I caught the Bishop of London’s sermon – authoritative and appropriate, with an elegantly turned flick to the Green lobby that stopped just short of the downright irritating.
But meanwhile I had been rehearsing my reaction to the solicitations of my Dutch neigh bours, the polite “don’t you wish you were at home?” kind of gambit I was expecting, and would certainly have got if I’d been in New Amsterdam, as the Big Apple was once called. I was planning to respond with genial, condescending surprise, a “no! I’ve never met them!”, as though correcting a forgiveable mistake based on my obviously classy English demeanour. This did not happen. For a start, the Amsterdamers I’ve come to know are a bit more clued-up than your average New Yorker, and can tell I’m not that posh. But also they had something else on their minds. For the day the Duke of Cambridge secured his Duchess also happened to be the eve of Queen’s Day (konninginnedag) in the Netherlands, which is a huge and annual event. Several days in advance people had been marking their territory on the pavements of the city with duct tape, there to flog off unwanted household goods come the riotous Saturday that honours their monarch. And that evening, as we left the children in the care of their grandmother, my wife and I found our neighbourhood already entertained by rock bands and vendors of street food and alcohol, the streets impassable to motorists, who tried, horns a-hoot, anyway. And the groups of jolly boys on the pub crawl, all wearing something orange, were well into the groove.
The following morning we took a tram to one of the main parks, where children set up stalls to sell home-made cakes or unwanted toys (they are trained early in commercial savvy by their parents; I have yet to encounter a charity shop on my travels), or busk with cello-playing or acrobatics. There our offspring ate holiday junk (rather more nutritious than the London version, but junk nonetheless), took toddler fairground rides, and generally had a ball. But by midday the paths were clogged with people, and we retreated home; for we had been warned that on Queen’s Day the streets after lunch are taken over by drunks, and the city is no place for the under-18s. It was reported afterwards that there had been no more arrests in Amsterdam that night than on an average Saturday, which means very few, and most of them accounted for by stupid foreigners (mostly Brits on stag nights, I’m afraid), but we were better off on our tiny island, which, although a five-minute walk from the prettiest part of town, is on the way to nowhere, and so not vulnerable to the casual insolence of home-going revellers.
But what a party! Prince William, as a young military man, is doubtless no stranger to the mess revel and the painfully sharpening morning parade, and there was probably a part of him that wished he could muck in with some pub booze-up for which his wedding was the joyous pretext. Such events are too rare in Britain; his grand mother’s subjects don’t go out and get hammered in her honour once a year. We British maintain a mostly silent loyalty to the Crown that only finds expression when there is a big royal occasion, to the frustration of socialist republicans who can pretend, normally, that enthusiasm for monarchy is an embarrassing anachronism not really supported by the public.
The Dutch, politically, mostly tend to some variant of the European Social Democrat fuzziness; and yet on Queen’s Day in Amsterdam you’d think the whole country was fired by primitive nationalism. Whatever their opinions about the workings of politics, they can celebrate their complex national identity through the person and symbol that is Queen Beatrix, and do so big-time. Politically sophisticated, and disputatious by nature, the Dutch are nonetheless secure enough to unite in a celebration of national identity with the royal house as its focus. It’s a happy attitude; but we British obviously enjoy it too, and could do with a bit more of it.