Dispatch from London: Beware the chanting republicans, and bring an umbrella
The Line's Matt Gurney on dodging cops, sneaking through checkpoints, and hanging out in bars as a new king is coronated.
By: Matt Gurney
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
There's a funny gag in the second Wayne's World movie, aptly titled Wayne's World 2. Released in 1993, the film includes a brief scene where Wayne and Garth, played by Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, briefly break the fourth wall without breaking character. The two have to fly to the U.K. to find a man who'll help them pull off a great rock concert, and on the plane over, they banter about how amazing it is that the studio splurged on actually flying them over to film the scenes, instead of just using a few body doubles. The gag, of course, is that the shot of the plane soaring through the skies is very clearly a model on strings, and every shot of "Wayne" and "Garth" at famous London landmarks are obvious body doubles, and poorly chosen ones at that. Their faces are always carefully concealed, but they aren't even the right sizes.
Unlike Paramount Pictures, The Line chose to splurge, no body doubles required. I really am here in London for the three days of the coronation celebrations for King Charles III. So great. What the hell do I do now?
Despite a joke to the contrary in our last dispatch, colleague Jen Gerson and I talked a lot about whether either she or I (or both) should come here. We kicked around a lot of versions of how we could do this trip. But here's the thing. We can't compete with CTV or CBC, if the goal was to put on all-encompassing coverage of every bit of the ceremony. Anyone who really cares about all that stuff is going to get their fix through a media company able to throw 30 times the resources at this than we can. And on the other hand, if you don't care that much about the coronation or the royals, why would this be of any interest at all? So what we decided was to focus simply on what has worked well for us at The Line before: we're going to tell you what being here was like, and let you make up your own minds about how to feel about it all. You don’t have to like Charles or the monarchy to be curious about what it was like to be here, right?
So you won't find (much) discussion of hats, but for a single reference below. You won't read about all the debates over slavery and colonialism and the future of the monarchy (until part three of this series, when I'll briefly touch on it). But you will hopefully get a sense of what London felt like on each of the three days of official celebration.
Let's get started.
I can't sleep on planes. That seems, sadly, like the relevant place to start. I can doze a bit. Nod off for 30 minutes at a time. But sleep? I wish.
My flight, direct from Toronto, left my hometown at seven in the evening and touched down at Heathrow around seven a.m. local time on Saturday, May 6th, 2023 — coronation day. This felt to me to be about 2 a.m., and I'd slept maybe two hours, total, in a series of fitful naps during the seven hours in the air. (Since people seem to remain fascinated by air travel: my flight out from Toronto was optimal, and things could not have gone better at the airport.) I knew full well there wasn't going to be time to rest. It was time to get to work. The festivities were about to start, just hours after I landed.
Heathrow was a smooth experience, though getting from A to B to C seems to involve a mile of walking at every step of the journey. Immigration took less than 10 minutes; as a Canadian I was steered into a line where automated kiosks scanned my passport, took my picture and admitted me back into my ancestral homeland by ... opening a gate. That's it. That was the process. After another mile or so of walking, I made it to the taxi area and told an absolute stereotype of a British cabbie where I was going: a hotel within steps of London's Trafalgar Square. He winced. "That's inside the secured area, mate," he told me. "But I'll tell you what. I'll get you to a tube station that's close, and you'll have to ride a few stops in to finish the trip."
That's exactly what happened. When we got into central London and he was helping me with my luggage and getting oriented for the tube — it's been a long time since I've been in London, and I'm by no means an expert on the city — I mentioned to him that things felt oddly dead. It was by now past eight, and we were deep into London. The streets were almost empty.
"Anyone who isn't a real fan of the king has buggered off, mate," he said. "The tourists are coming in. The locals are getting out."
(He really did talk like this. I'm not kidding.)
Luggage in hand, I figured out how to pay for a tube pass, and got myself onto a train. I'd forgotten how crammed they were, but smashing my head onto an overhead bar served an effective reminder. It was five stops to Leicester Station, and from there about a 10-minute walk to my hotel. (Five minutes, if I'd known where I was going.) And that's when the crowds began.
The streets were jammed here, so much so that it was a hassle to navigate pulling my little carry-on suitcase by its not-quite-long-enough handle. (I'm tall.) There were police everywhere. There were hired private security guards backing up the police and manning checkpoints. Walking into a secure area with a suitcase is a lot of fun, let me tell you. There was also an army of purple-vested volunteers answering questions, giving directions and encouraging everyone to have a wonderful day. It was sunny and warm and spirits were high. The first part wouldn't last long, but the rest of it mainly did.
It's worth mentioning that point here, because I'll probably refer back to it: this was a happy event and a happy crowd ... a notable exception aside, and stay tuned for it. The volunteers, you'd expect to be happy. But the police and security guards were so overtly happy that I suspect that they'd been ordered by some stern and unyielding commanding officer that morning to "Smile for the crowd or else, goddammit." And smile they did.
I made it to my hotel and checked in. My room wasn't ready yet, but I was able to leave my luggage, and thank God for that. I walked immediately to Trafalgar Square, and found it packed but navigable. Security was everywhere, and so were barkers hawking trinkets. There were people lined up maybe four or five deep along the actual procession route, held back by steel barriers and ranks of police and security. But you could still move freely around the square, and I did so for an hour.
I mentioned before that it was a happy crowd, with high spirits. The crowd didn't strike me as remarkable, which is to say, there wasn't anything particularly notable about it. It was mixed. You'd find every age group and colour there, as well as a smattering of obvious tourists. Lots of people had little Union Jacks they would wave or tuck into the brims of hats or under backpack straps. Some wore full-sized flags as capes. A few young men, who'd obviously been drinking either since early that morning or perhaps the night before, were there in cheap royalty costumes — robes and plastic crowns. The way they were going, I had doubts they'd last much longer. One in particular seemed a bit wobbly on his feet.
One young woman with them had somehow attached a frisbee to her head, in delightfully mockery of the absurd hats women seem to love wearing to royal events. It made me laugh. So begins and ends The Line’s coronation-related hat commentary.
Quite near to the front of the viewing area, just off to the left of Nelson's Column, was a group of a few dozen republican protesters. I have to remind my North American readers — I don't mean U.S. Republicans, the of-late MAGA-infused husk of the once Grand Old Party. These are British republicans, an arguably even more baffling breed: these are the people that want Britain to be a republic. They too were a mixed group, but as I wandered over to join them, I did note something interesting. I had expected them to be younger and more ethnically diverse than the rest of the crowd. They weren't. I don't know if I'd go as far as saying that they were less diverse, but my sense was that, at least in terms of the age of the crowd of protesters, maybe they were a touch older than the rest? In any case, it would have been a near-run thing, but that was one of the only things that really jumped out at me about the protest. My assumption that they'd be younger, more diverse, more obviously progressive was wrong. If they'd dropped their yellow flags and banners and quit their chanting of "NOT MY KING!", they'd have blended in with the rest.
It started to rain around this time. It's England, of course it was raining. I'd come prepared with a rain jacket so wasn't deterred, but the rain did have one admittedly lousy impact. Umbrellas. I'd been gradually able to work my way up quite close to the front of the crowd — I'd stuck close to the republicans and it seems that many people tried to give them a wide berth, and I'd been able to shuffle my way gradually forward. Nelson's Column was to the right, behind me. To my right and front was Admiralty Arch. And off in the distance, but not too far, was Westminster Abbey itself. It was a pretty perfect place to view the procession.
But for the umbrellas. Once they opened up, all one could see was umbrellas.
And that's how it stayed, to be honest. Troops began to march past in perfect ranks. Bands struck up patriotic songs. The crowd cheered and more than a few sang. One loud female voice — a surprisingly lovely one — struck up The Star Spangled Banner — which was either some kind of deliberate prank or just a very historically confused soul getting caught up in the moment. I heard the clopping of hooves and the crowd went absolutely wild, and suddenly, thousands of arms shot up into the air holding smartphones, every person present seeking a better angle for their videos. The arms and the umbrellas made it virtually impossible to see a damn thing. (See this video by a New York Times team: they must have been standing within 50 feet of where I was, a bit off to my left. You’ll see what I mean.)
Did I see the king or his carriage? No to the former, and perhaps to the latter? It was hard to say. The crowd's roar drowned out the hooves. I saw some bright colours in the gaps of the arms and umbrellas, and then as the arms came down and I could see the route again, there were some troops on horseback, followed by more ranks of infantry in white helmets. And then the crowd suddenly began to disperse. It was really raining quite hard by that point and many people had been there for hours. People packed up their folding chairs and headed out. They’d had enough.
I decided to stay in the square but to get something to eat. My body had no idea what time it was and I couldn't remember when I'd eaten last, but I was hungry, so I got a sandwich at a Pret a Manger, a coffee and sandwich chain that seems to have approximately 47 million locations in London alone. I ate in the square, and drank a surprisingly awful cup of tea (I thought the British were supposed to be good at tea but apparently not). By this point, the coronation ceremony was happening inside Westminster Abbey, and the local cellphone networks in Trafalgar Square were getting unreliable, no doubt from too much demand on the closest towers. With nothing to see and the rain getting harder, I went back to my hotel for about an hour to watch the ceremony from the lobby bar over a beer. It was nice to be out of the rain.
After I’d polished off the pint, I headed back out, back to the square, and that's where things got interesting. I figured I'd get back to my former spot near the chanting republicans, and did so, no problem. But I noticed there suddenly seemed to be an awful lot of cops around ... all heading that way. As in: right toward me, and the chanting people I was standing near. Oops. I left, working my way around the crowd, heading back the way I came from my hotel, and found myself actually facing a rank of advancing cops. Oops again. One had a badge that said inspector, and I walked right up and told him I was a Canadian journalist just watching things. He grinned at me and said, "Alright, mate, come this way," and had a security guard walk me through the police. I thus ended up missing what has proven to be a controversial event and perhaps the only unhappy moment I know of during the coronation, at least in my area: a bunch of the chanting republicans were arrested just moments after I got out of dodge, and then large metal screen barriers were thrown up, closing off the square due to, apparently, overcrowding. People could leave but no one new could enter.
My sense, as I walked away, was that there was no reason to arrest anyone. (And as I said, this is proving controversial.) I hadn’t seen anything getting out of hand. There had been some chanting and counter-chanting and even some heckling back and forth, but it had all seemed in good enough spirits. Even some of the boos sent at the republicans — two young men with flags had been hamming it up in the main crowd, apart from the main blob of republicans — had seemed in good humour. I don’t know what the police saw or knew. But I couldn’t tell you why they’d moved then and not before, or later. As for overcrowding, I don’t think so. The square really wasn't all that full. It seemed less full at that moment than it had been when the procession had passed on the way to the abbey. But the barriers seemed to go up quickly, everywhere. Literally everywhere.
And though I was glad to have avoided getting caught up in the Cops vs. Chanting Republicans, I was now on the wrong side of the barriers.
Oh well, I figured. It's not like I'd have gotten a better view the second time. I went for a long walk down the barrier line, through the rain. More and more people were arriving all the time, with their little flags and their big flags and their umbrellas and raincoats, and I saw many bitterly disappointed faces as they realized that they wouldn't be getting any closer than the barriers would allow. Apologetic guards and police directed people to areas where large viewing screens had been established, but that didn't seem to take away much of the sting of disappointment. Thousands of people just sort of roamed the fence line, their hair and flag getting soaked in the rain. One woman, who'd gone all-in with Union Jack facepaint, ended up turning into a very colourful mess as the rain turned her face into a sort of purple smear. It was ... somehow appropriate.
It was here that I saw something I hadn't seen at all before, and whose absence I'd noted: protests. Yes, yes, there'd been the chanting republicans. But that was it. After the barriers went up, I began seeing all kinds of other protests, or at least demonstrations. There were Hare Krishnas, singing and dancing, and they are always popular. A smiling crowd gathered around them. There was a smattering of loudspeaker-toting "JESUS SAVES!" types, and they were mostly ignored, though each had a cop or two keeping an eye on them. I saw maybe a half dozen other protests of various kinds, with speeches and leaflets being passed out. One was for a Free Palestine organization, another had something to do with extrajudicial killings in Swaziland. I didn't look closely enough to see what the others were. None were larger than perhaps a dozen or so people.
I ended up catching a lucky break around this time. I'm going to very carefully not say much about it. But a group that had the right to enter the secured zone happened to be doing so as I passed, one thing led to another, and I found myself back inside the secured area, though nowhere near any place with a view. Once I was on the right side of the barrier, I could move freely, and made my way back to where I'd been. Once again, my impression was that the area inside the fences was less crowded than it had been. There were still some chanting republicans, and I stood near them again, and watched the procession head back to the palace. Again, I didn't see much of interest. Horses with troops, marching infantry, bands. I think I missed the important carriages, and had a better view of the troops marching back to their rallying points later than I did of the royal procession. The rain was now constant and heavy and there was a wind, too, which made everything less pleasant. I stepped into another bar for a while — The Line's credit card is taking some damage this weekend, believe me — and warmed up over a pint. When I emerged, I found that the police and security were slowly shrinking the secured area, letting the traffic back in. I'll write more about that in part two, but for our purposes today, I'll simply say it made walking easier, and I decided to do exactly that, toward Buckingham Palace, where moments ago, the King and Queen had waved to the crowd gathered there. I'd seen it on TV at the pub.
So that's what I did. I walked a big loop from Trafalgar to Buckingham Palace (or close to it, there were still barriers in place there), and then over to Piccadilly Circus and back down to Trafalgar. Then I went to my hotel, had a short nap — I was completely exhausted by this point. With 90 minutes of sleep in the tank, I ventured out at night for a heavy hot dinner — steak and ale pie, hello — at a pub. And then into bed. The plan was that the heavy meal, some British beer and an early, solid sleep would zap me into sync with the local time.
Wish me luck on that. And stay tuned for part two.
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