Dispatch from London: Let's do (big) lunch
The Line's Matt Gurney on parties, grass stains and a city with maybe too much history.
By: Matt Gurney
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM
A challenge when writing about a high-profile event in a well-known international destination is that you can veer into cliché without even realizing it. It's not a lack of imagination or vocabulary on behalf of the author; it's that everything has been said before in so many ways and by so many others that finding a truly original insight or turn of phrase would be something close to a miracle. So I'm not even going to worry about it for this next bit. I'll use a cliché but also just make the point: London is steeped in history. And London, God bless it, knows this and celebrates this.
I took a walk down the Thames on Sunday afternoon, and came upon municipal construction work — a system to better control water outflow into the river. In Toronto, at a work site like that, you'd probably find a simple little city placard ziptied to the fencing around the work site, listing the project number, some contact info, and that's about it. The placard would be coated in mud or salt and dangling from zipties. If it were a highly valuable project, maybe there'd be a sign describing the scope of the work and what it would accomplish. Here, though, there were multiple large billboards, explaining not just the project and why it was needed, but also explaining all the other historical public works that had been built near that site, and why the density of construction in the area, going back centuries, required that the work proceed very carefully. They had historical paintings and diagrams and everything.
I stopped to read it. It took me a minute to realize the absurdity of this, but it hit me eventually: I'd flown thousands of miles across an ocean to lose myself in a municipal construction notice board.
How much impact can even something as big as the first coronation in 70 years have on a city that has a 2,000-year-long memory?
In the first of my dispatches from London, I briefly alluded to watching as the security operation began to wrap up after the royal procession had returned to Buckingham Palace from Westminster Abbey. I mentioned it in the first dispatch simply because it was relevant to my journeys on Saturday — the removal of barricades let me wander the area more freely. But there's more to it than just that. The rapid return to normal was a very vivid reminder of just how transitory something like a coronation is. And perhaps even a reign.
The security arrangements here on Saturday were massive. An enormous number of police, plus an army of volunteers in purple vests. But there was also a ton of physical infrastructure in place as well. Signs, gates, temporary fences and steel walls, display screens, elevated platforms for television crews, tents for medical personnel and lost-child relocation services, an incredible number of porta potties. Countless food and drink kiosks. And more. Added to all this was a pretty respectable layer of trash and filth left behind by the huge crowds — the pouring rain didn't help, as everything turned sodden if dropped. And about an hour after the King and Queen trotted past Trafalgar Square, it was all starting to vanish.
As I watched some of the last military units along the parade route march themselves back to wherever they'd been told was their rallying point, I also kept an eye on a different kind of army. A combined force, really, of municipal workers and private contractors, joined by security. The security guards and sometimes the police would form a human barrier around an area. They'd create a box, and then the municipal workers and contractors would move into that area, and in a matter of only minutes, return it to normal. The city staff had huge plastic trash bags and those little grappler things used to grab litter. Due to the rain, many actually gave up and just used shovels. (The shovels were also needed in any areas that horses had been through, for reasons you can imagine.) Meanwhile, the contractors were running around taking apart all the temporary barriers and fences. They'd make big piles of them. A fleet of flatbed trucks would arrive, or sometimes just smaller pickup trucks. For the pickups, workers would manually load the barriers and trash. On the larger flatbeds, there were little mechanical crane arms that would lift up the barrier segments. Once an area was cleared, the security and police would move on, box in another area, and the process would begin anew.
The roads didn't open to traffic until after I went to bed that night. But in many areas, including some of the ones that had been very much at the centre of it all, all the physical signs of the disruption caused by the coronation just ... vanished. In a matter of hours. Normalcy returned swiftly, the coronation already forgotten.
This was even more apparent the day after, Sunday, May 7, 2023 — the second official day of celebration. I left my hotel mid-morning, after a long sleep that adjusted me to the local time. I stepped into warm sunshine, and blinked in surprise. The day before, I'd been able to roam a huge area, zipping back and forth across closed roads. There'd be none of that on Sunday, not without risking a sudden and lousy end to the trip: the street in front of my hotel was full of vehicles. And in a tourist-pleasing moment of sheer stereotype, the very first vehicle I saw rumble past was a red doubledecker bus. London was back to life.
Sunday's events had been given a quaint name: the Big Lunch. Communities and organizations were encouraged to put on, well, big lunches, to celebrate the King's coronation. I quickly learned that Big Lunches aren't a coronation-specific event. They began in 2009, and were organized by The Eden Project, an education charity funded by the U.K.'s National Lottery. The Big Lunch, which normally takes place the first weekend of every June, is intended to bring communities and neighbours together, to help forge relationships and social bonds. The idea is pleasant enough on its own, but serves a specific purpose here: the Eden Project — which sounds like some vaguely menacing and secretive dark force from a sci-fi film, but whatever — believes that these social bonds are critical in meeting the challenges of the 21st century.
I can't argue with that. Post-COVID-19, and all the isolation and anger it left behind, you can see the appeal, and the need. When I think of the state of things back home in North America, with a roiling debate over whether our country is broken and our neighbours to the south trying to set a new high score for mass murder each week, it occurs to me that we could all use a big lunch or two. In the U.K., there is a lot of concern about loneliness, and things like Big Lunches help address that, too.
So yeah. I like the idea. And I liked the idea of going from the grand and opulent to the small and simple — a community led Big Lunch in a local park is about the opposite of 2,000 invited guests in a thousand-year-old church.
But where could I find one?
The closest Big Lunch to me was actually, it turns out, just around the corner from my hotel, a few hundred yards away. At No. 10 Downing Street. Getting in there seemed like a long shot. So I had to figure out where to find one I could actually get into. Well, that was easy, actually. There was a website with a map. There were tons of Big Lunches all over London. Great! No, wait. Almost all of them were listed as private events. I began clicking on them, and realized that most were being hosted, indoors, by large companies and law firms and things like that. Corporate events, in other words, with a gloss of coronation shellac. Hard pass.
I did find a public event listed not too far away from where I was staying, and, bonus, in a part of the city I hadn't yet explored. I struck out late on Sunday morning. In contrast to the day before, it was absolutely glorious: sunny and warm. I made it to the Big Lunch I'd been planning to drop in on, and discovered ... nothing. I had the address right. But there was nothing there. The little park, wedged in among some apartment towers, was deserted and overgrown. Not that it mattered: the gate was padlocked shut. Bummer. So much for my Big Lunch plans.
I still needed lunch of some kind, and recalled that I'd walked through a commercial area where the narrow roads had been permanently closed to traffic a few blocks back the way I'd come. I was able to retrace my steps and enjoyed some fish and chips at a pub. Outside the windows, in the little square formed by the confluence of the forever-closed roads, there was a band playing. A child's band, playing happy and silly tunes. Whenever they took a break a loudspeaker system would play pop music on the radio. There was an ice cream cart doing brisk business, and long lineups for it. The square was packed and happy, and seemingly every other person there was pushing a stroller.
Had I found a Big Lunch after all?
I asked my waiter what was up — was that normal Sunday fare or something related to the coronation? He stared at me blankly. This is how I discovered that the only words of English my waiter spoke were the words written on the menu. But another waiter came over and spoke perfect English (he sounded like a local, too). He confirmed that the festivities outside were rare and that he assumed it was all due to the King's coronation. But then he frowned. "But it's also just a bloody nice day, isn't it?"
It was! 20C, my weather app told me, which isn't a lot, but it felt hotter in the sun. I wandered back in the direction I'd come in, but deliberately followed any crowd I saw, trying to figure out what was being celebrated here. A typical Sunday? A once-in-several-generations royal event? Or just the nicest day of the year so far, with the taste of summer in the air?
There was still a visible police presence, with officers in pairs on patrol. I made a point of stopping those that didn't seem too busy, and putting that question to them. They were, without fail, polite and courteous, and each of the three pairs I asked agreed: the crowds were heavier than they'd expect on any other Sunday, even one with such lovely weather. So it's the King's parties, then, I asked? "A bit of a bump in the crowds," one cop agreed. Another told me, "Oh, yes, a moderate increase. A moderate one." "I'd say you've got it," agreed the third.
Satisfied, I began to make my way back to my hotel, planning to shower, change into whatever the lightest clothes I'd brought were, and head back out. And that's when the man with the horns on his shoes jumped out at me.
I honestly don't know what to call these guys, but you've seen them. An entire band's worth of musical instruments on one person? He had horns on his shoes that he could honk by rocking forward. He had a keyboard strapped in front of his chest and some kind of drum apparatus he could make work by raising and dropping his arms. "Come on in for the Big Lunch!" he yelled at me, asking my favourite song so he could perform it. That sounded like a particularly awful thing to experience, so I declined, but I did notice an awfully big crowd through the gate the man was, well, guarding? Manning? I passed through without delay, ignoring his teasing demands that we sign together, and found myself at ... a Big Lunch.
It was perfect.
The site was a big green area technically owned by three different landlords, as near as I could tell. Two apartment buildings each had a lawn (I suppose they might share an owner, but the lawns were separate), and a tiny, old church owned another big piece of lawn and a path between them. Combined, you had a small but workable area. They'd all come together to share the space. One area held barbecue grills and folding tables with drinks. Another had seating set up under tents. (They'd probably intended it for rain, but it proved useful in the sun.) A temporary bar had been set up inside the church, which amused me, but not as much as the drag queen singing — singing really well, I should add — on the church steps.
I didn't get the feeling that this was a drag queen event, per se. There were other musicians. But good Lord, was he good. I found myself too impressed and taken in by his awesome voice to even remember to be either outraged and/or wowed by his courage. No one else seemed to care about anything but the music, and I was alright with that. I stayed maybe half an hour, watched the families come and go. Parents sat each other under the tents, gabbing — the universal men-with-men and women-with-women rule being largely observed. Little kids were running wild, I saw one little girl dressed in a beautiful dress with white stockings wipe out, turning her entire body, face to knees, into a spectacular grass stain. She wasn't bothered and got right back to her running. I didn't stick around to see how her parents would react.
I left then, leaving the people to their ice cream cones, beers and hot dogs. It was clearly a community event, too small to be anonymous, and I didn't want to intrude more than I already had. I was given two little Union Jacks, which I tucked into my backpack straps to put on display, like some kind of camouflage.
I walked out feeling good. It had felt familiar. It reminded me of block parties we'd had on the street I grew up on for Victoria Day, before we stopped doing that, for some reason. It reminded me of Canada Day at my cottage, when the local town closes the main street and all the stores move their wares outside and people walk around with their dogs and their kids. It wasn't a thousand years of rehearsed majesty. It was just people having a good time with their neighbours.
It was just a big lunch, and it would be cleaned up even faster than the barriers at Trafalgar.
I walked back, slowly, and headed to Buckingham Palace. There were still large crowds there, and in the parks. People were gathering already around screens to watch that evening's planned concert at Windsor Castle. Food and drink tents were opening and families were spreading picnic blankets. I didn't stay long. I began walking back, and noticed something that had been notably absent thus far: homeless. There are more of them than I'd expect to see in Toronto (and I've never seen Toronto this bad). They are more aggressive panhandlers in London, and you'd find little groups of them with tents gathered in alleys or even under overhangs on commercial properties, facing the street. I wonder where they'd gone during the coronation — I am trying to find out. But I hadn't seen a single one on the day itself, at least not until the evening, when I'd seen one or two. By the next evening, they were back in force.
After dinner near my hotel, I retired early to my room to begin packing and organizing my notes for this article, and the final one you'll read tomorrow. I had time to have a video call with my wife and kids, and was told that they'd spent their Saturday night at an unplanned party in a neighbour's backyard. Friends had run into friends, who'd called friends, who'd brought another couple, and before long, it was dinner and a pool party in the yard.
A Big Party, I guess. I was glad to hear it, and could still hear the pleasure in my kids' voices. I hope the people here in Britain hold onto their warm glows, too. In a place with so much carefully studied and recorded history, good and bad, the King's coronation is just another in a long line. It'll be the stuff of Netflix shows and commemorative trinkets soon enough. But maybe some of the relationships forged and deepened on Sunday will have a deeper, more personal impact. I hope so, anyway.
Stay tuned for part three tomorrow.
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