State Opening of Parliament - the rehearsal
Playing at soldiers in the middle of the night
Tomorrow sees the Queen popping down from her home to the other famous palace in SW1, the Palace of Westminster. Yes, it's State Opening of Parliament time. Black Rod knocking on the door, the Lord Chancellor walking backwards and all that. (Unless you're Ken Clarke a couple of years ago - he forgot to walk backwards, and therefore turned his back on the Queen. Oops.) All very silly, and not really that interesting. What I found fascinating, though, was watching the rehearsals for the State Opening, which took place in the dead of night last Friday.
Even though the Queen herself is now well-practised at the routine, every State Opening features plenty of people who have never taken part before. So each year, a few days before the big event, there's a dress rehearsal. This happens in the early hours of the morning, so as not to disrupt central London any more than necessary. The route (Mall, right into Horse Guards, through the arch, right into Whitehall) is lined by a token military presence: on the day itself the soldiers stand nine paces apart, but for the practice run just a handful of them turn out.
Watching this year's rehearsal was a wonderfully surreal experience. It was the end of an all-night wander, an old London habit of mine but something I hadn't done since tackling the Jubilee Line overnight for ‘Walk the Lines'. You never find as many deserted spots as you think you will - each London day starts before the previous one has finished, so you're always in sight of either a clubber or a cleaner, a nightbus or a dustcart. For the State Opening rehearsal, however, the roads are closed to traffic, so sitting in St James's Park at half-three waiting for things to start I did for once get to experience central London with no traffic and (given that no one else was stupid enough to come along and watch) no pedestrians either. It was a very privileged feeling, a bit like when they used to open Harrods just for the Beatles. Or the Queen, come to that.
Then, at about a quarter to four, came the first faint clicking sound. Peering down towards Buckingham Palace I saw a vague dark blob. As this got closer it turned out to be a group of five soldiers, kitted out in the full regalia (green uniform, guns, the lot), marching in formation. At Horse Guards they turned right, disappearing into the darkness. After this things gradually took shape - more soldiers appeared and assumed their positions lining the road, others mounted on horseback walked the route (hoofs echo brilliantly around a deserted Mall), and there were even five members of the band in attendance, though the bass drum stayed on the pavement and the trumpets remained silent. Everything was relaxed - the soldiers chatted happily with their superior officers, while small groups took several goes at whichever manoeuvre they'd be performing on the day, comparing notes each time to make sure they'd got it firmly planted in the memory.
Then, after half an hour or so, everyone was called to attention (‘Number Ten Half Company, present ... arms') and the show's real highlight passed by - the Royal coach, drawn by four horses and followed by two more, then a gorgeous old Rolls Royce, four more horses and finally that most traditional of all traditions, the protection officers' Range Rover. Legging it down through the park and round into Parliament Square (unsurprisingly I wasn't allowed through the Horse Guards arch - it would have been a bit of a squeeze), I got a second view of the whole procession as it swept down Whitehall and on towards Parliament. Here there were one or two pedestrians milling about; they stared in astonishment at the unexpected pomp and finery. Then a Westminster City Council street-sweeper came along to shovel up a memento one of the horses had left near the Cenotaph.
As I say, the State Opening of Parliament has never really done it for me. (Though on my recent tour of the Victoria Tower I did get to see the horizontal metal plate, pictured below, which is wound back so someone can look down and spy on the Queen - the minute she steps onto Parliamentary territory this person signals up to the top of the tower and the Union Flag is replaced by the Royal Standard.) The rituals are all a bit overblown for my taste, the perfect example being the State coach itself, as tacky as the Lord Mayor's, ceremony by Versace. Yet watching the rehearsal for the State Opening was a real joy. The silliness seemed more appropriate in the middle of the night, a time better suited for dream-like scenes. It was as though everyone involved was just playing at being soldiers, rather than having to pretend they were taking it seriously.
Puncture any great occasion - in fact, any occasion at all - and you realise that the whole of life is just one great charade. The perfect place to remind yourself of that is a pre-dawn section of central London reverberating to the sound of horses' footsteps.