It's about 10:30 a.m. in London — about 25 hours before the wedding ceremony tomorrow — when I make my way along the approximate route Prince William and Kate Middleton will take. I walk from Westminster Abbey past the war memorials, through the Horse Guards Arch (where I accidentally catch part of the less crowded end of the Changing Of The Guard) and through St. James' Park to the utter insanity that is Buckingham Palace on this particular day.
A day that is, I should say, gorgeous and sunny and warm so far — just about perfect weather, which everyone will miss very much if it rains tomorrow, as has been rumored.
Just outside the gates along the Mall, the tent people are already here. More women than men, more hats than not, with tents and beach chairs and flags and little camping lanterns. While I'm standing there, two people roll up to a tent with full-sized rolling suitcases.These folks came prepared.
They've got great seats, the tent people; all they have to do is stay put along the route and wait until tomorrow.
I have it in mind that I might chat with them. Maybe ask them why they're doing this, how long they've been here, whether they're excited, whether people think they're nuts.
The only problem is that most of them are, as I watch them, talking to reporters.
This is not an exaggeration. Most of these people are, at the same time and in the same place, talking to journalists. Some with cameras, some with little notebooks, and one very outgoing guy who seems to be filming everyone on an iPhone and encouraging them to be more animated than they already are — which, in many cases, is pretty animated. I actually see him waving his arm at one group like a warm-up comedian at a late-night talk show as he records them, telling them when to give more and when to give less.
A lot of them — the campers, not the journalists — have their faces painted, or they've bought the flags and bunting I keep seeing everywhere with the photo of Kate and William. I saw that flag flying from a stroller just a couple of minutes ago. I lean against a tree and contemplate whether I can bear to be what is probably one of about fifty interviews each of these people with their prime locations will be giving today. In each, they will explain where they came from, how far they traveled, how long they've been here, how excited they are. I am guessing that if they say something and a reporter responds excitedly, they'll say it to the next reporter, who's probably going to ask them a lot of the same things.
While I'm leaning and thinking, a woman comes and leans on the other side of my tree. She has short, sporty gray hair and she's toting very little other than her folding chair. She tells me she's considering whether "to park or not to park." In other words, whether to stake out a place here. She has it in mind that she might go back over closer to Westminster Abbey, but it's pretty nutsy over there, too. And, as she says, there are plenty of loos over here, and she didn't see any near the Abbey at all.
She's quite right. Every port-a-potty in London seems to be along the Mall, and I wouldn't be surprised if ones from all over Europe have shown up just for the occasion. You'd need them for the journalists alone.
She's wondering whether she can fit in the small space between two tents. She's pretty sure she can, since she's here by herself with just her little chair. She points out that space will be created when the tent people are inevitably made to fold up their tents, which they will be, because she remembers that there weren't any tents when she was here for the funeral. Not Diana's funeral — "the Queen Mum's funeral," she explains. "There were no tents when she came by." She was also here for the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002, though she missed Diana's funeral because of obligations with her kids.
We talk about how enthusiastic at least a significant number of people seem to be about this wedding. She says that this one, this event, really seems to have people excited. "Why, do you think?" I ask her. Despite the fact that she's here herself, having come a half-hour by train to be here, and despite the fact that she's been here at least twice in the last ten years for other royal-family-related events, there's no instant answer. "I don't know," she tells me, really giving it some thought herself. She says she thinks people respond to Kate and William partly on the basis that they genuinely seem to be — and here, she hesitates a little self-consciously — "really nice people." She immediately leans toward me conspiratorially, like she's afraid it sounds silly, and says, "But of course, you never know, do you?"
We watch some of the tent people along the barricades, and she chuckles at the gimmicks some of them are using to stand out and get attention, like signs they obviously want cameras to see. "'I'm here for the wedding, and I want to be on the television,'" she teases. We talk, too, about the logistics of trying to see anything at all in a crowd this size. She's shorter than I am, which makes her officially pretty short, and it's got her concerned. And based on her out-loud wondering about which side Kate Middleton will be sitting on when they come down and how that affects where one should situate oneself, it's clear that she primarily wants to see Kate, not William.
But, we conclude, you really aren't going to be able to see much of anything. For all the talk about who will see what and who will sit where, she ultimately says that it only makes sense to come "for the atmosphere." You come to be with other people; to see the event. The pageantry, she tells me — and she proudly calls it "the pageantry" — is truly wonderful at these things, and she clearly loves it, and I think her coming back is just that simple. She starts to talk about the ceremony, the horses, the soldiers, and then she says, "It's so ... it's so ... " She searches for the word, like you might if you were trying to describe a really gorgeous person or a really good steak. "It's so English," she finally says, both lustily and proudly.
We chat a little more and part ways — it should be noted that she thinks coming to London to write about the wedding sounds like a pretty sweet deal — and I stroll up the Mall, passing the people who are farther and farther from the palace. But the reporters are still there. In fact, they seem to be multiplying. One group of women with tiny flag-bedecked top hats (which are pretty fantastic) taped to their heads seems to be holding a full-on press conference, as does what looks like it might be a whole tent family. In one picturesque spot, a crowd has gathered just to watch a TV reporter do a stand-up. Let me stress: a crowd is here watching a reporter tape a piece about crowds. You know, there won't be a wedding at all if the time-space continuum rips completely before then.
I ultimately don't chat them up, these painted-face people and tiny-hat people and the people with the tacky sign that's intended to greet Kate Middleton along the parade route celebrating her own wedding with a sign implying that she has staged some sort of a coup.
Yes, there is a lot of posturing and a lot of attention-grabbing and a lot of silliness going on, and I saw a lot of breathless excitement punctuated with the more-than-occasional "WOOO!" But I keep going back to the relatively grounded answers I heard in this much less flashy conversation leaning on a tree.
They seem like nice people. Although you never know, do you? It's all so English.
I can't really argue with her.