LONDON -- Queen Elizabeth II is set to sail on a gilded barge down the Thames today in a watery pageant as glittering and -- almost -- as unprecedented as the anniversary it marks: her Diamond Jubilee.
A flotilla of 1,000 boats -- skiffs, schooners, tugboats, dhows and dragon boats -- will breast the waves behind the queen as part of a four-day celebration of her 60 years on the British throne.
Diamond Jubilees don't happen often -- this is only the second time in a thousand years of British history -- and more than 2 million people are expected to throng the banks of the river for a party that could not come at a better time. With newspapers full of dire warnings of economic crisis in Europe and deepening unemployment at home, Britons are seizing the chance to change the subject.
Raw video: Queen Elizabeth II's Royal Barge
The Royal Barge, containing Elizabeth II and family, moves under London Bridge at the end of the Diamond Jubilee Flotilla this afternoon. The armada of more than a thousand boats sailed down the Thames River. (Video by Mackenzie Carpenter; 6/3/2012)
Certainly, the Olympics come to London in six weeks, but that particular show is far from ready for prime time. The London Underground is breaking down frequently as workers try to repair it -- the Jubilee line is the most trouble-prone -- and at the main stadium in Stratford there are still plenty of scaffolding and cranes visible.
But back in central London, all eyes are on an 86-year-old sovereign who, it's commonly said, has never put a foot wrong since she was thrust into the job in 1952 at the age of 25.
"When the economy goes wrong, we still have the monarchy to make us feel good about ourselves," said Tim Walker, a columnist for The Telegraph, one of Britain's largest newspapers. "In an uncertain world, she is rock solid, uniquely able to lift our spirits, because she is, uniquely, the queen."
"We are in a second Elizabethan age," declared London Mayor Boris Johnson, adding that Sunday's flotilla "will be like Dunkirk, except more successful and more cheerful."
Mr. Johnson's rather off-message comparison was gleefully reported in the newspapers, but while Dunkirk's fleet escaping Nazi forces at the onset of World War II symbolized Britain in retreat-- if only temporarily --the Diamond Jubilee's organizers are trying to project the image of a country and its queen gliding along a river of history, keeping calm and carrying on.
"Who else but the English would put 1,000 boats on the Thames?" asked Nick Thornely, a businessman and author in Bristol, who proudly notes he was in the crowds for Princess Margaret's wedding (1960), Charles and Diana's wedding (1981) and Princess Diana's funeral (1997). Last year, he mingled with other spectators in St. James' Park for the royal wedding, "and my father took my sister and some friends to stand in the Mall in 1947 when the queen married Prince Philip. We watched the coronation on TV at home, but we always regret that."
And for this weekend's officially sanctioned street parties -- 12,000 in all, something of a record -- "you put on your nicest clothes, tidy up the garden and bring a good dish. The queen really makes you want to be your best self."
Still, the commentary becomes more acid farther to the north.
"We love our new royals in a Hello! magazine sort of way, just as we loved our old royals in a 'King's Speech' sort of way," said Tom Nairn, writing in the Sottish Left Review. "They have shaken off their stuffy old ways and have allowed themselves to be themselves. And what do you know, they are like us ... but with unrestricted access to an uncritical media, an entirely politically biased broadcast sector with no dissent, a global network of contacts and connections, a massive army of what are to all intents and purposes PR advisers and an absolutely unlimited financial resource."
Yes, but polls show support for the monarchy in Scotland at 80 percent, countered Richard Fitzwilliams, a royal commentator who appears frequently on British television. He noted that Scotland's own leader has said they'd want to keep the queen even if they won independence.
Sixty years on the British throne is no mean feat, and only one other monarch has bested Elizabeth -- her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, who celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in June 1897 at the age of 78. She was so frail from lumbago that she could not get out of her carriage to attend services at Westminster Abbey. Instead, the clergy came out of the church to greet her, even as thunderstorms and hail "the size of hen's eggs" poured down during the festivities. Queen Victoria served until her death in January 1901.
This queen, however, at 86, shows no signs of slowing down -- her own mother lived to be 102 -- and she has spent much of her Jubilee year touring the country with family members in tow.
"She's been all over," said Mr. Walker of The Telegraph. "Even in Wales, where there has been hostility to England, people love to see her." He said that she opened a new primary school in April in Aberfan, where in 1966 a rock slide engulfed a school, wiping out a generation of that village's schoolchildren.
"This celebration provides the template for the way the royal family is going to operate in the years to come," said Sally Bedell Smith, whose best-selling book "Elizabeth the Queen" was published in January.
Sipping tea at the hushed, elegant Sloane Club, near Sloane Square, Ms. Smith noted that Elizabeth is "making it more of a family enterprise, deploying her children and grandchildren" more frequently in public functions. For the first event of her Diamond Jubilee tour in March, she brought along her wildly popular new granddaughter-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge (née Kate Middleton).
At Tuesday's National Service of Thanksgiving at St. Paul's Cathedral, the queen will be accompanied down the aisle by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, a significant gesture in the name of continuity. And instead of the day ending with a photo of an extended royal family jamming the balcony at Buckingham Palace during a "fly-past" by the Royal Air Force, the focus will be on the direct line of succession, with only seven members appearing together there and on the royal river barge: the queen, her husband, the duke and duchess, Prince Harry and Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.
A display of youth is crucial: For Tuesday's procession, the newspapers have noted, the queen and Prince Philip will not be traveling in the ancient, claustrophobic Gold State Coach -- Philip is 90, after all, and the queen is 86 -- so they've opted for something a little more comfortable: the open State Landau, which dates from 1902.
Aside from the gilt, this Jubilee is observed in various and sundry ways: In the Oxfordshire village of Charlbury, the town council's Diamond Jubilee Project "is to restore and repair the ironwork that was erected to mark Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee." The University of Bolton near Manchester is advertising a job opening for a "Diamond Jubilee Professor of Law" (on its Faculty of Wellbeing and Social Sciences).
Even the flotilla is being seen as a teachable moment, with newspapers dutifully putting out special sections with information on each boat selected to follow the queen's "barge" -- actually a luxury cruiser dubbed "The Spirit of Chartwell," whose prow boasts a two-ton carving of Old Father Thames.
There's the Suhaili, the first small boat ever to be sailed solo and nonstop around the world and "The Blackjack," a floating hair salon, according to The Telegraph.
Somehow, the Thames seems an appropriate place for such a watershed moment, "as it is liquid history. The monarchy, the Royal Navy and the city -- dominated by its statue of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar Square -- are part of what was a maritime nation," said Mr. Fitzwilliams.
This is the fourth Jubilee since Victoria's era, and the third for this queen.
Times were very different in 1977, her 25th, recalled Claire Bolderson, a longtime BBC journalist and commentator who now writes "Letter from the UK" at ClaireBolderson.com.
"It was a tougher country," she said, in the middle of an economic slump, a grittier era when punk culture was rising -- mohawk haircuts, disaffection and alienation ruled the day. The Labor Government had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund. The Sex Pistols sailed down the Thames, disturbing the peace and promoting their new single "God Save the Queen" ("she ain't no human being"). The weather was terrible: windy, cold and, in Scotland, snow fell.
"I remember doing my homework by candlelight," because the country's electrical system was so unreliable, added Mr. Walker. "We were the sick man of Europe, a basket case," but still, 1 million people lined the streets to watch the royal procession to St. Paul's Cathedral, he noted.
The Queen's Golden Jubilee, her 50th anniversary, in 2002, began in personal bereavement: The queen's sister, Princess Margaret, had died in February, followed by the death of the Queen Mother in March. It was a post-9/11 world, and there was real concern in the royal household that the British wouldn't turn out for this anniversary, coming so soon on the heels of the disastrous 1990s: Charles and Diana's marriage failed spectacularly and publicly -- in fact, three out of the queen's four children's first marriages ended in divorce. Windsor Castle was severely damaged in a 1992 fire. After Diana died in the 1997 car crash, the queen failed to show sufficient emotion quickly enough, prompting criticism in British media for the first time.
But then, there was a shift.
"The queen had been somewhat out of favor, but after the death of her mother, she seemed to become the repository of all the affection people felt for the Queen Mother," said Ms. Bolderson.
"There was a moment when it happened," added Ms. Smith, when the queen and Prince Philip left St. Paul's Cathedral and the crowd began applauding. And on their first visits to the south of England, where monarchical support is strongest, "the crowds were enormous. It was an epiphany."
This year, there are no such worries.
Surveys show that 80 percent approve of the monarchy, and while many wish that Prince William would succeed his grandmother instead of his less-popular father, Charles, a poll released Friday for The Independent showed the public more or less evenly split on the question, while government ministers are said to fear that Charles will be too interventionist a king -- especially on subjects near and dear to his heart, such as urban planning and farming.
The hand of Charles is also seen in the lineup for Monday night's concert at Buckingham Palace that's been criticized as somewhat geriatric -- no hip hop, please -- but Dame Shirley Bassey and Cliff Richards are among the headliners. That may be why some younger Londoners appear blasé.
"My girlfriend's parents are flying in from Luxembourg to stay in her flat," noted Dina Reznikova, 25, who was born in Russia but now lives here. "I think it's all quite interesting -- in our country, we killed our aristocracy -- but a lot of my friends want to get out of town, and their parents want to take over their flats."
Ms. Reznikova was sitting in the Garden Gate Pub in Hampstead last week on an unseasonably warm evening, surrounded by young members of London's polyglot culture, who included Jennifer Rososinski, 32, formerly of Peters Township, now married to a British man.
"Brits aren't braggarts and tend to hold their cards close to their chest," Ms. Rososinski said. "If anything, they complain more about the transport system breaking down than expressing excitement for the Jubilee or the Olympics." And, she added, "to take full advantage of the drinks specials."
However, once it's all over, once the beacons have been lit across the Commonwealth, once the fabled RAF flies over Buckingham Palace, "only then will Londoners start to talk about how cool it was to be in London for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. That's if they get over their Wednesday morning hangover."
Spoken like a true Londoner -- via Pittsburgh, of course.
Mackenzie Carpenter: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published June 3, 2012 4:00 AM