I blame Shakespeare and PBS. I'm unashamedly, unapologetically and unabashedly Royalist. Honestly, I think most Americans are. For all our independence, rebellion and egalitarian principles, in our hearts, we all love pomp, circumstance, ceremony, history, heritage and glamour. We’re suckers for romance and fairy tale endings. And, who doesn’t love a wedding?
As I consider the upcoming nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton, I recall my perspective on the royal wedding of 30 year ago. On 29 July 1981, I was a part of a global audience of 750 million who watched the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer live on television. I watched those regal proceedings from the vantage point of an avid Royal fan and a budding, teenage journalist.
I remember it clearly: jumping out of bed at 4:30 AM, my mother, sister and I huddled together, glued to the television. The scenes before us were all so romantic. We sighed, and my sister cried, watching her heartthrob marrying someone else. Her ‘princess pink’ bedroom had, up until that point, been a wall-to-wall shrine to Prince Charles.
Image: Mike Hollist/Daily Mail/ZUMA Press
Before the wedding, my mother had heard on the grapevine that a lady from our small, Arkansas town was actually attending the royal wedding. Upon her return, this woman hosted an exhibition of her royal wedding wardrobe at the local Country Club.
Always bold, and more than a bit brazen, I contacted the editor of the “Women’s Section” of our local newspaper, and asked if I could cover this story for her. After gaining her approval, I skipped school, and sauntered into the Country Club with a great sense of journalistic purpose. And, I was not disappointed. I was dazzled by the fabulous wardrobe on display, and was regaled by tales of elegant garden parties, luscious high teas, love, and romance. My royalty addiction was then truly and ineradicably ensconced; and more than ever, England became the land of my hopes and dreams.
Thirty years on, little has changed apart from my vantage point. Having met my Prince Charming – my very own Darling English Boy – I followed my heart to England in 2008. So, now, as an “outsider on the inside”, I shall watch the next royal wedding as an “enthusiastic local”.
To say that I’m excited about William and Kate’s wedding is putting it mildly. I’m obsessed! I check the weather forecast almost hourly, and am more anxious about the conditions on Friday, than I was for my own English wedding day two and half years ago.
Image: Federico Gambarini/DPA/ZUMA Press
The reason for my heightened interest is that I have spent the past six weeks galvanizing my neighbors, and organizing a massive Royal Wedding Street Party in our little corner of the English countryside, our tiny Warwickshire village of Barford.
Bunting. Union Jacks. Paper crowns. Cucumber sandwiches. Ginger beer. Sherry Trifle. And, a raffle. Quintessential features of a traditional, British Street Party. Add a bushel of American zeal, and the sky’s the limit.
A little Yankee know-how goes a long way in these parts, coupled with the fact that a determined Southern belle rarely accepts “No” as a final answer. By contrast, the English loathe the very thought of causing “bother” or making a fuss. As such, my initial overtures for having a Royal Wedding Street Party were met with cautious enthusiasm and a laundry list of “what if’s”: “What if the local council says no?", "I’ve heard the street party application process is monstrous, and costly”, “What if we’re required to take out Events Insurance?” “What if no one comes?” “What if it rains?”
This was a case of “True Grit meets True Brit”. I grabbed the bull by the horns, and dealt directly and firmly with our local council, who turned out to be far more helpful than I’d expected. Their website was thoroughly misleading about the cost of road closure and in the end it cost us nothing.
After slaying that Goliath, I created colourful flyers tentatively putting forward the idea of having a street party, and delivered them door-to-door. I invited anyone with interest in helping to a preliminary meeting, which I hosted. Four lovely women materialized on our doorstep, and over steaming cups of tea we became the “Verdon Place Street Party Committee”.
On behalf of the committee, I drafted a letter to the estate executive committee requesting their support and funding for supplies and decorations. I sweated out the hours we had to wait for them to meet and decide. The following day the Chair arrived at my door, offering me their consent and a check. We were on our way!
From that point, it became a matter of lists, lists, more lists, and Excel spreadsheets. The response was overwhelmingly positive (“What a cracking idea!”). Advice poured in from around the village: “You can hire tables from the Village Hall, speak to Helen Clay”, “I’ve got a balloon-blowing machine you can use”, “I’ve got a recipe for ‘Friendship Cake’ that feeds 30 people!”, and on and on.
Street parties, popular gatherings of residents in their own street or road, have a long history, and seem to have started in Britain in 1919. The first street parties were held in July of the year, as 'Peace Teas' to celebrate of the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty after World War I. The concept behind the ‘Peace Tea’ was the idea of providing a special treat for children during those harsh times of hardship. ‘Peace Teas’ were quite formal in nature, and were proper sit down affairs.
The earliest living memory of such a street party is that of a man from Cornwall who remembers attending a formal street party in 1935, held for the Silver Jubilee of King George V. After that time, residents organized more casual street parties to commemorate significant national days of celebration such as the Coronation of George VI, 1937; VE Day, 1945; Festival of Britain, 1951; Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, 1953, Silver Jubilee of the Queen, 1977; The Royal Wedding of 1981; marking the Millennium in 2000; and the Golden Jubilee of the Queen in 2002.
Street parties are now becoming more common throughout Britain, and can be held at any time for their own sake, with a more relaxed ‘bring-a-bottle-and-food-to-share’ arrangement. National organizations, such as “Streets Alive” are adamant that street parties become a key feature of British civic life. Even the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has endorsed the concept actively, and has called upon local governments to make it easier for people to organize street parties for the upcoming royal wedding. I needed very little persuasion, and am looking forward to celebrating William and Kate’s big day in true British style.
Organizing any event is not without its highs and lows, i.e., you’ll never please everyone. However, organizing our Royal Wedding Street Party has been a wonderfully creative cultural learning experience for me. Throughout this process I have learned the very British arts of gentle persuasion and delicate diplomacy; the importance of listening, taking advice and sharing responsibility; and the necessity of planning and thinking ahead. I have also come to see and know my neighbors from a fresh perspective, and have deepened friendships profoundly.
Much more than sharing a plate of Coronation Chicken and pickled onions, and a glass of bubbly or Pimms & lemonade, Street Parties are about promoting togetherness, a real sense of pride, and building the bonds of community. I have been overwhelmed by the joy, excitement, warmth and generosity I have witnessed whilst organizing our street party.
“Thank you so, so much for inviting us! So very kind of you!” so said the note that came through the letterbox, from a couple new to the village, just on the edge of our communal green. Another new arrival, a newlywed expat from Athens, Greece, hugged and thanked me for organizing the street party, for providing her with a fun and festive way to meet her new neighbors.
So, in the end, it’s not just about pomp and circumstance, history or heritage, it’s all about love. For William and Kate, and the rest of us.
"Tomato, To-mah-to: The Adventures of an American Girl in England" - http://i-say-tomato.blogspot.com