Reflections on a royal wedding and other miscalculations

by Jim Young (author of Any Old Eleven)

Thirty years ago, before plastic was invented, the first thing you had to do in a foreign country was make sure your banking arrangements were in order.  In London that meant a trip to The Strand, where the local representatives of all Australia’s banks huddled under the wing of the Australian Consulate.

There were lots of banks in those days before the voracious appetite of monopoly capitalism was again let loose.  In search of my own brand I had to pass the headquarters of the State Savings Bank of Victoria, which had a department store window decked with slavish pomp and featuring two papier mache figures representing the two future victims of a forthcoming, firmly arranged, Royal Wedding.

Perhaps there had been a competition in the office to devise an appropriate inscription – or else a public relations firm had been employed to do it for them – but swirling around the feet of the ill-fated pair was a banner inscribed “A Right Royal Di to Remember”.

At the time I was, in a simple way, happy thay my business took me to another bank altogether.  On reflection it was perhaps a straw in the prevailing wind of bad decision making that transformed a solid and secure Government asset serving the needs of Victoria’s population into a catastrophic failure of venture capitalism that cost us all a lot of money.

*  *  *

All England was agog with the festival – which is their privilege, though I felt no need to share their enthusiasm.  They did, however, turn on a grand exhibition the night before the nuptials – fireworks within walking distance from where I was staying, and irresistible to the infantile pyromaniac that lurks within us all.

All very spectacular, but the end of the evening was my first introduction to English offialdom’s incompetence when it comes to dealing with large numbers of people.  “No one does pagentry like we do”, the British smugly proclaim.  Perhaps so, but no one manages crowds like their police.

As the last rockets mounted, shone, evaporated and fell, the crowd turned homewards.  But by now Park Lane on the eastern side of Hyde Park was barricaded for its full length and no one was allowed to cross.  We were all bustled towards the south, past now-closed tube stations and across roads where buses were not allowed to run because of police blockades.

A vast crowd – in slow lock step, every one of them as furious as I was, none able to go where they wanted – was funnelled into Victoria Station – still open, with very reduced services, none of which was going where I wanted to go, but at least they could get me past the local equivalent of the Berlin Wall.  The station was packed, as was the train which eventually arrived.  It filled to well above its legal capacity in a matter of seconds.  Just near me were a young woman and her husband, each carrying a small child.  In exhaustion and despair, she broke down in fits of inconsolable wailing.  We were right beside the guard’s compartment – the one who rings the bell to tell the driver to take off – and he invited the family group into his small shelter.  Must have been against regualtions, and it severely strained the capacity of his little hidy-hole, but a glimmer of humanity in the British bureaucracy.

This was my first intuition of a truth underlined during that summer – that while the English congratulate themselves on their public orderliness, specifically demonstrated int their instinctive tendency to form queues, they are actually very bad at it – not so much in forming queues, but knowing what purpose it serves.

I watched a lot of cricket that summer.  County games a pleasant relaxation – Test matches the grounds full to capacity.  At The Oval on day one, big crowd in, I headed off for a beer.  I knew exactly where to go having watched several days of country cricket earlier in the season.  Getting on towards lunch, there was the tail of a queue more than 50 yards from where I knew to bar to be.  I thought “This can’t be right” and proceeded towards the entry to the bar.  Inside were six separate selling points, each with its own array of taps and an attendant barman.  The 50 yard queue was lined up for the first station and there were five more barmen standing there with nothing to do – except for the occasional desperado, who, having made it to the entry door, could see that he could race down the line and beat six or eight blokes in front of him.  I beat 50 yards of them.

A minor triumph on day one was, however, dwarfed by the queueing disasters of day two.

This was the summer where the inestimable captaincy of Kim Hughes managed to snatch two extraordinary defeats from the jaws of inevitable victory – and by the final Test the Poms were understandably hopeful for, and exuberant about, a series victory they had had no right to expect.  They bought out the game – though not before I had secured my small corner of the market.

I had tickets for most days – on my own for the  Friday, when was slow getting into the ground, but just in time for start of play.  There was a certain a certain degree of disorganisation at the gate, and I later gathered from casual converation that many spectators had been held up for long periods trying to get in.  Every time I snuck in for a quick beer ahead of the queue I felt a pang of sympathy for them.

For the Saturday I did not hold the tickets but had arranged to meet friends at the Hobbs’ Gate who could see me safely inside.  The tickets, as I knew from Day 1, specified which gate you should enter to gain access to your seat.

I was there at a good hour and stood by the Hobbs’ Gate, where I witnessed extraordinary scenes.  The queues stretched out of sight, clockwise around the ground.  I was glad that our seats (and therefore our entry) were at the far end of the ground and a quite different gate.

From where I stood I could see that the one small gate (out of four or five available) where the general public was being admitted was under pressure. Ten feet to the left (the queue-blocked side) was the gate where Surrey Members could enter, and no queue at all.  The good Members had to force their way through the hoi-polloi, and it was crucial where they did so.  If they penetrated the queue 20 yards to the left of the gate and walked towards their own entry they were confronted by a policeman who ordered them to join the end of the queue – out of sight around the bend.  If they did so closer to the gate there was an obliging policewoman who pointed them straight towards the Members’ Gate and in they went.  Members who had been sent to the back of the queue with hours of waitng would eventually shuffle towards the public entry gate, present their ticket and be told they should go to the gate just next door.

I saw respectable Englishmen spifflicating in the face of policemen, “I’ve been a member here for 35 years and I’ve never been treated like this.”

Now my friends arrived with the tickets, and we circled the Oval in search of our distant gate.  But no gates were open – except the one I’d been standing beside for some time.

In response to the confusion of the day before, the ground authorities and the British Police had closed all gates except one, and made everyone join a very long queue.  And the one gate they opened was the one that made it very difficult for Members to get into their own proper venue.

The long shuffle stretched half way round The Oval – which is the biggest cricket ground in England, but (thankfully) a mere mite compared to the MCG.  At one point a pair of double gates opened to allow an ambulance to exit the ground – someone had got upset somewhere.  We thought “This is right near our seats” – and so did several locals who marched in with determination.  But there was a line of police advancing towards them and this was 1981, the year of the greatest mob protests in English history since the Peasants’ Revolt exactly six centuries earlier.

In1381 Richard II rode out on his palfrey and procliamed “I am your king” – and they all knelt down.  In 1981 there was little kneeling – in fact the British Police force felt the need to issue cricket boxes to its officers who had to stand, arms locked, facing the mob.  (It is important to recorrd that the English sense of decorum required that Men’s size boxes be supplied to officers, and Juniors’ to constables )

We got into the ground not long before lunch.  And with handy foreknowledge were able to fetch and carry beers without too much of a delay.

*  *  *

The day after the fireworks – The Wedding – I thought it was best to be out of London.  Kent was playing at Canterbury, and since my youth I had dreamed of the old county grounds.  The Britrail pass of those days meant you had already paid for going to wherever you wanted to go, so I sailed off to the St Lawrence ground.

Nicely settled, and watching how the pitch behaved with the morning dew still upon it, when an English gentleman immediately in front of me turned on his transistor radio, putting us in touch with a particularly fuity voice intoning about the Horse Guards proudly tossing their manes as they processeed down The Strand.

As an interloper into a national celebration I had no right of objection and thought it best to move out of earshot – until a very English voice behind me said most emphatically, “Excuse me, but most of us have come here today to get away from all that.  Could you please turn it of!”  Which indeed he did.

So much for me and English Royalty.  Except for the time (my sister swears) that Prince Phillip winked at her at Bolton Park in Wagga in on the Royal Tour of 1954.  I don’t think we’ll ever get to the bottom of that.


  1. Neil Belford says

    I was in Hyde Park that night. Words cannot adequately express the how crazy the night turned out to be, but that is a good job. The fireworks themselves actually became really chaotic by the end as I recall, and there was no clear time when you knew it had finished.

    It has never occurred to me before now but that night was a perfect metaphor for the full term of the event it was celebrating.

  2. John Butler says

    Jim, I was stuck outside the Oval in 1987, waiting to gain admittance to The Battle of Britain, between Carlton and North.

    It struck us at the time that the authorities were behaving as though they’d never encountered a crowd.

    This puts it all in context for me.


  3. indogus says

    The British have had a big influence on the UAE too. Crowd contol here is very similar. The number of times my family has arrived at an event on time or early only to be held up/prevented from entering is too numerous to think about. It’s easier to get on a plane to Israel carrying a backpack full of C4 than make a hassle free entry to an ‘organised’ event here…

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