I can say two equally true things about my experience this morning – I enjoyed it, and I never want to do it again.
At one point, standing pressed up to the railing with dozens and dozens of others crowded around me – all of us staring through the bars at a big empty courtyard – I thought, “This is utterly ridiculous.”
I learned from my last attempt to see the Changing of the Guard, and this time I arrived early. It was 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and when I crossed the street from Hyde Park onto the palace grounds, I saw that today I would have my pick of places at the gate. I chose a spot near, but not right next to, the big central gates. Sat on the little ledge and took out my book and ate my breakfast. Enjoyed a leisurely hour reading, eating, and taking the occasional picture – watching the guards on duty in their sentry boxes, wondering what kind of lives they lead when they “clock out” at the end of their work shifts. At about 9:30, more people started to trickle in, and by 10 a.m. the place was packed. As the time for the changing drew near, I noticed the people themselves changing from politely giving each other space - apologizing when they bumped into each other – to treating each other as objects obstructing their view. And I noticed my own patience beginning to wear very thin, indeed. It’s very uncomfortable to be packed in with that many people for an hour and a half. There’s nothing like a spectacle to make people suddenly transform into sardines! But I was committed to seeing my mission through to its end.
At 11:15, the blessed sound of a marching band approached. No horse guard this time – I guess they don’t participate in every ceremony. The band led the regiments of guards into the courtyard, and the ceremony began. I noticed that there were different-colored plumes on the sides of the guards' hats and wondered what that meant. Here’s what I discovered! The hats are actually called bearskins, and they’re 18 inches tall. They’re made of real bearskin from Canadian brown bears and weigh 1.5 pounds! Poor guys – both the bears and the boys. The hats were first worn by British soldiers in 1815, following the defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. Napoleon’s French grenadiers wore bearskins to appear taller and more intimidating, and Britain adopted the towering hats as a symbol of its victory. The different plumes represent the different branches of the guard: Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish, and Welsh.
The ceremony lasted about an hour – mostly songs played by the band. I think I heard the theme songs from STAR TREK and STAR WARS too! Very strange. And ironically, the ultimate purpose of the entire ceremony – the actual changing of the guard – happened in such an offhand way that I nearly missed it! I was watching the band play and happened to look over to the side of the courtyard. It was then that I noticed a small group of guards standing in front of one of the sentries at his box. Some kind of a small ritual seemed to be going on. Then, the sentry on duty traded places with one of the guards. The changing was complete. But the band played on. The very thing we all came to see seems to be the least important part of the ceremony – strange.
I snapped far too many photos of the palace and then headed off in search of something to eat. On my way out of the park, I noticed a section of fence covered in political posters – all of them extremely inflammatory and blatantly anti-Thatcher. I’ve always been curious what the British people think of Thatcher since I’ve read such differing views of her (and the movie with Meryl was pretty sympathetic, I think). My curiosity was satisfied when I met the man responsible for this display. I had just snapped a photo of one of the posters when Ray introduced himself by stepping up next to me and saying, “You know you can be arrested for doing something like that.” At first I thought he was upset that I was photographing his stuff, but it turned out to be just a conversation starter. :) Ray told me he’s an anarchist, and he made it clear that an anarchist is NOT synonymous with a Communist. Seems most of us Americans harbor that misconception. When I asked him what he thought of Thatcher, he explained very “delicately” that if you were one of the working class, all you really wanted to do was rip her face off and eat it. Wow. I chatted with Ray for about 20 minutes, felt incredibly ignorant at times when he proved he knows more about my own government than I do, but he also confessed that he doesn’t know enough about his either. Ray says this is not due to lack of information, but rather lack of free access to it. That surprised me. Is there a propaganda machine at work in Britain? I welcome views from other Brits on this.
I also learned more about Guy Fawkes Day from Ray. I’ve read a bit about it, but could never figure out if it’s a celebration or some kind of an anti-celebration. Some things I’ve read describe it as a remembrance of Britain’s crushing of Fawkes’ attempted terrorism. Again, Ray said it depends on your perspective. The working class celebrates Guy, but the government views the day in exactly the opposite way. I’ve never heard of a country proclaiming a holiday especially designed to denigrate someone before! So strange. And nowadays, supporters of Julian Assange don Guy Fawkes masks and gather outside the Ecuadorian Embassy where he’s been given diplomatic immunity from the British government. Only half a mile from where Ray and I stood chatting.
My conversation with Ray made me think again of Pomp & Circumstance, of the ceremony I’d just witnessed at Buckingham Palace. Differing views on government. Is it wrong to express pride in our country even when our country is so imperfect? I don’t think so. So long as we not do so blindly. So long as we act as responsible citizens and stay involved in what our government is doing – protest when we believe it is doing wrong, support our leaders when we believe they are doing right. It’s when it becomes un-pc to criticize an unjust war because doing so might also criticize the soldiers who fight it, that pomp & circumstance becomes dangerous – even idolatrous. And I fear that’s where the U.S. is right now.
The most important thing about citizenship can be boiled down to one word – information. It’s not enough to get out and vote. We must stay informed about what our leaders are doing, what bills are being presented. These bills become laws, and then they affect all of us. If you're American, you can keep tabs on Congress and the bills up for vote there by checking the House Floor site. And write to your congressperson and senators – tell them how you want them to vote. Look up your reps’ contact info here. Let them know you’re watching them. Let them know how you want them to represent you! This information is freely available to us. We should appreciate and take advantage of it.
In the meantime, if you want a fix of pomp & circumstance for yourself, you can watch a video of The Changing of the Guard here.
GUEST WRITER'S BIO
Vicki Speegle is an award-winning screenwriter whose feature script LOVED ONES was in development at Amazon Studios and was a finalist for best screenplay. Her screenplay DEAREST was a finalist for the 2011 Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and her television pilot THE WAKES OF WILBUR POE recently placed in the finals of Slamdance.
Vicki grew up the daughter of a gay single mom turned pastor in Akron, Ohio, where she helped take care of her two younger brothers, an experience that provided fodder for a number of short stories and scripts. Her infatuation with storytelling began at the age of five when she sent a love letter to Donny Osmond, and since then she has worked an eclectic mix of jobs to support her writing habit, including 4 years in the U.S. Navy tracking nuclear submarines on a tiny island called Adak, Alaska, assistant to a very eccentric New York City artist, and a brief bout as the world’s worst waitress. Vicki studied music performance and education at Akron University before making the move to New York University, where she earned her BFA in Film & Television Production. During her studies at NYU she interned as assistant to the editor for Ken Burns’ production of THE WEST. She wrote, directed, and produced several shorts, including her thesis film OLDER, which went on to screen at the Tribeca Underground Film Festival and won 2nd place in the Pioneer Theatre Short Film Slam in New York City.
After graduating from NYU, Vicki joined Rigas Entertainment as assistant to the Director of Development, helping in the development of feature films with directors Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty) and Maggie Greenwald (SongCatcher). In 2005 Vicki began shooting a documentary about her mother’s struggle to reconcile her faith as a pastor with her advancing Alzheimer’s. The project is currently in post-production and has garnered the support of GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). In 2007 Vicki’s screenplay LOVED ONES placed in the top 5 of the Bluecat Screenplay Competition and won Screenplay Live at the Rochester Film Festival. Her works have placed in several other competitions, including Women in Film, Chesterfield, and American Zoetrope. Vicki’s credits include a teen comedy for Applause Films and radio scripts for Wynton Marsalis, Director of Jazz At Lincoln Center.
Vicki lives and works as a writer, filmmaker, and web producer in New Jersey. She is still waiting for Donny’s response.