On Saturday, I went to the ASDA just off the A6177 Bradford Ring Road to pick up my other half: she was volunteering there with Bradford Trussell Trust Food Bank. The Food Bank are desperately short on supplies; she and others were giving up part of their weekend to provide shoppers information about their work. I helped in a minor way: I went shopping for boxes of juice and tinned meat on the Food Bank’s behalf. As I pushed the cart through the long aisles, I noted that ASDA was a bit less ostentatious than other supermarkets in the area. The bunting wasn’t quite as “in your face” and the patriotic items on sale had more to do with the Olympics than the Diamond Jubilee; I didn’t see any portraits of the Queen.
After a bit of searching, I picked up some apple juice, orange juice, chunky chicken and tinned steak and then proceeded to the checkout counter. Ahead of me, there was a mother, father and their small daughter. The mother looked thin, pale and somewhat worried. Her curly brown hair was dishevelled. Her blue eyes darted back and forth as if she was tallying up in her head every item that was rolling across the till’s scanner. The father, tanned and muscular, I presume due to long hours spent working outdoors, appeared just as concerned. His eyes were downcast; he quickly grabbed the items and stuffed them into plastic bags as if they would be taken from him. I suspect the grey hair in his bushy moustache had prematurely arrived. The family’s purchases were modest: they mostly were buying ASDA own-brand “Smart Price” goods. There was a clear preference for pasta and sausage rolls; additionally, they had splurged a bit on a £3 family sized pizza. Only the little girl, dressed in a bright pink t-shirt, seemed truly happy. Her bright eyes peered over the stacks of goods sliding down and being quickly packed up. She was too young to know that money was something to worry about, rather, it magically appeared in Mummy and Daddy’s wallets and allowed them to buy milk and chocolate cereal. As they finished packing up, paid, and departed, I could imagine them retreating to a modest home. Perhaps utility and credit card bills lay stacked on the kitchen table, promising retribution if debts remained unpaid. The father had an almost wistful quality to his look of worry: it was easy to imagine him sitting on a sofa quietly, staring into the middle distance and contemplating all the problems he had to face while sipping an ASDA own brand lager.
I thought of the Queen. I saw from my Twitter timeline that the festivities at Epsom racecourse were imminent. In contrast to the couple who were going to treat themselves on £3 family sized pizza, I guessed she and her entourage probably were going to quaff the finest champagne. I suspect even Cristal was too déclassé: perhaps a special jubilee champagne from a distinguished Maison was on offer. No doubt smoked salmon was acquired from a royal purveyor. The afternoon’s entertainment was surely viewed from a comfortable distance, only subject to the vagaries of the weather. Around the Queen, I was sure, there were the gentlemen and ladies of name and fortune: no doubt shirts from Turnbull and Asser, top hats from Lock and Co, and handbags from purveyors on Old Bond Street prevailed. Is it the same country, I wondered: the distance between Epsom and Bradford seemed vast. No wonder our leaders make policy in such a cack handed way, I mused: they don’t see the families at the McDonalds’ concession at the Bradford ASDA. The Big Macs and fries they people are eating there are not some sort of personal indulgence, this is their main meal. This Britain is not a Disney-like pastiche of Victoriana, rather it is a place where deprivation is all around and there are days even when the sky itself seems to hang too low. The clink of champagne glasses isn’t heard here; the jubilee is for an old lady who seems disconnected and distant. Yes, there will be some festivities. And yes, thanks for the extra days off. However, I get the sense that by and large, there is tolerance, not enthusiasm: the Queen is a marginal fact of life and she rarely intrudes on daily existence. There is as yet no confidence in an alternative, no hope that different would be better. So the system survives.
Yet something is deeply wrong. As I waited for my other half to finish up, I read through the brochure the Food Bank was handing out. At the top it stated clearly, “People are going hungry in Bradford today”. It also said that it some wards there is an unemployment rate of 25%; worryingly, the statistic cited is from 2004, prior to the crash. Nevertheless, there were positive stories to be found: a group of students had come into ASDA for some basic supplies and returned with a cornucopia of food to donate. Generosity, warmth and basic decency still exist, despite all the challenges; perhaps, I thought, we ought to take the time to celebrate ourselves.
Bradford does contain glimpses of what such a celebration might look like. My local church had a Jubliee lunch after the Sunday service; the service itself contained barely a mention of the Queen. Rather, the Gospel reading came from St. Luke, chapter 14; specifically, the portion in which Jesus related the parable of a man who invited all his friends to dinner, yet they found various excuses not to attend. Instead, the man invites the poor, the lame, and the blind from his community and decides to shun his rich friends in future; somehow I had doubts this was how the guest list for dinner at Buckingham Palace was composed.
I looked up Luke 14 as I sat in the pew; verse 11 leapt out at me:
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The lunch was a homemade affair: it was held in the church hall, which had been painted a lemon yellow probably in the late 1970s. People brought in and consumed sausage rolls, fresh sandwiches and strawberry pavlovas. They drank coffee and talked. Children wore paper hats made out of paper plates and adorned with glitter. The bunting in the hall was modest, just red, white and blue flags: no Union Flags were in evidence. Only one gentleman, elderly and wearing a tweed jacket, stood up and asked us all to toast the Queen. The few supporters of a Republic kept quiet. After all, it was the only praise she’d received all afternoon.
Nevertheless, the Jubilee is just hitting its stride. The Sunday papers were all emblazoned with the Queen’s portrait. The Sunday Times offered a free spotter’s guide to the Jubilee flotilla; its progress was remarked upon in every last minuscule detail on the BBC. Anneka Rice was drafted in to comment on a series of pictures painted in the rain; many of these were washed out. She suggested they were “impressionistic”; she compared one artist’s work to that of Monet. Other commentators spoke of how “normal” the Queen is, as if it was some sort of praiseworthy quality that she would deign to experience the emotions of less exalted souls. The flotilla’s grand fanale was marked by a series of atonal fog horns being blasted at full volume, and carried live on television by the BBC, Sky and CNN. The news channels are unrelenting in their focus on the Jubilee: it’s so much that I slightly wonder if the midnight broadcast will speculate about the Queen’s sleeping patterns, if she lay on her side or on her back. Bradford, so far away, will finish the last of its beer or celebration cava, turn out the lights, and go to sleep.