Friday, April 29, 2011

Inside The Royal Wedding

Originally published on

LONDON -- According to some estimates, almost one-third of the world's population will have watched all or some of the royal wedding today. Amongst the most hard-core of those watchers were the 600,000 people who filled local parks to watch on giant television screens, and lined the wedding procession route. Here's a report from inside that crowd.

06:30 - Sunrise has been rather cold and gray but that seems to have had no effect on the jubilant mood of the crowd. Many hundreds have been here through the night, camping out along the procession route. Setting up a tent and spending the night on a London street may seem a bit extreme, but campers were rewarded last night by a surprise visit from Prince William and his brother, Prince Harry.

07:30 - There are some nervous eyes looking toward the sky as the occasional drop of rain finds its way to a reveller's forehead or nose. It feels unfortunate considering the incredibly good weather London has been experiencing over the past week. But a BBC weather forecaster has just promised the crowd a break in the clouds just in time for the wedding ceremony. A cold wind is keeping people moving around, or perhaps that's just excitement. Outbursts of singing are becoming increasingly common.

08:30 - Already the parks and procession route are filling up. Meanwhile the first of the wedding guests are beginning to stream into Westminster Abbey. For those of us watching on the enormous television screen in Hyde Park, it is a case of trying to spot someone famous. Others are working on developing their own fame; news media from around the world are everywhere. If you've ever wanted to be filmed wearing a silly hat, this is your best hope.

09:30 - It is a party atmosphere, reminiscent of Britain's famous rock festivals, but with the attendees being far better behaved. Britain's police forces -- some 6,000 officers are on the streets -- are to be commended for their friendliness and goodwill in dealing with the hundreds of thousands out for the day.

10:30 - Our plan to move from Hyde Park to Green Park, along the wedding procession route, has failed miserably. Green Park, St. James Park and Trafalgar Square have all been closed. These massive public areas are full to capacity. Hyde Park is still taking people in. The throng of people now watching the giant TV screens extends at least 1/4 a mile.

11:30 - The wedding is under way. Each time the camera shows Kate the crowd goes wild. Many women are dressed in bridal gowns, men dressed in tuxedoes and top hats. Union Jack flags are seemingly requisite.

12:30 - The wedding is done. Will and Kate are man and wife. We have sung "God Save the Queen" no less than six times. Other patriotic songs can be heard among the crowds, as well as the sound of cans of alcoholic beverages being opened. It is time to party. People in Hyde Park are either attempting to disperse or -- more wisely -- settling into picnics.

13:30 - The family appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, drawing wild cheers from all watching. The quick kisses between Prince William and Princess Catherine (we have been informed that "Kate" is no longer acceptable) are met with flag waving and screaming. The flyover by a WWII bomber is a particular treat. A woman nearby screamed, "I love Britain," and had to sit down.

14:00 - It has become a full-on party in Hyde Park. More than 120,000 are singing along and dancing to a live band. The sun has come out and it's a good bet this scene is repeating itself in parks, street parties and houses all across the country. For one day, one moment, this country -- so uncomfortable usually with displays of national pride -- is taking a little pleasure in itself. The monarchy is safe. God save the queen, and the prince and future princess who will one day follow her. For now, however, there is a conga line forming...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Royal Wedding Inescapable In Britain

Originally published on

LONDON -- Ask a typical Briton his or her opinion of the impending royal wedding and you will get a well-rehearsed eye roll or quick huff of breath.

The media coverage drenching the most-talked-about wedding in a generation has long since saturated this country. People have had enough. The event is inescapable.

Still, in the month before the wedding, in this country that usually shies away from displays of patriotism, the Union Jack has increasingly been found everywhere and on everything. Pubs and bars advertise drink specials, encouraging patrons to watch the event on big-screen televisions. Prince William's and Kate Middleton's images are found on every imaginable surface, be it tea mugs or toilet lids.

The image of Kate, particularly, is requisite in the daily newspapers. One could more easily imagine a tabloid choosing to eschew words rather than a picture of the princess-to-be.
There is no ducking the wedding. At least not for those still in the country. Thanks to a trifecta of public holidays landing on or near the wedding, an estimated 2 million Britons will be abroad when William and Kate take their vows. But even they will find it difficult to escape worldwide interest in the event.

London, of course, is built for this sort of thing. Few places in the world are better equipped to handle such a large public gathering. But even in London terms, this is a massive event; roughly one-third of the world's population is expected to watch all or some of the wedding, by some estimates. Organizers are taking it very seriously. Police have already warned that disruptions will not be tolerated. Those hoping to demonstrate republican or anti-royal sentiment will not be allowed near the procession nor its audience.

Outside Westminster Abbey, where the wedding will take place, huge stands have been erected for the world's press. One stand immediately outside the cathedral is built to hold several hundred people. Elsewhere, inside and out, dozens of cameras have been stationed to capture every conceivable angle of the ceremony.

In London's Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square, both near the route of the wedding procession, huge television screens have been erected for the thousands upon thousands of well-wishers expected to turn out in hopes of seeing the happy couple as they pass by. Meanwhile, both national and local government websites are awash with detailed information on the what, where and when of the event, with festivities set to begin officially at 7 a.m. local time.

Helpfully, the UK's public services website, Directgov, offers this advice: "Visitors are advised to dress for the weather but to get in the wedding mood and wear a hat."

A fancy hat may not be enough for some people. A number of visitors have said they are planning to arrive dressed in their very best -- many promising tuxedos and elaborate gowns. Others may look a little less presentable on the day, but with good reason: several hundred people plan to camp out along the procession route the night before, to ensure their prime view of the happy couple.

Britain's residents may still insist upon rolling their eyes at talk of the royal wedding, but quite clearly the country is wedding mad. There is talk of rain in the forecast, but it is unlikely to keep onlookers away -- even those who claim not to be interested.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Will And Kate's Unlikely Island Home

Originally published on

BEAUMARIS, Wales -- Far away from the heaving, cheering crowds and pageantry of Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding day is the tiny windswept island of Anglesey (pronounced: "Angle Sea"), in northwest Wales. For a while, at least, the couple will call the island home while William completes his current tour of duty.

He is stationed at Royal Air Force base Valley, on the island's western coast, serving as a search and rescue pilot. He has already taken part in a number of rescues both on sea and in nearby mountainous terrain. His presence on the island has not gone unnoticed, and that notoriety is only set to increase as he and Kate step further into the limelight via their royal duties.

There is a certain irony in the couple that will most likely be Britain's future king and queen calling Anglesey home. The island has always taken pride in being just that little bit different from the rest of the British archipelago. Almost 2,000 years ago, it was one of the last strongholds against Roman invaders. According to legend, the Romans killed all the men and cut the women's tongues out to keep them from telling children of their ancestry.

Today, it is one of the furnaces of Welsh-language culture. Despite the majority of Welsh speakers living in the southern areas of Wales, the bulk of the language's authors and poets come from Anglesey and the immediately surrounding areas of north Wales.

Being a Welsh speaker often goes hand in hand with being a Welsh separatist. Roughly 70 percent of Anglesey's population are Welsh speakers. The island's representative in Wales' government is Ieuan Wyn Jones, head of Plaid Cymru -- a political party whose members have long sought to break from the United Kingdom and make Wales an independent country.

Owain Môn was born and raised on Anglesey and is so fiercely proud of his roots that he uses the old Welsh tradition of adopting one's region as a surname. His name more or less translates to: "Owain of Anglesey." He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not particularly interested in the royal wedding. And he questions any benefit the presence of William and Kate might bring.

"Let's say that it's good for Anglesey financially," says Owain. "To what end? A couple extra Yank tourists show up; so what? How long will that last? It's hardly building a sustainable future, is it? And the people they might bring, what good are they? They don't come to see what's actually here. They don't respect my culture."

Owain's viewpoint is relatively common in the region, but it is a viewpoint most prefer to keep to themselves. People of Anglesey have a tradition of showing a certain tolerance toward things they disagree with. A visitor might not even be aware of locals' complacent dislike of William and Kate. That would be especially true if he or she spoke to someone in the tourist trade.

"It can't hurt, can it? If people want to come here in hopes of spotting [William and Kate], they're very welcome," says John Rigby, landlord of the Sailor's Return pub.

Nodding toward a shop across the road that has bedecked its storefront with Union Jack banners, he notes that business owners in his village have seen the wedding as an opportunity.

"We've got some bunting up already," he says. "I suspect there will be more [decoration] on the day."

The couple's direct effect on tourism, however, may be difficult to gauge. Several ferries a day run from Anglesey to Ireland, making Anglesey already-well-traveled territory. Indeed, in the days immediately before the royal wedding it was an escape route for many of those not interested in celebrating.

Thanks to the official holiday days resulting from the royal wedding and May Day, upward of 2 million Britons are expected to be abroad when William and Kate take their vows. Among them are John and Debbie Shields, from England's Midlands region.

"We're going over to Ireland to stay with her sister. We'll be there the whole time, thank God," says John. "I have no interest in the wedding. I will be sitting in the back garden enjoying a pint, thank you."

Debbie is less cynical, saying she plans to watch the wedding on television.

"It's a bit of fun, isn't it?" she says. "And it's historic. I'm interested to see what everyone is wearing."

The couple travel frequently to Ireland, usually spending a night on Anglesey before catching a morning ferry. Asked whether they think the presence of William and Kate will have an effect, they are unsure.

"I would hope they wouldn't bring too many more people," says Debbie. "It's already quite bad in the summers."

"I'm not sure William and Kate will mean that much," says John. "With the good weather we've been having, that blinking Gadhafi could buy a summer home here and people would still come."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Life In Britain: A Little Mist Must Fall

Originally published on

LONDON - Contrary to popular belief, it does not always rain here. In fact, by American standards it hardly rains at all. The great heavy storms that drench the Midwest and at times pelt the U.S. coasts are rare in Britain. The last time I heard thunder here was in summer 2006.

In Britain, it mists. Sometimes the mist is fine, like the sprays at Disney World that cool beleaguered tourists. Sometimes the mist is heavy, like jets at a car wash. The months stretching from October to March are almost nothing but mist. Miserable, soul-destroying, bone-chilling, ceaseless mist only occasionally broken up by snow.

It is perfect weather for sitting inside, and often true to the stereotype, many Britons find refuge in pubs. The definition of what exactly constitutes a pub is loose. In some cases, pubs resemble American sports bars; others are more like old churches. But there is always drink, and there is always talk.

The British are exceptionally good talkers. It is a product of their centuries spent in public houses, using the combined body heat of others to stave off the effects of perpetual cold mist. Stuck for months on end in these confined spaces, the British have honed the art of discussing anything and everything at length.

The discussions are not always based in fact. Sweeping generalizations, wives' tales, third-hand wisdom and weak summaries of things overheard are common. A night spent in the pub could easily lead to a week of fact-checking if anyone bothered to do it. But again, the company is good.

In the spring and summer, the mist clears, sometimes giving way to real rain. But sometimes there is sun, and those are the times Britons live for. When the sun shines on the British archipelago, it does so in a way that one never experiences in America. The sky feels closer. The grass grows greener. Pub conversations spill out into beer gardens. The lawns of city parks become a quilt of picnics. All that mist makes the sun shine brighter, and suddenly, Britain becomes the most wonderful place in the world.

Britain is full of contradictions. It is an idiosyncratic little island that once ruled the world, where one facet of life coexists with its opposite.

The British, for example, are in love with bureaucracy and order -- everything in this country requires three forms and a passport photo. Yet they delight in ridiculing their authority figures.

On television, blows to the skull, whether by foot or chair or headbutt, are edited out of professional wrestling. Not proper. But there are multiple free channels featuring nothing but topless women encouraging you to call them.

Britons complain endlessly about the outdated and inefficient ways in which they approach almost every task, but they'll complain loudest when someone suggests making a change.

They drive on the left but walk on the right. McDonald's franchises can be found next to the ruins of Roman fortresses.

For an American living in Britain, it can be dizzying. British culture has so many things in common with the United States that some Americans refer to this corner of Europe as "the 51st state." Pub legend has it that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once did the same.

But Britain is not America. They do things differently here; it is a different place. Sometimes the variances are hard to grasp, like a mist, but they are there, and they are often what makes living here worthwhile.