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 8:30am 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, ate my breakfast.  Enjoyed a leisurely hour reading, eating, 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 10am 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 today 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 do 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 unjust war because to do so might also criticize the soldiers who fight 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 senator – 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.  It’s one of the reasons we fought for our independence.  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.


   The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace



08/20/2013 1:43pm

Great post, Vicki! Changing of the guard. Empire State Building. Statue of Liberty. Eiffel Tower. I mean, what can you say about those cliches--except you gotta see 'em, lol!

Was the anarchist in Hyde Park? Sounds like a Speakers' Corner type. I've learned SO much about British politics and how the common Brit feels by listening to that call-in radio station, LBC (London's Biggest Conversation. I can listen to it for hours!

08/22/2013 6:41am

Yeah, he was standing right outside Hyde Park - had a big set-up by the fence. I listened to that station you sent me while I was writing this post. Made me feel so much more informed. There's a big debate over fracking here now. We're having that same issue, aren't we?

08/22/2013 3:18pm

Yep, we sure are. Even in our states of NJ & NY. Speakers Corner in Hyde Park is a lot like Union Square in NYC, isn't it?

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