The Queen Comes to the Queen

by NB Armstrong (July 2012)

St Peters church in Nottingham, a city nicknamed the Queen of the Midlands, is two hundred years old this year. The view from its elevated cemetery yard still presents an imaginable lingering trace of what this built up patchwork of inner city Nottingham once looked like when it was mostly fields and meadows as the nineteenth century began. It sits in the Radford area, in which Alan Silitoe’s 1958 boss and union resistant gruff hero Arthur Seaton drank and lathe turned in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The new Opas student accommodation complex at the foot of St Peters Street has larded the population density and, according to one local resident, happily raised property prices. It has also given access to a further stretch of the River Leen, along which you can get to Ilkeston Road and a fifteen minute walk to the city centre.

Just after rush hour on a gray June morning, Ilkeston Road is not yet a scene of genial street life. A bright red terrace store called BOOZE and Mario’s Fast Food next door are still shuttered up. Neither are the Deyi Oriental Food Shop nor Master Vohra’s Academy School of Martial Arts yet open for business. However, across the road, a few students do straggle in and out of the Tesco Express, which looks like a giant detached house but actually used to be a pub. Pubs in this part of Nottingham have been quietly retiring themselves of late. The Grand is now a mosque, The Wheatsheaf long tenantless, and The Gregory opposite All Souls church has been in some sort of scaffolded phase of transition for some time, though the newspaper plastering the insides of the windows does not promise fun pub rehabilitation.

Bookmakers are thriving. Two which sandwich a warded-aided elderly resident’s complex are in friendly competition just on from a Polish shop called Polish Shop. Further up the incline of Ilkeston Road is Radford Recreation Ground, its gatehouse property now the Muslim Women and Girls Centre. Nearby, Dino’s Pizza and IFC (Imam Fried Chicken) know it would be pushing it a bit to try and get the students interested in anything that fast this early. Douglas Road, straddling Ilkeston and Derby Roads, hosts, I happen to know – and in spite of the absence of a commemorative plaque on the property’s front – the childhood home of a now retired Premier League star. The passing number 30 bus to the Victoria Shopping Centre advertises that it is ethanol powered.

I cut up through the fine Edwardian terraces of Arundel Street to Derby Road where the traffic of youngsters ambling north to Nottingham Trent University thickens. I ask the owner of Park Stores, a fresh bread deli which sells cereals and Korean noodles, if he isn’t going to see the Queen on the Council House balcony.

“Some of us have to work for a living,” he chuckles.

The wooden gate entrance to the private Park Estate does little to inhibit anyone wishing to tour its traffic free streets. Its sought after addresses were built onto the former Castle deer park at a time when the Leen was open all the way to the soft sandstone rock which underpins so much of Nottingham city centre. There are no droves of residents streaming from here to the market square. Amanda, a first year Trent Uni student, seems to be quick stepping it to town for a prime viewing spot.

“No, I’m going home today,” she corrects.

The Zenith company, situated in the grand Clinton House, is heralded by two large flagpoled Union Jacks, but then this neck curtained, chandeliered three storeyed cosmetic clinic always is. A young man in a leather jacket tightens into place the band holding his pony tail as he blows smoke out of the pipe fixed between his teeth. He stands at a bus stop taking passengers away from the Queen. Now we are at Canning Circus, where all roads into town merge, and there is located a small police station which came under petrol bomb attack in the comparatively delimited Nottingham riots of summer 2011. One of the conspirators just received a well received fourteen year sentence. So it will be perhaps seven before he has chance to patronise the nearby ‘American style Warsaw Diner’. Closing in on Maid Marian Way, I stop to look at the one-table Jubilee window display set out by pupils of St Joseph’s Primary School in a disused former charity shop next to the Pugin designed St Barnabus Cathedral. ‘Congratulations Your Majesty’. A man in a red jacket power walks in the opposite direction.

At the cusp of the city centre, the pedestrian flow is beginning to resemble that outside of an international sporting event. There is a sudden audible commotion. I turn to see its source and witness a fight occurring in front of the cathedral between the man in the red jacket and five or six Emo-ish looking young people. It looks like an impromptu disagreement over pavement space, but is violent enough for a woman at the bus stop to “Stop it!” out of the way. The five or six young people walk on and obstructively cross the traffic onto the traffic island, which has ample pedestrian crossings on every side.

The outdoor cordoned off seated café lands of Fat Cat, Sinatras, and Los Iguanas are all deserted since from them no clear view is to be had of the square. Lesley is smartly dressed and made up and in a hurry to get a good vantage point. She first saw the Queen when she opened the eponymous Queens Medical Centre, the largest hospital in the UK back up Derby Road, in silver jubilee 1977. Lesley has detected no changes in her majesty’s deportment in that time. “She’s just getting older like we all are.” An Operational Support Unit St. Johns Ambulance sponsored by Bristol Street Peugeot backs up two other emergency response vehicles. There is bunting across Long Row and an Asian lad draped in a Union Jack appears out of Greggs bakery. Bar staff up on the balcony of Yates hold red, white, and blue balloons.

Gill has stepped back out of the growing fray to have a quiet cigarette away from her “when are you going to quit?” friends. The retiree has come for the atmosphere but also for a psychic trip back to her childhood when the young Queen Elizabeth II visited the city in 55.

“I was only a little girl but I remember how much make up she wore –I was quite stung by that.” Gill offers to take me into the registered disabled special area she has access to but I fear a royal quizzing obliging me to invent a disability and so decline.

Outside Debenhams a plastic flag seller is raising money for Help for Heroes.

“Only a pound to wave to the Queen,” he shouts somewhat misleadingly.

“Gonna make a fortune then,” quips someone behind him. The Old Market Square is the largest such public space in the country. Pre-Nottingham it was the centre point at which the old Norman town of Snottingham based around Castle Rock met the Saxon town spread over the Lace Market. A granite line was constructed to signify the dividing point when “slab square” was redesigned in 2007. Looking around today, it has surely not been as packed since Brian Clough used to make yearly appearances on the Council House balcony in the late seventies. Its water features are temporarily switched off and all motor vehicles and trams, apart from a certain fleet of impending limousines, banned. There are not many uniformed police visible amidst the crowd, and an “Ambassador” in a ‘We are Nottingham’ jacket assures me that she is not doing this for free on jobseekers orders. A third group, Showsec Security, who were also in evidence marshalling the recent St George’s Day parade, are there to bolster the forces of the luminously coated.

Ceremonial uniforms are de rigueur on the steps of the Council House. Soldiers of all ranks stand to attention as the Lord Mayor strolls out into the gray. He holds a gleaming weapon – like mace but little functioning power – Nottingham’s loyal citizenry recently said no in the referendum on a policy-wielding mayor. A giant screen next to the postcard city hall Council House shows live images of the Council House for those who don’t want to look up. It also feeds us flashbacks of the Queen through the decades, with the always accompanying subtext that the fifties were best.

Things are getting very tight along the walkway between the crash barriers in front of Debenhams and the department store itself. It is supposed to be open to passage at all times. But the prams and the confused elderly and the stewards themselves are thickening the artery and you start to envy the office workers up on the rooftops and, especially, the drinkers on the second floor of The Joseph Else Wetherspoons on South Parade. I feel most sorry for the fifteen or so eight year olds from St Josephs, uncomplainingly hemmed in and seemingly brought here to view adult backs seeking out a better spot in which to capture uploadable phone footage. Little John, the bell of the clock mechanism installed by William W. Cope up in the dome of the Council House, rings out ten deep pounding strokes, and the anticipation builds to a gabble of speculation.

“What colour do you reckon she’ll be wearing then?” a woman with short red dyed hair asks her companion.

“Ah reckon she’ll be wearing gree-een” she answers herself.

“She’s at the station!” reports back her friend, though there follow no PA updates of the Queen’s progress along Middle Pavement. Neither are there republican demonstrators nor sharp shooters visible on the roofs of the Royal bank of Scotland or the buildings along Beast Market Hill.

A tolerable but obscuring squash has developed and I wish I’d taken up Gills offer of special access. (I’ve seen only one man of foresight holding binoculars.) But I cannot reasonably push through to the front; it feels instinctively unfair for those at or above average height to greedily eat up the view; so I hang back a little, and instead ponder gratefully that at least I am not a baby in a pram, whose mothers will doubtless tell them one day, “You’ve seen the Queen but you just can’t remember.” In all probability it will be in reference to the same Queen.

Then, apropos of a VIP convoy of cars, a kid-led cheer ripples around the square perimeter, setting off a thousand plastic flags. I check out the screen for evidence that what I’m hearing is actually happening. The cheer increases to a pop star scream as the Queen is filmed getting out of the limo.

“She is wearin green. I toad yer.” Pause. Cheer. “Toad yer.”

Most people are looking away from the object of their loyalty toward the huge live feed bringing into focus her broach, black handbag, and white gloves. Will the mayor remind her majesty that Charles I made Nottingham the rallying point for his armies in August 1642? William, now easing enviably through the cutting edge of hereditary, is in a rowing club blue suit, whilst Kate Windsor looks like she’s on her way to a box at Ascot. The princess is currently negotiating a phase of uncritical popularity through which it is not inconceivable that she might bring hats back into fashion on every social level. The Queen, able to look up more than I expected, then goes into Wetherspoons for a pint, or I so want her to in order to make contact with the all-day eyes of the men who sit at its front few tables. But even they must at least be feeling how everyone else is feeling happy.

By contrast, the short, by now, are in hell.

“Can you see the Queen? Is the Queen still here?” asks one of two five year olds to his harassed mother. I will offer to hold them up in turn to show them the Queen – moments like this are what shoulders were invented for – but mum drags them off deeper into the celebration.

“Should ave put me six foot eels on!” laughs a shop worker.

The Royal Standard hangs indomitably over the Council House, its yellow and red all the more resplendent against the banks of grey white brown clouds, and three of the four royal aces disappear into the upmarket Exchange shopping arcade. But we want more. Little John reminds the Queen that it is now 10:30 and she had better hurry up to make that Vernon Park opening ceremony at 10:55.

Figurine sized, the party emerge on to the balcony, in a scene made all the more unreal by its historical familiarity, like they are rotating out of a cuckoo clock; and we all wave back with cameras and you look around at the multi-ethnic smiling throng and think things like 'Britain is Britain' at this moment.

Dyed red hair has become our crowd section’s witty commentariat.

“Harry! Harry!” she calls out. “Wherefore art thou Harry?” They go back inside. We start to leave. A waiter outside Yates gives me a flyer for their all day breakfast.

NB Armstrong is a writer and translator. His book, Korean Straight Lines, will be published this month.

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