The bright red and gold uniforms against the gray skies, the helmets and swords, the kettle drums and clattering hooves and cheering crowds and waving Union Jacks: as I stood outside Buckingham Palace earlier this week watching this very British orgy of anachronism, I had a weird sort of acid flashback, one of those disconcerting rushes of temporal displacement. But it wasn’t so much the result of LSD as history and the rush of current events.
This moment of a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, only the second in Britain’s history, marked the end of one epoch and the beginning of another—that much seemed clear—but the era that looms ahead of us looks to be ominous indeed.
Across the channel, the Continent is at the crumbling edge of an economic abyss that threatens not only the common currency of the euro, but, potentially, the whole premise of unity on which European peace and prosperity have been constructed, ever so laboriously, over roughly the same six decades that Elizabeth II has been on the throne. And Great Britain, which ceased to be a world power in anything but literary and cultural pretense during this Elizabeth’s long reign, will not be immune from the European contagion.
In the years that this queen has been on the throne, Britain surrendered its dominance over Egypt and the Persian Gulf, ceding the role of would-be imperial overseer to the United States. The Arab Spring, with all the hope and horrors it has brought, marks a definitive end to all that.
As horse guards passed by, I thought of the historian Arnold Toynbee’s recollection of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, when he was just a little boy. “Well, here we are at the top of the world and we have arrived at this peak to stay there—forever!” he thought. (I have this vision of him astride his father’s shoulders.) “There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people,” he was thinking. That was just before the protracted horrors of the Boer War and the beginning of the long, disastrous decline of the British Empire.
The queen’s carriage approached, and I almost expected the clouds to part. There was a wonderfully festive mood. But I was haunted by the opening paragraph of Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial history, The Guns of August: “So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration.” Less than half a decade later those monarchs were pitted against each other in the world’s first global war.
I don’t want to rain on the parade, as it were, but once one turns to this line of thought, the auguries of this month—political, economic, and even celestial—are pretty disconcerting. Just as the Jubilee was wrapping up in London, as it happens, Venus transited the Sun. According to astrologists and authors Quinn Cox and Stella Starsky, this very rare event is associated with “revolutionary” changes.
More prosaically, on June 17 the beleaguered Greeks go to the polls and very likely will elect a government dominated by the idea it can obey few or none of Europe’s rules, but still, somehow, remain in the club. This is wishful thinking: a plunge into the labyrinth with no thread to lead them back out. It’s a reasonable guess that this vote for a vain illusion will mark the end of the Greece’s membership, and conceivably the end of the euro. Certainly it will intensify the sense of panic that has spread to Spain, infects the entire European economy, and is contributing to the slowdown in the United States as well.
Then, on June 16 and 17, Egypt will elect its new president. Again, the results are fairly (if not certainly) predictable. The best-organized political party is the Muslim Brotherhood, and in any election it’s not the popular will so much as party discipline that’s likely to decide the outcome. So the government of the largest and by far the most influential country in the Arab world will be dominated entirely by Islamists. And if, implausibly, the candidate backed by the military wins instead, there’s no question that unrest (already beginning again in Tahrir Square) will spread and intensify. The crippled Egyptian economy will continue to founder, and the chaos will endure on the banks of the Nile, even as Syria slides into a deepening, widening sectarian war whose flames will lick at Lebanon, Iraq, and possibly Jordan as well. In all these conflicts, the long-persecuted Islamists and Salafists hope—and indeed expect—they will emerge as rulers.
I asked Starsky and Cox about the cosmic connections around the time of these elections, and Cox replied that the first of eight “lunar occultations” in 2012 comes on June 17, when the moon eclipses Jupiter. Apparently such events have religious significance. Cox writes of “a changing of the guard of cosmic power that will inspire people to move, emotionally, and take action.” He notes that “one theory of the ‘Christmas star’ ”—which guided the Wise Men to the crèche in Bethlehem—“is that it was an occultation of Jupiter.”
Oh, no. In these parlous times, one thinks of the poem “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats, when “the center cannot hold,” when “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” In the poet’s vision the Egyptian sphinx stirs in the desert and the poet asks, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Is this too much? Of course, in a sense, it is. Personally, I do not believe the stars control our lives, nor do I trust visionary poetry as a guide to the realities of the future. The world is not ending. But these spectacular royal events, for all the bonhomie they are meant to engender, are ready reminders of just how quickly and, indeed, almost apocalyptically, the world can change. Intended as diversions, they become milestones that mark delusions.
Whether the ultimate cause resides in the heavens or in the banks and ballot boxes, there is little doubt that this summer of the Diamond Jubilee will be remembered in history as a moment when the world was no longer what it had been, but the millions watching the parades could not quite imagine what their new world would be. All that seems certain is that history will become something unpleasant, and, finally, inescapable.