Two sides of London ahead of royal wedding

By Laura Lynch

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It's likely that many Americans have already had it up to here with royal wedding stories. But if you look beyond the stories about the dress, the guest list and the glitz, there is an interesting tale to be told about Britain then and now.

It's a tale best told by looking to the streets.

The number of traditional street parties being held to mark the wedding is way down from 1981.

Thirty years ago, the bunting was out and so was the sun.

In the streets, people sang, dressed up in costumes and snacked on cakes at communal tables. There were thousands of parties and millions of people taking part in what Chris Gittins called a grand British tradition.

"It's not quaint when you understand the origin," he said.

Gittins heads an organization promoting street parties and community spirit.

"In 1919 after the first world war it was the first time that people themselves gathered together as a tea party in their own streets in a genuine celebration of the end of the first world war."
Planning a party

In Angela Rogers' backyard the residents of Nightingale Ave. are gathering to do what they've always done — plan a party to mark a royal occasion. Rogers has lived on this road all her life. For her, the memories of street parties past are vivid.

"The food, the cakes, everybody dressing up everybody wearing royal, is it regalia the right word?" Rogers said. "I hope somebody comes in bride wear. That'd be lovely."

It's people like Rogers that set this road apart. Tucked up in northeast reaches of London, Nightingale Ave. is full of people who have stayed put through the decades. Children play on the streets and neighbours know one another.

Carol Baker's husband always tells her she lives in, and believes in, a part of England that is fast disappearing.

"He thinks that I live in a bubble," Baker said. "I adore it here. I feel safe, I feel cocooned. I feel that we have a real community spirit. And I do walk down the road smiling at people."

The numbers may bear out the belief that modern-day Britain is less neighborly, more impersonal. Though it's difficult to tally an exact total, there are thousands fewer street parties planned now than there were in 1981.

Party booster Chris Gittins blamed the drop-off on people's reluctance to gather outdoors in the chilly springtime air.

"We've realized that this is the first royal event that's not being held in the summer," Gittins said.
Other factors at play

In 1981, no one had to pay for liability insurance. Public health regulations this time mean neighbours can't share food at communal tables. Some councils are charging fees. That may be why the district of Haringey, closer to downtown London, has gone from street party central, to a community of party poopers.

Alexandra Gardens, in Haringey, was one of more than 50 streets that held a royal street party in 1981.

This time, there are only seven planned. And Alexandra Gardens isn't on the list.

Australian immigrant Peter Azerati didn't seem to care that the street is bucking tradition when it comes to the royal wedding.

"I probably won't be watching it to be honest with you," Azerati said. "I'll probably just go down to the pub somewhere and have a drink and hopefully if the suns out I will just enjoy the sun."

George Djukic, out taking his dog Knuckles for a walk, wasn't surprised at the lack of community spirit — even though he's lived here for 15 years.

"Not that I know everyone because it's a bit odd," Djukic said. "People don't really talk to each other. I don't know, there's people I walk past in the street always nod and acknowledge them, they always blank it — as if you've never seen them before."
A different population

In their own way, both men represent part of what has changed in three decades.
The population has become more diverse and more transient. A report released last year concludes Britons are less than half as neighbourly as they were 30 years ago.

Perhaps that's not surprising.

Many of the adults celebrating the last big royal wedding had lived through the WWII, experienced rationing and the Blitz and believed in deference, obligation and patriotism.

Back on Nightingale Ave, Angela Rogers pulled red white and blue bunting from a bag to show to her fellow party planners. It' plastic, a far cry from the bunting her mother in law sewed from used clothes in 1981.

But don't try telling the residents here that they are out of step with modern times, that their celebration of royal pageantry is a quaint notion.

"It's not quaint. We would do it again in 10 or 20 years time. I know we would," Rogers said.

On Friday, rain or shine, they will party together on Nightingale Ave. — marking not just the wedding, but the effort to preserve a tradition.

Still, public opinion polls suggest while people believe the monarchy still has some relevance in today's Britain, Friday is more about taking a day off, than about celebrating the royal nuptials.