SO, FAREWELL THEN

WarholQuite a week, eh? I’m not the first to point it out, though it bears repeating because it’s so historically unprecedented: this week began with Boris Johnson as PM and the Queen on the throne; it ends with Liz Truss as PM and the King on the throne. And having to now refer to the man formerly known as Prince Charles as ‘The King’ is just one of the strange changes we’ll have to get used to. Brand Brenda has always been all around us, so ubiquitous that her image is easily taken for granted – on our stamps, coins and banknotes, for one thing; to anybody born after 1952, she’s been part of the cultural wallpaper forever, giving rise to a sense of permanence on a par with Stonehenge. For that to suddenly end is very odd indeed. Sure, we’re all familiar – if not over-familiar – with the musical chairs at Westminster, especially ever since David Cameron fell on his Brexit sword six years ago; but the death of the Head of State is something one would have to be at least 75 to have a previous memory of. And anyone who had reached that age at the time of the Coronation in 1953 would’ve lived under six sovereigns; how different from today. The late Queen’s first Prime Minister was born in 1874; her last was born 101 years later. That curious fact alone perhaps underlines the extraordinary duration of her reign.

Earlier today, ‘The World at One’ closed with Katherine Jenkins singing ‘God Save the King’ – and, yes, it sounded weird; even if the National Anthem now has its original title again and the alteration of its lyrics returns them to what they were when written, it still didn’t seem quite right. But this is the world we now live in, one that came into being when Brenda breathed her last. We clearly weren’t told how serious her condition was yesterday, but the rush of her children and grandchildren to be at her bedside and the sudden blanket coverage on TV suggested this was no common cold. The actual announcement itself by the stoic Huw Edwards on the BBC was devoid of drama, spoken with measured calm – though in a way that made it all the more effective, not to say surreal. Just as surreal was the first reference to Brian as King Charles III; even if it’s a job he’s been rehearsing for all his life – something Private Eye has mercilessly played upon for years in its amusing ‘Heir of Sorrows’ feature – hearing him referred to by his new title remains bizarre.

And so we slip seamlessly into a period of national mourning. The weekend’s football fixtures have been postponed, regular television schedules have been shunted aside, and what has been a far-from vintage Proms season has aptly fizzled out like a damp squib with the cancellation of the Last Night tomorrow. London Bridge hasn’t fallen down, but it almost feels like it. One imagines the ravens at the Tower have been put in their coop for a few days – just to be on the safe side. Hostilities were even suspended in the Commons, giving MPs the opportunity to pay tribute to the Queen after a Prime Minister of barely three days opened proceedings; some of the speeches were pedestrian and packed with clichés and some were surprisingly good – Theresa May actually came across as having a sense of humour, something we didn’t exactly see much of when she was Prime Minister. And way beyond the cocoon of the Chamber, I noticed the normally-untouched rack containing the day’s newspapers was unusually threadbare in Sainsbury’s this morning; but it shows that when a major event occurs, even those who depend on their Smartphones for a news fix still crave a physical souvenir.

I was reminded of a line from ‘I, Claudius’ yesterday – Tiberius on the death of the Emperor Augustus declared, ‘The earth will shake’; the Romans weren’t averse to bringing about a sudden death if it suited them, of course; but even if the circumstances that have caused our own changing of the guard are very different, there remains an unsettling feeling that this event couldn’t have come at a worse time. To the statute-toppling, book-burning revisionists for whom this nation’s history is something to be ashamed of at best and utterly erased at worst, the Queen was an immovable obstacle to completing their seizure of the narrative, the beloved glue – as has probably been said elsewhere – that has held the basic core of the country’s traditional principles together for decades. For Brenda to pass away smack bang in the middle of increasingly vicious culture wars, ongoing political turmoil, a spiralling cost-of-living crisis, and dwindling faith and trust in so many of our institutions (particularly the police) – well, I guess it could have been timed better; but she was 96, when all’s said and done, so I suppose it couldn’t be helped. She looked undeniably frail during her brief appearances at the Jubilee festivities back in June and that whole spectacle had an ‘end of an era’ vibe to it; now, just a few months later, it’s officially all over. And we have one of her bloody kids in her place.

The last time such a lengthy reign drew to a close was in 1901, with the death of Queen Victoria after almost 64 years on the throne; amongst the visitors to Queen Victoria’s deathbed was her grandson, the German Kaiser. Victoria, of course, had married most of her children into the Royal Houses of Europe and had, in her own astute way, contributed to a degree of stability on the Continent that nevertheless began to disintegrate not long after her death. Again, she was viewed as the glue that held it all together; just 13 years after the Victorian era ended, Europe was plunged into World War and ‘Cousin Willie’ played no small part in bringing it about; the end of those Royal Houses was just one additional casualty of the carnage. Therefore, if we are to look at what happened next where Victoria is concerned and possibly use that as an example of where we go now, the omens aren’t especially promising.

Thankfully, the mood of the nation doesn’t appear to be approaching the hysteria that accompanied the death of Diana; it’s a bit more dignified, perhaps reflecting the fact we’ve lost an old woman due to natural causes rather than a young one due to a car crash/professional hit (take your pick). Yet, despite her advanced years, it’s still something of a shock and it’s understandable that even those of us who aren’t avid royalists feel a little disorientated today. For some reason, I actually wanted to hear the bells ringing at noon and nipped up the road to the nearest church; I don’t know why I was summoned by bells, but a sound that is only ever silenced by World Wars and lockdowns was something I just wanted to experience at that moment. I didn’t enter the church, just strolled around its Victorian exterior for a bit and then sat down with my back to a cricket pitch; it was a quintessentially ‘English’ scene and one that felt apt; I was only a hundred yards from a busy road pumping non-stop noise pollution into the atmosphere, yet the pealing prodded me into a rather serene, pseudo-bucolic vortex for while. It was an unusual detour, but one I’m glad I took.

I’ve managed to avoid fatigue with TV coverage so far by rationing it; how I’ll feel by the time we get to the funeral is a different matter. There’s bound to be a sizeable surfeit of nauseating ‘Queen of Hearts’ cant in the days to come from the usual royal experts and biographers, but it’s to be expected because none of them have been here before and all they have in their arsenal is the tried-and-trusted weapons. In some respects, it’s easier to write about the late Queen if one isn’t an arse-kissing monarchist, but if one isn’t a hardline republican either, it’s difficult to put into words what one actually feels at such a strange time like this. I was once teasing a Canadian friend when it was mooted that Harry & Meghan might relocate to Canada; she was not amused at the prospect and I remember telling her she was welcome to them. I said to her that ‘basically, Brits love their dear old Queen and couldn’t care less about her offspring’. I don’t think the death of Her Majesty has changed that.

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4 thoughts on “SO, FAREWELL THEN

  1. With the exception of the hard-of-thinking, I suspect most of us are somewhat troubled in principle with the notion of the hereditary monarchy, the ultimate position of nepotism. Surely it would be more sensible to have a Head of State who had been actively selected, by some means, based on a proven skill-set? And yet the model of performance so recently ended definitely challenges that position.

    All credit to the late Queen, she carried off the role with impeccable aplomb for far longer than could have been reasonably expected of any human, almost never taking mis-steps, always reading the runes and nuancing her delivery to meet the moment. Does that make me an ardent monarchist? Not really, because that enduring and exquisite performance was, at its core, simply as an agent of a very smart constitutional situation.

    The holder of the monarchical office in the UK, despite being auto-selected by accident of birth, is just a jobbing actor in the processes of government, holding no real power, merely performing set rituals as required by the elected Parliament, the reward for which is a very comfortable existence with considerable public adulation and curiosity. As a ‘performing seal’ job, that’s a deal most people would take, the only remarkable features of Elizabeth’s term of office being its endurance and the consistency of her own clear commitment to the requirements of the job description.

    Given that status and her superb example, I am surprised to be quite comfortable with the situation, it is a harmless spectacular, it fulfils a need, delivers stability above momentary political crises and, as a by-product, draws in revenues from elsewhere to offset its modest cost whilst endowing a level of confidence in the national psyche.

    Would an alternative, such as a President Blair, offer a better prospect? I think we all know the answer to that, so I’m quite content to stick with the status quo – unless, of course, King Brian III screws it up completely. Time will tell on that one.

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    1. I remember there was a play on TV around maybe five or six years back which imagined the events we’re actually living through right now. Brian was played by Tim Piggott-Smith in what I think was one of his last roles and the new King did indeed screw things up from the off; he was swiftly forced to abdicate in favour of William. Time will indeed tell if life imitates art.

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      1. There seems to be a general view that the belated, relatively short, reign of Charles III will then give way to the next major step in the UK monarchy’s progress via William and his family.
        That whole unit, especially the delightful and very astute Kate, seems to have absorbed the job-spec superbly from the off and are all being well prepared for a longer role in that titular position. If it works out that way, then I’ll remain content for that apparently nepotistic process to continue.

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      2. Historically, there’s often been a pattern whereby a ‘sensible’ monarch is succeeded by one less so, i.e. sensible Victoria, rakish Edward VII, sensible George V, rakish Edward VIII and so on. Perhaps Brian’s advanced years will nullify any damage that might have been done had this come to him earlier. William & Kate appear to be a pretty tight and harmonious unit, so I would imagine the ‘continuity’ of which we keep hearing will be in safe hands.

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