The death of one monarch and the accession of the next inevitably triggers a pause for thought. Several thoughts.
Most immediately, why did I feel emotional at different points over the last few days? I’ve never been an ardent monarchist; I’d not queue to see one of their family and while I’ll belt out the national anthem at a sporting event, I’d belt out Bob the Builder if that was our national anthem. I’ve often said of our own rather jingoistic anthem that it’s not its lyrics or tune that appeals but its brevity.
And the Queen was old, approaching Methuselah on the ageing spectrum. So no one was going to be surprised at her passing, though its suddenness has had something to do with the sense of slight bewilderment. We might have imagined a few days or weeks of increasingly sombre statements from the palace that would prepare us, not a photo of the Queen looking twinkly eyed a couple of days before as she accepted Liz Truss as her umpteenth PM.
I think it is in part the unfamiliarity of this event, a passing of the monarchy, a succession which even state events like the death of the Queen Mum and Prince Phillip didn’t involve. Very few of us would remember the last time as any sort of comparator. I tried a thought experiment: imagine King Charles dying in the next few years. How would we react? The same set of traditions would be evoked, the same clearing of the TV schedules but the public’s response? Would it be so intense? Would so many queue?
As an aside this mythologising about the British love of queuing is grating. I’ve seen many other nations queue with a ferocity we couldn’t imagine. Standing at an American lift station waiting to return to the top of the mountain requires an intricate knowledge of one’s personal geography. It may seem as thought there is no specific structure to it, but move ahead before you allotted moment and the hissing invokes a nest of rattlers and delay by a split second and the ‘Hey Bud, are you with us?’ Tells you, like no other accent that you’d better shuffle forward the allotted yard ‘right now’. Coming from the French approximation to a human magimix as one is pushed and prodded into gaps smaller than those between my teeth before being spat out in front of a chair that requires both timing and unbruisable thighs to mount safely, it is quite a thing.
No, we queue and we moan at having to queue; those two go hand in glove for we Brits. That’s what makes this time, as many file past the coffin lying in state, so exceptional. We queue but as far as I can make out, we aren’t moaning.
And how would we see King Charles in his demise? What cliched status would we attach to him? With Princess Diana it was the People’s Princess, with the Queen it is becoming common to hear people call her the Nation’s Grandma. Charles? The Nation’s slightly irritating and know-all uncle who’s made more annoying for often being right, perhaps? I’d love to think the reinvention of King Charles will enable him to receive a better, more affectionate moniker, but I do wonder if his history of barbed comments will make that difficult.
It has also been of interest that few of the natural opponents of the Monarchy have popped their heads above the parapet. The republicans amongst us have dipped their heads, mumbled stuff about how as an individual you have to admire what the Queen managed to do over her reign and sloped off to the pub. They’ve not stopped republicanising, of course. They’ll be back, banging on about class and elitism and empire and how the monarchy epitomised all that. And in a curious way, they are right but not as they intend it. Today, for many, Britain is a place of opportunity. No, of course those opportunities aren’t as wide spread as they should be or we would wish, but they are far more widely available than in 1952 or in hundreds of other countries around the world today. We, as a nation, rightly rail against those denied opportunities through poor schooling, awful home lives, bias and prejudice. We are appalled by the evils of modern slavery, of course. But we revere the servitude we willingly impose on one family. Oh sure, if you are born royal you get to occupy some castles and landed estates, dress in sumptuous jewels if that is your thing and avoid queuing. I imagine one thing every member of the Royal family would find challenging, if they escaped their captivity would be traffic lights: they’d never have stopped for a traffic light in their lives.
But like giant pandas, we get excited when they breed, we want to view the new borns. They are born into captivity just as much as Chi-Chi and Ann-Ann were; they are held behind bars, just as the gorillas are at London zoo. They get the best food, excellent veterinary care and plenty of marvellous frocks. But the freedom to be where they want, when they want and how they want? Hardly. What if a successor was an atheist (please)? How’d that go down in our judgmental press and mealy-mouthed media?
But if they try and leave, we vilify them or those perceived to have driven them out. We see them in binary colours; good and bad. The Queen is currently a white hat but think back to Aberfan and the death of Diana and she was, if not a black hat then sporting a fetching shade of dark grey. The latest examples are Harry and Megan; families fall out but when this one does there is nowhere to hide. Everything is picked over in a very public gaze.
Whatever one may think of Megan and her victimhood and new agey pontificating on Spotify – nope, I’ve not listened to her podcasts but read the snotty reviewers so I’m as bad as anyone, falling to judgment without proper research – you have to sympathise with a life never to be lived in the quiet again. Sure her mistake was to indulge the self harm of marrying into the monarchy but her reaction to what that entails is all rather human. The fact that the new Princess of Wales keeps her cool and her counsel says a lot for her determination, resilience and fortitude. Made of steel, that one, methinks.
Let’s be clear: I’m no republican. I admire the Queen wholeheartedly and, indeed the new King for playing out their roles where they haven’t ever had a choice. It’s extraordinarily cruel of us to do this to anyone. Andrew’s behaviour has been egregious and gross and he deserves a heap of approbation but the miracle is not that he has turned out the way he has, but that more haven’t. Maybe having equerries and footmen numbs one to one’s reality.
No, despite this I’d keep the monarchy because, if I’ve learnt one thing in my several years on this rock it is be careful what you wish for. Without the monarchy we’d still need a head of state. Our PM, arguably has too much power as it is, but give them the sort of powers vested in, say the US President without the history of how to control it, the history of working out how the checks and balances function in practice in a society not used to such a structure and things would rapidly deteriorate. It took the French five goes to work out their preferred republican structure, and even the American’s needed a civil war and umpteen amendments to their mythologised constitution. And if we slipped in another figurehead, like, say the Irish, who’d we get? Like Groucho Marx refusing to join any club that would have him as a member, I’d fear that those who might make a decent fist of it – a younger Sir D Attenborough, say – would be too intelligent and self aware and avoid putting themselves forward. I’d fear it becoming the repository of failed political lackeys or a stepping stone to high political office. I doubt it would cost us much less than the monarchy either without the resulting boost to tourism and tea towels, though the National Trust would probably benefit from a few more stately homes in which to instal their tearooms.
I remain steadfast in admiring what the Queen did; I’ve been fascinated to hear what her still surviving PMs said about their weekly audiences. Some talk about the wisdom shared, some the humour and the opportunity at times of major stress and crisis to take some time out with someone who’d seen many crises before. I wonder if, in truth, it was the fact that it brought home to them the essentially ephemeral nature of their position when compared to hers that counted most; it acted as a check on the egos of those who thought themselves most powerful at that moment. Monarchs in Britain today have little power and a lot of influence, mostly by just being there, being a living and breathing representation of continuity.
But what a totally shitty job it is. Seventy-one years and no retirement. Bloody hell, no thank you even if you get to make films with Paddington and never have to queue to get home after another English defeat. I’ll happily accept my place in the moaning multitude as the doors close on another train, leaving me to grumble in the rain…