Speaking of the Dead

In an opinionated age, not even monarchs get to rest in peace
Redonda seen from Nevis

Let no one say I fail to keep my readers abreast of world events. It has attracted little notice, but this week has seen the death of a monarch. If the sad news has escaped most of you, I don’t consider that blameworthy. Virtually no one had ever heard of this royal personage. I feel it is incumbent on me, therefore, to break the heart-breaking news. After all, though unelected, they (if I may use the royal plural) were much loved – almost to the point of idolatry – by a considerable number of fiercely loyal fans. And so it was that, in peace and total amity, they governed for many a long year a remote, barren, unremarkable and very small island which, nonetheless, punched well above its weight in the world and was populated, as one would expect, by boobies.

Now, before Piers Morgan rushes to condemn me as a woke ideologue, and before Harvard offers me a professorship, let me explain that the name of this monarch was Javier Marías, a highly-regarded Spanish novelist who – in common with an innovative photographer, a chic left-wing French filmmaker and just about anyone who wanted the public to pay a blind bit of notice – chose the wrong week to die.

As for the boobies, I wasn’t being rude about those royalists who flock to The Mall every time a royal appears on a balcony. I merely referred to the seabirds of that name, who nest in colonies on an island in the Caribbean which was first discovered by Columbus and named Santa Maria La Redonda, or (no offence to her beatitude) Saint Mary the Round. It is, in fact, a fairly irregular shape and not round, unless you catch sight of it from a certain angle. Its name has since been simplified to Redonda, and to this day people don’t spend a lot of time on it. There’s no fresh water for a start, and not a single tree. Add to this the fact that seabirds are not known for their personal hygiene and it’s no surprise that the reigning monarch rarely sets foot on its (very soiled) soil. Given the appalling state of the place, the crown is passed from one writer to another in absentia. In earlier times, some guano prospectors stopped long enough to exploit the vast quantities of excrement deposited by the boobies. They were after the phosphate, for use as fertiliser. The boobies, of course, were happy to be of assistance.

In an entirely analogous way, the sum total of the world’s opinions is routinely augmented by the media, thus fertilising the public conversation. I think it’s fair to say, though, that this past week has seen a dramatic, nay unprecedented, spike in guano production. Never in the history of rolling twenty-four-hour news – not even that time the supporters of President Trump tried to make America great again by trashing the symbolic heart of its democracy – have opinions been deposited on such an industrial scale, by boobies and by harpies.

Oh yes, there have definitely been some harpies. You might have thought common decency would have dictated that they keep their counsel for the duration of the mourning period. After all, as Donne famously wrote:

Every man’s death diminishes me

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

 

A shopfront in Sevenoaks where John Donne was rector.

 

One would be forgiven for dying a little to see some of the republican commentators tripping over each other this week, in their haste to denigrate a certain head of state. There was a time, in the distant past, when no one would have been such an ill-bred churl as to disrespect the dead. Instead, they would doff their hat as a hearse passed, even without knowing who the dead person inside might be. As the mortuary motto had it, De mortuis nil nisi bene [dicendum]), or in the vernacular “Of the dead, [say] nothing but good.” As we shall see, these days some people jostle to be the first to bad mouth the deceased, in particular when the dead person in question had the affrontery to call herself The Queen. During a visit to the Chelsea flower show in 2016, the gardener explained to Her Majesty that lily-of-the-valley was once used as a poison, to which she replied: “I’ve been given two bunches this week. Perhaps they want me dead” (Emine Saner, The Guardian, 9 September).

We now see how right she was. Word wreaths, as Andrew Rawnsley calls them, have been arriving thick and fast, but many of those from across the Atlantic have been woven out of lily-of-the-valley. The same goes for the poet laureate, although at least he meant well. In his ‘Floral Tribute’ we find

Lily of the Valley, a namesake almost, a favourite flower

Interlaced with your famous bouquets, the restrained

Zeal and forceful grace of its lanterns, each inflorescence

A silent bell disguising a singular voice.

 

Lily-of-the-valley

 

It was a nice try, though a tad over-elaborate. Lily-of-the-valley is also known as the ladder to heaven and Mary’s tears, so the flower ticks a lot of pious boxes, but the tone and diction are so stiff and courtly, I can’t hear the writer’s voice in there, with its distinctive Huddersfield accent. Perhaps Simon Armitage was prey to the self-consciousness that inhibits most poet laureates.

It has been the less flowery, rather workaday lines of Philip Larkin – the poet who would have been laureate, if only he hadn’t stopped writing poetry by the time they asked him – that have actually come to sum up people’s sentiments about her:

In times when nothing stood

But worsened, or grew strange

There was one constant good:

She did not change.

If in doubt, let the dead eulogise the dead. When he wrote this, I doubt Larkin was thinking ‘Now I’m going to say something memorable.’ He predeceased the Queen by some years, which must have made things easier too. Now, of course, a sense of decorum would act as a further inhibition.

The ban on speaking ill of the dead need not be extended to everybody who dies. It’s probably best not to send in the thought police over this; even the first Queen Bess was unwilling to ‘make windows into men’s souls.’ Some people just aren’t bothered too much either way. Nor is it a hard and fast rule that the dead should be respected. Just because his republic was neutral, De Valera should probably not have sent condolences to the German people on the death of Adolf Hitler.

But honestly, in this present instance, was ten days grace such a lot to ask, before people got on with the urgent task of demonising a dearly-loved 96-year-old great grandmother who had always served her country, right up to a couple of days before she died? How heartless these bleeding-heart liberals can be! I’m looking at you, Maya Jasanoff. Just three hours after the Queen’s death was announced, this history professor at Harvard University, where she focuses on the history of Britain and the British Empire, said it was wrong to ‘romanticise’ her reign. ‘The queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonisation whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged,’ she wrote, highlighting repression in Malaya, Kenya, Yemen, Cyprus and Ireland. ‘We may never learn what the queen did or didn’t know about the crimes committed in her name,’ she continued. ‘Those who heralded a second Elizabethan age hoped Elizabeth II would sustain British greatness; instead, it was the era of the empire's implosion.’ Jasanoff ended by calling for the British monarchy to do away with the ‘myths of imperial benevolence’ that still suffuse its ceremonies and activities. This might almost be mistaken for a request not to be so nice in future!

It's not even the views I take issue with here. I’ve written about the connections between the royal family and slavery, in ‘The Haunting of Prince William’ for instance. At some length. No, it’s the timing I object to. One suspects it was a question of getting one’s oar in before the clamour of self-righteous protest began.

 

Greeting her fifteenth Prime Minister at Balmoral

 

And sure enough, others were not slow to add their voices to hers, in terms not quite so measured as the professor from Harvard. This is the age of the opinionated – there’s no time to waste when it comes to getting your prejudices aired. Cue the feeding frenzy. A senior newsletter writer for New York Magazine, the inaptly named Tirhakah Love, said he was looking forward to dancing on the Queen’s grave, because ‘You can't be a literal oppressor and not expect the people you’ve oppressed not to rejoice on news of your death.’ That repetition of ‘not’ smacks of the breathless rush to get his opinion out there. And far, far worse was vented, of a pungency and violence only social media can provide, which I shall not reproduce here for decency’s sake.

Such people clearly still need us, the Brits, to play the evil characters in their movies. It was an easy move to cast us as vicious colonialists and the tyrannical imperialists. Oh, and did I mention that we’re also execrable racists? But hang on a minute, was it not we, the nefarious British, who first colonised America, a colonisation which is ongoing, which all but replaced the indigenous population? Can one detect a smidgen of self-hate in all this, projected onto a more hate-worthy mother country? Besides, they threw us out hundreds of years ago. Hard to explain, then, the heart-wrenching empathy for countries that remained under our tyranny far longer.

The same comforting tale of British culpability was unfolding on the television. On CNN, it fell to Christianne Amanpour to lambast the imperialists. As Mr S (Steerpike of The Spectator) explained, she demanded that:

‘King Charles III address Black Lives Matter and consider possible ‘reparations’ for wealth generated from former colonies. Does he [Steerpike asks] at least get to bury his mother first? Amanpour’s colleague Max Foster bowed his head like a nodding dog as she declared that ‘Prince William who’s the heir and the next king, he talked about it, having been criticised for a trip he made in the Caribbean – again, colonial legacy – that we must have this discussion, and it must be up to those countries. But it also has to be had in this country [Britain] as well.’ Thanks for the advice, Christianne. Mr S might have some sympathy with Amanpour talking about the evils of the British Empire were she not quite literally a CBE – a Commander of the British Empire – an honour she seemed to have no problem accepting 15 years ago. Talk about being a right royal hypocrite.’

Meanwhile, over on MSNBC, a full-blown ding-dong occurred. Here’s Steerpike again:  

‘On Saturday, TV host Ali Velshi began a special on the Queen’s legacy by condemning the royal family. He claimed that she ‘represented an institution that had a long and ugly history of brutal colonialism, violence, theft and slavery,' even though, on Elizabeth's watch, Britain decolonised its empire and embraced multiculturalism. As a constitutional monarch, she played no role in political duties, though her embrace of a multi-racial Commonwealth, distaste for apartheid South Africa and service in the fight against Nazi Germany indicate her private sympathies...

Velshi, though, preferred to disregard the views and actions of the sovereign who died just two days earlier. He told his audience that “For many centuries, the British robbed other nations of their wealth and power, and exploited their people. Even as Queen Elizabeth's reign largely marked the beginning of the post-colonial era, the horrors that her long line of ancestors inflicted upon many generations of people across the globe continue to be the source of pain.”

Fortunately, actual historian (and proud Brit) Andrew Roberts* was on hand to correct the record. Despite Velshi's repeated indignant interruptions, Roberts coolly asked: “If we had given so much pain to people throughout history, why was Prince Charles chosen by every single Commonwealth country — many of which are former imperial countries?”

As for slavery, Roberts pointed out that the UK abolished it more than 30 years before the United States. Would that, he asked, make Joe Biden a symbol of slavery too? As Roberts began his retort, Velshi seemed to become more agitated, telling him: “Andrew this is not a propaganda show,” and “Andrew, I need you to stop! I need you to stop for a second. Are you really taking issue with the horrors of colonialism?” he asked, to which Roberts replied: “I'm taking issue with your remarks about slavery, which we abolished 32 years before you did. We didn't have to kill 600,000 people in a civil war over it,” he added.

Ouch.’ (The Spectator, 12 September 2022)

Apparently, just as the British burn the effigy of Guy Fawkes every year, so some Americans have to burn the occasional British monarch. Who knew, since Elizabeth had been on the throne for decades, that the Americans were, for all that time, just bottling up a torrent of bile ready to vomit up in a gush of righteous recrimination while the old girl was still warm? Finally, a country and a political system so evil it was worse than theirs. At last, a parade they could rain heavily upon. The fascism of the British, like the Nazism of Ukraine, would serve to justify the attack. Just give them time, they might be obliged to invade Kent.

Those poor old American liberals, with their brutal history and their barbaric present, so cordially despised by the world they dominate, really need us to be nastier than them, it turns out. Some things lie so deep in the psyche of a nation, it takes death and a constitutional inability to hold one’s tongue before the psychic pain can express itself.    

But the Queen also inhabits the pleasant dreams of Americans, according to Michael Levenson in the New York Times. One explanation for this verges on the psychoanalytical. He quotes a certain Arianne Chernock, a professor of history at Boston University and scholar of modern Britain, who traces this American fascination back to the beginnings of the country, when some of the founders distinguished between their grievances with the British Parliament and King George III, whom they saw as a benevolent figure. “There is also an element of passion here… It ties back to the history of the sovereign as father and mother to the nation. At one point, Americans were part of that family and, even though we’ve severed that political tie, I think that affective tie remains” (New York Times, 14 September 2022).  

Affective ties, especially when stretched both temporally and geographically, have a way of getting twisted.

 

Teatime

 

In Britain, meanwhile, along with the wordy wreaths, it has mostly been a familiar story of piles of flowers wrapped in plastic. The florists of Windsor have run out of them. There have also been toy Paddington bears, so many that the authorities have asked people to desist. And, of course, marmalade sandwiches. Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the man who scripted the Queen having tea with Paddington, has spoken of it being a collective dream of the nation, and he’s right in a way. Not taking tea with her as such, but I lost count long ago how many times I encountered the Queen in my dreams. Cottrell-Boyce adds that the scene with Paddington was ‘valedictory,’ a woman waving goodbye to her great grandchildren, while the bear is ‘an evacuee, a refugee, one-time prisoner, pretty much every category of need that is mentioned in Matthew 25.’ 

It might be as well to remind ourselves of the context, just to set the record straight: in that particular chapter, Jesus is explaining how the goats are sorted from the sheep according to how they treat Peruvian bears. With the possible exception of regimental mascots, the fiery pit is where the goats are heading. But these are enlightened times; even the Vatican has stopped harping on about eternal torments. The Queen was a believer, but not the fire and brimstone type.

The historian and royal biographer Robert Lacey says: “She had a wonderful wry and dry sense of humour, and it was a very important ingredient of her identity. I would say that her sense of humour and her religious faith were two of the personal elements that kept her so much on track.”

 

Must have GSOH

 

This sense of humour is one of the aspects of her character that has emerged most prominently over the past few days. It was never as obvious to the public as the Duke of Edinburgh’s, whose sarcasm often sailed close to the wind, flirting with unreconstructed bigotry. It has been suggested that this political incorrectness was intended for his wife, a shared in-joke which acted as a safety valve in public engagements and, paradoxically, helped her maintain what Tina Brown has called ‘that perennial poker face of hers,’ which she used as ‘a strategic, a constitutional tool.’ But she could also display humour of her own, sometimes to defuse a tricky situation. Making a speech after being confronted by anti-monarchist, egg-pelting protesters on a visit to New Zealand in 1986, she said: “I myself prefer my New Zealand eggs for breakfast.” In a similar way, in 2007, when President George W. Bush said the Queen had helped celebrate the US bicentennial in 1776 – he had meant to say 1976 – she began her speech with a smile and said “I wondered whether I should start this toast by saying, ‘When I was here in 1776 …’” This was greeted with roars of laughter.

 

The Queen photobombs Australian hockey players’ selfie

But perhaps the most appropriate story for our times came from David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, who is blind and has a guide dog. In 2003, his dog reacted defensively towards Putin, barking the moment he caught sight of the Russian president: “I did apologise to the Queen who was obviously hosting. I don’t think I am giving anything away when I said, ‘Sorry your Majesty about the dog barking.’ She said, ‘Dogs have interesting instincts, don’t they?’”

Theresa May, her ungainly behaviour and her coughing fits long forgotten, became a stand-up comedian of the highest calibre under the influence of the Queen. She told a tale in the Commons about her husband having a dream that he was in a car being driven by the monarch, with his wife in the passenger seat, until he realised it was actually happening. This is testament to how universally the monarch inhabits the British dream world.

I wrote recently about the obituaries kept in safes by editors. For the people asked to write these obituaries, it is necessary to speak in the past tense about those who are yet to die. This was a task that proved impossible for Boris Johnson, who told the Commons that he ‘choked up’ when it was asked of him and had to abandon an interview.

Clearly, in all his years as a journalist, Johnson had failed to acquire the forensic detachment necessary to that task, but frankly, anyone who could have achieved this would have disqualified themselves from doing the topic justice. A person that unfeeling could never have come close to describing what she meant. Therefore, it’s hard to believe anyone was able to prepare an obituary, even mentally, and serve it up readymade for the occasion, using the past tense in a proleptic manner, when it seemed unmannerly to do so. As La Rochefoucauld says, neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye. In her case, it was like attempting to look at both simultaneously. It's an occasion all of us have been dreading. Anyone who did not share that dread was ignorant of what the world stood to lose. The Archbishop of Canterbury has said she had no fear of death. If true, that makes her one of the very few who didn’t dread this day, and the only one, in this instance, so ignorant.

 

Queen mourning

 

When the nation saw her, during the pandemic, sitting alone in a pew, dressed in black, bereft of her consort, we were witnessing all the greatness of her generation distilled in one figure. It was a grief too deep for tears. No one should have had to bear such grief alone. How dearly we loved her then, with a kind of helpless yearning to sit beside her. Instead, the dark, hard pews stretched empty on either side. There was something cruelly personal, but also essential, about her loneliness. Nobody is ever where anybody else is. At any one time, we occupy our space alone, until we surrender even that. There were so many instances of that loneliness during the lockdowns, when relatives could not be at the bedsides of the dying. Her tiny figure, isolated on that pew, was beyond the reach of the very comfort she had so often tried to give. It was out of reach in ways impossible to imagine. Light years away. Utterly alone. Private. Yet still, she managed to embody something beyond herself, the way only monarchs are equipped to do.

Apart from the repetitious dreams, my own experience of her was limited. When I was at Queens’ College, for example, there was a rumour she would show up, but it came to nothing. As I recall, her son Edward came instead, and I spotted him across the court in St Catherine’s. You could tell it was a royal, as he walked with his hands primly joined behind his back.

One of the porters at Queens’ was an ex-army man. This was often the case with the porters. He was noted for his patriotism and spent that whole day on the qui vive in case Her Majesty showed up. Out of sheer puerility, we crept up behind him near the main gate and shouted “The Queen!” Every time we did this, the patriotic porter stood to attention, saluting into the void beyond the gate.

 

Main gate at Queens’ College, Cambridge

 

Some years later, I did see the Queen at close quarters, from a few yards away, when I was a porter myself – well, ‘kitchen porter’ was my full job title – in York. She was walking across a lawn in radiant sunshine, greeting a long line of excited well-wishers, but my courage failed me and I drew back. Consequently, I never got to shake her hand.

Years later, I came even closer when I was heading towards Victoria Bus Station and came to a halt at a junction with Buckingham Palace Road. Again, it happened to be a sunny day, and I was singing Paul McCartney’s jolly little song about her, the one at the end of Abbey Road that goes:

Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say.

Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she changes from day to day.

I want to tell her that I love her a lot, but I gotta get a belly full of wine.

Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl,

Someday I’m gonna make her mine, oh yeah,

Someday I’m gonna make her mine’

 

Changes from day to day? Obviously, Sir Paul failed to get the memo from Larkin. Anyway, at that very moment, as I stood on the curb singing this ditty to myself, her car passed slowly across my line of vision. You could tell the car was hers from its shiny black carapace and the cheerful little flag fluttering on the bonnet, a miniature version of the royal standard: 

Royal Standard

 

I’m not sure how long I’ve ‘loved her a lot’ but been too afraid to tell her. I have no recollection of the day I first fell in love. And we’ve had our ups and downs over the years. I once attended a meeting of Republic in a Bloomsbury pub. As I recall, there were fewer than ten of us there. So, yes, I’ve been blowing hot and cold for a while now. It’s a very British thing.

As I write, the coverage of the mourning is total, round the clock and exhausting. I have shed many a tear, but the saturation point (and not just for my handkerchief) has long passed. A friend keeps sending droll text messages about “King Chuck” and his difficulty with pens, and this has helped take over from thoughts about Her Maj. Perhaps the actual funeral in a few days will move me in the way her death (and actually the last photographs) did.

Of course, unlike me, some people just never fancied her. I can sort of understand that, inasmuch as any idolater can. They were entirely immune to the charm of the ultimate posh totty. It reminds me of when they asked Tony Curtis what it had been like to kiss Marilyn Monroe. “Like kissing Hitler!” was his reply. And yet a million hairdressers across the world can’t all be wrong: Marilyn was reliably stunning, with or without a perm.

It was the same with the late Queen. On the level of simple devotion, I confess, part of me is the college porter, inhabiting the fantasy land described by Nesrine Malik:

‘The Queen became a refuge. A representation of a fictional time when things were simpler: when it was Shakespeare; Enid Blyton; the spirit of the blitz; standing alone against fascism; beneficent toffs; a cheeky working class; the welfare state; the swinging 60s; and friendly black and brown faces cleaning the floors and manning the wards. As long as the Queen existed, so did that country’ (The Guardian, 11 September 2022).

And so, in the spirit of those ‘cheeky’ working classes, I say ‘Gawd bless her!’

In my view, the poet laureate would have done better to stick with his first attempt, the one that ended up in his litter basket, or so I suspect. This might have worked best in a down-to-earth Huddersfield accent and been more apropos:

Isn’t it terrible

That the Queen has died.

Some people were nice about it;

Others, snide.

 

_______

* It has to be said that in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900, Andrew Roberts claimed that Harvard (yes, Harvard again!) historian Caroline Elkins had committed ‘blood libels’ in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book Imperial Reckoning with regard to Kenya. Elkins was subsequently vindicated when files released by the National Archives showed that abuses were described as “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia” by the Solicitor General of the time. The Foreign Secretary William Hague subsequently announced compensation for the first round of victims with statements that the British government “recognises that Kenyans were subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment” and “sincerely regrets that these abuses took place” during the Kenya Emergency.

 


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