God Bless the Queer Old Dean!

1977 and all that

We saw a face, but it wasn't thing King's
He's much too busy, a-signing things
Said Alice
                A.A Milne

I would sooner die than attend a street party.

Street Parties mythological events, said to occur at times of national celebration, such as after that jolly jape with the Atom Bomb in 1945. The Common People supposedly hang red, white and blue streamers from their windows, put trestle tables in the middle of the street, and feed cakes and jelly to the local urchins. Rousing choruses of "Boiled beef and carrots!" are thought to feature in the tradition as well. I have personally never witnessed such an event; nor am I absolutely sure what a "trestle" is.

This is not because I have not lived through any times of national celebration. I have lived through a number, e.g.

1973    Princess Anne married the army bloke. I got a mug. I had a day off school. I saw no trestle tables. Valerie Simpleton explained a recipe for pizza on a scone base that could be made easily and eaten cold while watching the ceremony on TV. They got divorced.

1977    Queen's Silver Jubilee. Occurred in half-term, so I wasn't at school anyway. No trestle tables. I got a mug. I bought the newspapers and put them in a plastic bag, which may still exist.

1983    Charles Married Di. I got a day off school and a mug. I went to Hyde Park to watch the Royal Fireworks, and got trapped in London until very late. There were no trestle tables. They got divorced.

1986 and 1999 Edward married Andrew and Fergie married Sophie. Or possibly vice versa. There were no trestle tables or mugs. Several of them got divorced.

The Great British Street Party is a myth. Never happened. Children, Playstations or no Playstations, never did think that jelly in suburban back streets was all that much fun.

But  I swear that if I hear one more person say that the reason that there are not going to be any street parties for the Queen's Golden Jubilee is because--unlike in the traditional and deferential nineteen-seventies--no one cares about the Royal Family, national holidays, or their local neighbourhood then I shall personally hire some jelly and organise one.

Thoughts During a Time of National Mourning

Queen Mother:     And where will you be performing next?
John Lennon:       Slough
Queen Mother:     Oh. That's near us.
           NOTE: This story is also attributed to Princess Margaret.

1: Is it my imagination, but were all the soldiers, sailors and airmen who did the marching up and down around the Queen Mother's coffin white people? Do the British armed forces not recruit black people (many of whom are poor, and thus, traditionally regarded as prime candidates for being shot at in some corner of a foreign field)? Or does the "no specs, spots or wogs" rule on public occasions still apply?

2: Who decided that soldiers on state occasions should dress up like something out of Pippin Fort, whereas Sailors dress uniform should only be a marginally ponced-up version of what they actually wear on duty?

3: What is the big deal with Napoleonics? I take it that bayonets and rifles, certainly buzby hats and horses, will not play a major role in the forthcoming middle-east war. But if the costumes are going to be archaic, why red blazers rather than, say, suits of armour out of the Wars of the Roses? Still, all the archaisms are preferable to the tanks and khaki that the French wheel out on Bastille Day.

4: I read that there was a gap of 17 years between the state funeral of George VI and his final interment. Well, there's a thing.

The Serious Bit

What infinite heart's ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And what have kings that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffrest more
Of mortal grief than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? What are thy comings-in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What  is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy, being feared,
Than they in fearing…

Henry V

It would be perfectly feasible to make little boys dress smartly simply by imposing a dress code on them: but the British Public Schools like to dress them in Victorian or in some cases Medieval uniforms: high collars and top hats or funny robes. It is said to create a sense of mystique and status.

The Grammar Schools, which would like very much to be Public Schools, and the Comprehensive Schools, which would like very much to be Grammar Schools (and soon will be, if Mr Blunket gets his way) all follow the trend and dress their kids in uniforms such as no human being ever wore in real life.

We end up with a charming situation where Inner Wibblington Secondary Modern dresses the kids in emerald green jackets with a strange heraldic device on the breast pocket; purple ties and, until recently, peaked caps, in the belief that this will instil a sense of pride in their traditions of their fine institution (founded, 1983.). And, rather surprisingly, it generally works: the very same lads who get lines on Monday for not wearing their uniform, and detention on Tuesday for bunking off school because they hate it so much spend Wednesday afternoon beating up the lads from the school down the road because, dammit, they are proud of their school and their uniform.

One could also ask why the process of getting a 2:1 in English and American Studies from the University of Sussex (founded, 1968) should have involved me in dressing up in a robe and mortar board, evolved, by a process of Chinese whispers, from the normal clothes worn by a clerk at the time of Chaucer. Or why judges where wigs, or why there is an evolutionary similarity between the uniform of a Nurse, a Nun and the Wife of Bath.

Traditions -- uniforms, flags, passing-in and passing-out ceremonies -- are not rationally defensible. There is no actual reason for them. But that doesn't necessarily make them meaningless and irrelevant. They form part of the matrix of symbols through which we interpret the world.

We could, of course, abolish Degree Days and Academic Gowns and just forward people's qualifications to them through the post. But if we did that, then the meaning of "degrees" and "academics"--and perhaps, in the long term, of "knowledge" and "learning"--would become subtly different.

If you were to abolish the state opening of parliament, take the wigs off the judges and move the MPs out of the palace of Westminster you would not have "exactly the same system of government, but with none of the silly and gratuitous trappings of constitutional monarchy ". Abolish the symbolism of "monarchy" and you would not have "just neutral" government: you would have to replace it with some different kind of symbolism. Better or worse, depending on your taste

Blair would doubtless create a Blairite republic to go with his Blairite House of Lords, as surely as Mrs Thatcher would have created a Thatcherite one. But one way or another, the meaning of "government" and "nationhood" would have subtly changed.

You might as well say that you can change the words, but leave the meanings of the words unchanged; or just dispense with the words altogether and have naked meaning. You can't think or communicate without symbols: they are what "communication" and "thinking" means. Poetry, as the fellow said, is that which gets lost in translation.

Does this mean that I necessarily think that the constitutional monarchy is a good idea? Not necessarily. Some days, I am a Republican, and think that it is shocking that our national rituals enshrine the idea of hereditary privilege. Some days I am a monarchist and think that it is a jolly good thing that our national rituals enshrine the fact that Law comes ultimately from God, not from the fickle will of the common man.. Faced with a choice between a head of state who is

A: A hereditary royal

B: A politician and

C: A monkey

I would, like all right thinking people, vote for the monkey. But if I had to choose between Prince Charles and a politician, then I think I might still go for the hippy. The less status we give to politicians, the better I like it.

Prime Ministers should be, at worst, like chairmen of borough councils: people who tediously attend committee meetings and fill out forms and sort out dull infrastructure issues like sewers and policemen, so the rest of us don't have to worry about them. They should get paid very generous salaries for this responsible, dull, and very important job. At best, they would be wise and venerable patricians, worthy of reverence because of their learning and character regardless of any office that they happen to hold; giving of their time to make hard decisions for the benefit of the Commonwealth.

But a politician should never be given status and respect by virtue of the fact that they hold elected office. Let a politician run away with the idea that there is any importance behind the role of Prime Minister and within five minutes they'll be standing on the steps of Downing Street shouting "Rejoice! Rejoice! We are a Grandmother!" or making speeches about how they, personally are going to re-order the world and establish world peace. You would have thought a century which had experienced Hitlers and embalmed Lenins, would see the danger of political hubris.

We already have a political class who can be bribed into voting against their conscience with the promise of getting to dress up as Lords when they retire. Do we really want ex-PMs campaigning against each other for the right to live in a palace and be called El Presidente? Or, worse, for the Palace, the Crown and the State Coach to attach itself to the office of Prime Minister?

I am assuming that a British Republic would transfer the rituals of Monarchy onto any President; or, at least, invent some new (and aesthetically inferior) rituals for the President to participate in. It's the rituals -- the fact that Parliament gets opened by a Lady with a Crown and a Golden Coach -- which lend a certain status and gravitas to the State; just as Graduation Day encourages us to think that learning is quite important. It's the ceremony I'd quite like to hang on to: the personality of the person who happens to be wearing the hat doesn't matter one way or the other.

Come to think of it, a well-trained monkey could do the job of Constitutional Monarch perfectly well. I imagine Prince Charles will make an excellent King.

Why I am no longer a Guardian-reader

Above all she understood the British character and her heart belonged to this ancient old land and its equally indomitable and humorous inhabitants who she served with panache, style and unswerving dignity for very nearly 50 years.
                Our Beloved Prince of Wales, May God Bless Him.

However you look at it, the symbolism that was worked up at the Queen Mother's funeral was pretty awesome. Just considered as a story, or a piece of theatre, I mean: from the lowering of her personal standard (which will Never Be Flown Again) to the Dead March, to the Princes walking behind the coffin, and, more affectingly, the servants walking behind them, and the 20 minute vigil at the four corners of the coffin, and the tiny little breaks with tradition, like Anne having to ask the Queen's permission to join the cortege.

The Yanks can't touch us for this stuff, even if they have got a better national anthem.

I was particularly impressed by the way in which the four or five cars that set out from Buckingham Palace appeared to, er, steer in step. Even the royal chauffeurs do it with a since of decorum.

So, given that there was this great national dance; this enormous model of the Official View of how we see the Nation; this secular shiva ; and given that the Queen Mother was unquestionably a popular public figure and, by all accounts, a Nice Old Lady -- (although not, as one is obliged to say, as nice as my own granny who worked harder and for less money )-- of course people want to plug themselves into the Ceremony.

When the Diana Madness was on, the Common People invented there own bit of ceremony, there own contribution to national ritual, the mass laying of flowers. This time around, they invented a ritual of Standing in Queue to Pay Their Last Respects to the Body. A national day of queuing is, when you think about it, deeply,deeply English. I venture to say that many of the people in the queue also talked about the weather. (It was warm for the time of year.) Paradoxically, if it had been easy to get into the lying in state, it wouldn't have assumed such importance; because it was relatively hard, it became relatively significant, and lots of people wanted to do it. Straightforward, sincere, spontaneous; a nice little populist spin on a big national rite.

And the left wing press -- the liberal press, my press  -- can think of nothing better to do but sneer from the sidelines. If the plebs are enthusiastic about something, we have to slag it off; it's our duty. If they don't want the egalitarian republic that we were going to gift them, then we'll damn well print editorials about them, see if we don't. "Wouldn't it have been better if all this TV time had been spent explaining the origins of the Middle East crisis to poor people?" "Would it have been better if all that time spent queuing had been spent in doing good public works?" "Of course they aren't going to the Lying in State out of any affection for the Queen Mother. They are going because it is a nice day our, because they like queuing and because journalists told them to."

Journalists told them to? Really. And what do you do for a living, madam? Journalism. Well. Just fancy that.

Tell me when else you could get 100,000 English people to do anything. Go to church. Go to a football match. Attend a political meeting. Read the papers.

Of course, while the Guardian and the Independent were sneering, the right-wing papers were just going completely barmy; the Daily Mail calling for the closing down of the BBC because they had only put on five hours of tribute programmes and churning out Special Queue Souvenir Supplements called "Ten Days That Changed Britain".  But I find slightly hysterical royalism less offensive than sneering republicanism.

The only reliable history of England ever written explains the English Civil War in the following terms.

"The Parliamentarians -- Repulsive, but right.
The Royalists -- Romantic, but wrong."

Guess I'm stuck with being a romantic, then.

 

 

 

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