Saturday, September 06, 1997

Oh What a Circus

Both nuns and mothers worship images
But those the candle lights are not as those
That animate a mother's reveries
But keep a marble or a bronze repose
And yet they too break hearts....

W.B Yeats


Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. This became redundant the moment Elton John got up to sing Goodbye to Norma Jean in Westminster Abbey. In the modern age, it seems that tragedy and farce have become the same thing.

That said, I admit to having had to clear my throat a couple of times during the service. But then I cry at the end of Watership Down, so what do I know? While the rest of Airstrip 1 struggles to come to its collective senses, there are a couple of things which I feel need to be said. Anyone passing this page hoping to hear something funny should come back next week.

1: The Royal Family are, like it or not, powerful symbols.

Symbols are not irrelevant or meaningless, however much we might wish they were. We may disapprove of it; we may deplore it as a focus for neo-Fascism or heritage-nostalgia; we may even want to burn it or stick safety pins through it; but the Union Jack is not simply one more geometrical design. When I look at it, I feel something. When I look at the Stars and Stripes, I feel something different, and less vivid. These feelings have very little to do with my opinions about the Act of Settlement, Scottish devolution, the Fifth Amendment or the electric chair. They have more to do with carrier bags, beefeaters, tourists and ladies knickers -- or, in the case of Old Glory, with Superman, themed pancake restaurants and sit-coms set in high schools. But the fact that some coloured stripes can call up such strong and definite mental pictures proves that they have significance.

The Royal Family are symbolic in very much the same way. Killing one of them therefore has a very powerful emotional and psychological effect on me: just as burning the Union Jack, inverting the Crucifix or tearing down Nelson's Column would do. I can be as liberal and republican and anarchist as I want, but the death of Diana Spencer means something.

One occasionally meets professing atheists--usually, of the communist, rather than the scientific, persuasion--who affect not to understand why the art gallery was so full of images of the Roman death penalty. No-one is very convinced.

2: Constitutional monarchy is quite a good idea.

A presidency (unless it is created in the throes of a blood-soaked revolution) feels bureaucratic, empty, artificial. It has no symbolic, emotional, or psychological resonances: one feels nothing when one looks at it. No one could ever feel any affection towards The European Union (though they may think it is a very good idea) because it would be a nation built on filing cabinets, press releases, and directives on headed note paper. Having a Queen with a real honest-to-goodness palace, golden coach, crown, scepter and ceremonial guards reminds you that your country is a Very Important Thing. It enables you to feel good about it--and indirectly, to feel good about yourself.

The High Church with their incense, silk cassocks, golden chalices, massive cathedrals and awe-inspiring music, have attached a something to their religion which we non-conformists ("turn to page B5 of the yellow service book") have totally chucked out. A good ceremony hits the congregation in the face with the fact that they are in the presence of something unbelievably important. A good state opening of parliament has much the same effect in a secular sphere. 'Look!' it says 'You belong to something very old, and very spectacular, and very special, and very magnificent--and that makes you a very special person, too!' It really is pretty off the point to complain that the Queen is very rich and very expensive. That is the point of her.

I also must admit that I have a grudging affection for all the silly and vulgar traditions which have grown up around the British Royal Family in particular. This has nothing at all to do with the history of the kings of Britain, much less with the Privet Council or the Royal Pejorative. It has more to do with crepe paper and fruit cake on trestle tables; with village fetes; with good natured crowds squeezing into Hyde Park to look at the Royal Wedding fireworks, with slightly tacky souvenirs.

I asked a friend of mine what he remembered of the Silver Jubilee. 'A lot of mugs', he replied.

We have in England an odd, matey affection for our Royals. We call them 'Charles and Di', 'Andy and Fergie', 'The Queen Mum'. If we actually meet them, we call them 'Ma'am' -- what a parlour maid called her employer, or a schoolboy called the headmistress. We knit little booties for their babies, get personal letters on our Golden Wedding Anniversary, and get invited (with thousands of others) to tea and sandwiches in their back garden.

When I look at the Queen's official residence, I think of the Family waving from the balcony on Jubilee day in 1977. I think of a tear-stained Mrs Thatcher being driven through the gates in her limo, to hand in her official resignation. I think of that footage of the Beatles fans climbing over the fence while their idols were getting their MBEs. But mostly, I think that it was the place down to which Cer-ristopher Robin went with Alice. I can't imagine that the White House or the Supreme Court is mixed up with nursery rhymes in the minds of most Americans. Do you think the Queen knows all about me?

3: The Royal Family on the whole perform this ceremonial function very well, but this does not mean that they are remarkable people.

The Divine Right of Kings is a late heresy. When one of our kings started to believe in it, we very properly chopped his head off. I think the King is but a man and what have kings that paupers have not got save ceremony; once more unto the breach et-cetera, et-cetera, et-cetera.

Being Queen of England is significant in precisely the same way that being Queen of the May is significant. You take someone ordinary. You put them in a pretty dress and pour flowers over them. You dance around them, and you sing silly songs. You pretend that the ceremony is just as it's always been, even though it was only invented in your granny's time. It makes you feel good about yourself, your family, and your village, because it symbolizes the continuity of English tradition, or the cuteness and innocence of childhood, or the permanence and rebirth of nature, or some other lie. You hope that the little girl chosen will be well-behaved and not spoil the occasion, but her Queen-of-the-Mayness is not dependent on whether she pinched her baby brother's last jelly baby on Friday night.

I believe Diana Spencer to have been a good person. I had a letter from a reader of my webpage condemning Tony Blair for making such a fuss about someone who was nothing but a 'bed-hopping party girl.' I want to encourage people to condemn Tony Blair as often as possible, but I don't want to associate myself with this sort of speaking ill of the dead. Diana Spencer put in more hours work for charity and more visiting of the sick than her job description required her to. She paid more attention to people--held their hands, smiled at them, remembered their names--than the other stuffy Royals. But this is a sort of goodness which is possessed by tens of thousands of nurses, nuns, vicars, salvation army volunteers, doctors, school teachers, social workers and even the odd human being. It is not grounds for canonization. In normal life, it would not be grounds for an O.B.E.

4: Idolatry is a bad thing

There is no real harm in putting up a statue of Jesus outside your church. There is no harm in getting the best artist in the village to carve it out of the finest materials. There is no harm in using it as a focus for religious devotion: the mental pictures of God which most of us pray to are theologically pretty stupid. (I admit to occasionally falling back on a rotund sepia monarch which lodged itself in my brain in nursery school: fat, jovial, like the man in the moon, and I think--it is hard to bring the image into focus--with an Elizabethan ruff. When I try to do better, I end up worshipping Robert Powell.) And there is probably very little harm in the more naive church goers starting to think that Jesus really does live in the churchyard (just between the porch and Gladys Winterbotham's grave). Maybe it's stupid of them to walk to church every evening to pray to the statue; but if they are really praying, who is going to stop them?

The trouble starts when you start to attribute divine powers to the statue itself. The trouble starts when you think of it, not as an image which helps you point your mind at God, but as a magic statue. Before very long, people think that touching it, or leaving flowers for it makes sure that God will bless you or heal you or make you win the lottery. People queue for hours and hours to touch it. They scream and cry for just one glance. Or else they chip fragments and splinters from it, and put them in magic amulets, and sell them at huge prices and believe that as long as they are wearing them they can eat economy burgers without catching CJD. People who profess atheism--people who have never even heard of Jesus (Sunday school stopped years ago; the teachers are too busy polishing the statue) start doing scientific studies into whether the amulet can heal the sick.

When that happens you can be absolutely sure that the puritans will be arriving on the next train. They will tell you that the statue--not God--is now your object of devotion. They will march into the churchyard and smash it down and use the fragments to pave the road. They will go into the church, and smash up all the other paintings and statues you happen to have there, and then burn the vicar's holiday snaps for good measure. And they will leave you with a reformed, republican, Protestant religion: one free from idol worship, but with no beautiful statues, no focus for the holy--and one where the naive, pious villagers find it very hard to say their prayers, because all their symbols have been taken from them.

5: Our adulation of Diana Spencer has become idolatrous.

For a week, we have been told that Diana Spencer was Special and Unique, not because of her ceremonial and symbolic role, but because she was such a special, unique, saintly person. ('Born a lady, became a princess, died a saint.' If Diana was a saint, what are people going to say about Mother Theresa?) So we have heard about her wonderful charity work, incredible kindness to the poor and disadvantaged, and how she did amazing things like cuddle her children and send them off to expensive boarding schools like everybody else. (Ten years ago, the same papers were praising her for hitting her children, but we'll let that pass.)

The reasoning seems to be that since millions and millions of people treat her as if she was special, she must actually have been very special. Her lack of stuffiness is the best candidate for Specialness which we have been able to find. I call this superstition. When little children believe (as quoted on Tuesday's Channel 4 news) that 'She was special because she cared about sick children' then I'm afraid that I turn puritan.

We must smash these icons; purify the alters; and prohibit people from praying to plaster saints. If you aren't old enough to treat monarchy sensibly, then you shouldn't be allowed to have one. Our lives will be poorer without these grand ceremonies and daft traditions, but the superstitious worship of a perfectly ordinary human being is a much greater evil. The 'fitting tribute' to Diana Spencer that the press are so worried about should be the dissolution of her cult.

William can be president for life, if he wants to be; but please let's not cut the throat of any more may-queens.

No comments: