Thursday, September 15, 2022

I Know I Said I Wasn't Going To Do This...

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
W.H Auden

One person on my street has hung, weirdly, a black union jack outside their house. Maybe they are royalists. Maybe they are far-right nutters. Maybe they were quite fond of the Queen personally. Maybe they just really like flags. (They may have been the same people who hung a Ukrainian flag outside their house.) No-one else has put out any symbols. The pubs are full of people drinking and making a noise. Talk of a national mood is premature. 

I don't have any problem with people feeling sad when a famous person who they like died. I am sure I would be sad if Bob Dylan died. Tom Baker, who I actually met once, is fortunately immortal, so the question doesn't arise.

When an artist dies, you are sad about the loss of their art. I have been sad recently when some of the big folkies have passed away. I had seen Swarbs and Norma Watterson and Roy Bailley perform live, and even spoken to them, if only to say "Thank you for a great set" and "Would you mind signing that", so I suppose I can take it ever so slightly personally. The Tolkien society used to lay a wreath on The Professor's grave, read out a passage from one of his books, and sing the Namarie (the elvish song of farewell.)  A little affected, of course, but a way of honouring a great man's work. Some people got a bit emotional, but some people in the Tolkien society got a bit emotional about everything.

Someone said that being a fan means "not only being into something, but being into being into it." Similarly, being sentimental means being sad about something and also being sad about being sad about it. Being sentimental can be unhealthy. Quite large numbers of people become sentimental when they read in the newspapers about some child on a life support machine who has no chance of ever coming round. This leads some of them to make physical threats against doctors or to demand that a clinically dead person is dragged half way round the world at great expense to be treated by some medical quack. But there is nothing terribly wrong with us all roaring out another chorus of Rolling Home (FREE TOAST!) at Roy's memorial concert. 

Tomorrow Belongs To Me and Edelweiss are both equally sentimental songs.

Some years ago, a lot of people converged on the Vatican to touch or see the body of a former Pope whose body was being re-interred prior to Beatification. Some of us Prods thought that was a bit odd. Some of the nicer Papists explained that it wasn't really that much different from wanting to go and lay flowers on a beloved relative's grave. But for some Catholics, at least, a Saint's remains have magical properties: touching a finger bone or a lock of hair has, for them, some spiritual or supernatural effect. Some Protestants think this is altogether a bit too much like idol worship. (Protestants are very clear that just because something is the body of Christ it by no means follows that it is actually the body of Christ.)

But doesn't everyone believe in Holy Relics? I wrote about my pilgrimage to Liverpool to see reconstructions of places very much like the ones where John Lennon might have lived and performed.  People will queue up to see the actual toy bear that the actual Christopher Robin actually played with in the 1920s, currently on display in the New York library. When the Victoria and Albert museum included an identical, and much better preserved, Steiff bear from the exact same period, hardly anyone even noticed it. Phillip K Dick ponders the fact that even if you had a matter replication device which could produce a replica of the pen which signed the Declaration of Independence, accurate to sub-atomic detail, it still wouldn't be the pen which signed the Declaration of Independence.

It isn't Winnie the Pooh we are thinking of now, but a quite different bear. The connection between Paddington and the Queen in the public mind had already gone further than one would wish: in some circles it has reached the point of confusion, if not identification.

I must admit that I never liked Paddington as much as Mary Plane and I never liked Mary Plane as much as Pooh. I even slightly resented Paddington because his TV show was kind of a replacement for my once-beloved no-longer-cherished Wombles.

It would be very sensible to say that The Queen was a Good Sport, and that it's not every dignified old lady who would have agreed to (and apparently enjoyed) doing a skit with a cartoon character on an important state occasion. I suppose the more important you are the more you can get away with that kind of thing: the venerable old Headmaster can get away with playing Widow Twanky much more than the shy student geography teacher.

But we've started playing a game in which we pretend that the Queen was really Friendly With Bears and really carried marmalade sandwiches in her handbag and Paddington really thanked her for her years of being Queen. And that actually fits the mood quite well. Elizabeth Windsor might very well have been a privileged toff; she may very well have been a "county" lady who would have been happy with her horses, dogs, and society balls. But The Queen was, for most of us, at most times, ontologically indistinguishable from a children's picture book character.

I think the closest analogy is with Stan Lee. Seriously. A very old man who nearly everyone had a great deal of affection for at a personal level. A corporate symbol who had been playing a role for very nearly seventy years, so no-one could say where the man finished and the character started. A symbol of personal nostalgia linking us back to the comics we first liked when we were kiddies. The thing which allowed us to believe that the Marvel Comics of 2020 had continuity with the Marvel comics of 1963 and even 1941. A blank symbol, whose actual input into the thing he symbolised was quite limited. A massively contested and compromised figure, who was implicated in the very many bad things Marvel Comics had done, and may have been personally responsible for some of them. You could't be a Marvel comics reader -- or even a comics reader -- and not feel that his passing was a significant moment of transition. And once it had sunk in, the discourse, oh, the discourse! If you condemned his legacy, then you had no business saying he was nice man. Since he was a nice man, you have no business condemning his legacy. The existence of Magic Grandpa spreads pixie dust over the whole enterprise. The fact that we loved the enterprise bestows an aura of sanctity on Magic Grandpa. 

The company which now owns Marvel Comics tried the same trick with their own avuncular founder, but it is much harder to argue plausibly that Walt Disney was ever a particularly nice man.

Granted, I would not have queued for thirty hours to file past Stan Lee's coffin. But very many people did queue up for a very long time to allow him to write his name on a piece of paper.

I suppose that very many of the people in the queue are in the queue because the Queen was a nice old lady to whom they feel genuine affection. 

I suppose that very many people in the queue are in the queue because monarchy personifies nationality and they do love their country with a love that asks no questions and a love that stands the test. I suppose that very many people in the queue are in the queue because the queen symbolises the age of empire when the black man did not have the whip hand white man, and because they believe that Brexit and the war against woke will return us to that glorious never-never-land when the sun never set etc etc etc. And I suppose that very, very many people in the queue are in the queue because lots of other people are in the queue, and it seems the Thing To Do. 

What there is not is a National Mood. It is a smallish step from saying that the whole country is heartbroken to saying that no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge; that those of us who are not heartbroken are not part of "the country". And a small jump from there to storming the capital because anyone who failed to vote for the god-king was not a real American.


Scurra said...

I liked Natalie Haynes' observation that, in this particular circumstance, Paddington was acting as the Queen's psychopomp.

Richard Worth said...

In Terry Pratchett's s stories, each kind of creature has their own Death: trees don't perceive anything shorter than a day, so the Death of Trees is a rather distant chopping sound. I wonder if the Death of Queens is a Corgi who wants to take her Mistress on one last, long walk?

Richard Worth said...

Rather more seriously, in the days when we had two radio programmes and one newspaper a day (two in London), it may have been easier to confine state mourning within the dignified boundaries of hushed churches and solemn parades through the capital, rather than trying to fill 24/7 with hagiography, small talk and snarky gossip. I also have some respect for families of those who died in wars of colonial independence, and may not look back on the reign of Her Late Majesty with unalloyed joy. However, what I have seen of protests seems a bit juvenile, all self-importance and no empathy and not mature enough to find their own off-switch.

Richard Worth said...

On reflection, we might put the argument around the other way. Sandman hashtag 'not my Lucifer' is shorthand for 'I don't like the theatrical casting of a favourite fictional character', but it may also mean 'Neil Gaiman has no rights over the characters created by ..err.. Neil Gaiman'. By the same token, 'not my King' may mean 'I have a right to voice opinions on what kind of head of state we should have', but also 'I have a right to disregard those parts of government and society that I don't agree with', which takes us to Sovereign Citizens and Freemen on the Land. 'not my Prime Minister' turns into constitutionally semi-literate arguments that Boris was not really the Prime Minister after his Cabinet turned on him. It is by this road that people decide that Joe Biden is hashtag Not My President and march on the Capitol. The problem may be not that everyone has to agree with what the majority want, but rather when everyone has a 'right' to opt out of what the majority want.

Mike Taylor said...

I felt rather affectionate towards the queen, and benevolently tolerant of the silliness that is the monarchy as an institution. But the continuing period of mandatory national hysteria is chipping away at that affection and tolerance, is feels likely to leave me a republican.

SK is sceptical about the notion of "enforced mourning". I think that Centerparcs residents would not agree with him. Nor would fans of all the football matches that have been performatively cancelled while other sporting events have continued -- especially those who had already paid for tickets and travel. I am not wholly convinced that this is What She Would Have Wanted.