Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Said Alice (1)

There are six protestors standing in the rain outside Bristol Cathedral. They are at a respectful distance; I think it is possible that one of the copious clergy has taken pity and brought them cups of tea. No-one seems particularly interested in arresting them. Perhaps they have made a conscious decision to have their demo after the ceremony is over; so they can't be accused of intimidation; or because they want to make their point without spoiling anyone's day. Or maybe anarchists just don't get up early in the morning. I take one of their "not my king" leaflets and said "jolly good arguments on both sides." 

You won't have read about this in the paper. Polite, good natured protests don't count as news. If one of them had got inside the cathedral and thrown an egg at the giant TV screen... we would probably have said "Where on earth did you get that egg from? Don't waste it. Lidl have completely sold out and I wanted to make a Coronation Quiche." 

They are singing to the tune of Coming Round The Mountain": You can stick your coronation up your arse; you can stick your coronation up your arse; you can stick your coronation, stick your coronation, stick your coronation up your arse. 

It is not the best constitutional argument I will hear over the weekend. But neither is it the worst. 

I know thee not old man; fall to thy prayers. 
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man
....but being awaked, I do despise my dream.

If Diana had survived the car crash, she would currently occupy a similar status to the Duchess of Windsor (nee Mrs Simpson); a posh old lady living in more or less contented exile in France or Florida, occasionally giving interviews; sometimes photographed from a distance like Marlene Dietrich.

If Diana had not separated from Prince Charles, she would be the very elderly king's very elderly wife; looking rather ridiculous in coronet and ermine. The Daily Mail would be writing nasty articles about how she had Let Herself Go. Beautiful women often age less gracefully than good-looking men. I am always slightly surprised to see photos of the young Princess Elizabeth and the young Prince Phillip and to be reminded how glamorous they once were. If she were still alive, a substantial number of people would be accusing Queen Diana of Treason because of long-standing rumours about the colour of Prince Harry's hair. Camilla would be a long forgotten scandal. Or just possibly, she would be sitting in the background, with some polite title like the King's Sister. 

If Diana had never married Prince Charles then no-one would have heard of her. 

On no possible time line could the beautiful shy young icon in those postage stamp photos have been crowned Queen yesterday, and it is slightly unhinged to suggest that she could have been.

But while the King was looking down, t
the Jester stole his thorny crown...

Two people at the screening were literally wrapped in the Union Jack (wearing plastic flags as capes). Alarmingly there was an elderly man with a trumpet and a dog dressed as a Chelsea pensioner, but he didn't do anything weird; nothing weirder than bringing a dog and a trumpet to a church service, anyway. The man behind me kept pointedly saying Ay-Men in a way that no Anglican has ever said Ay-Men before. When the procession got under way and a band struck up God Save The King a lady at the front not only stood up but gestured that everybody else should stand up. It became apparent that someone was going to play God Save The King every hundred yards or so, but mercifully she didn't insist on any more patriotic gestures. The Dean got up in the pulpit and led a prayer of her own and said that everyone was invited to join in the televised service as much or as little as they wanted to. So people stood up and murmured with exactly the same level of enthusiasm you would get in any other Church of England service. She double-checked that there were no deaf people in the audience and then switched off the BSL interpreter; which was a relief. I've seen Children of a Lessor God and Four Weddings And a Funeral and totally grok that it's a proper language but it's very hard not to find some of the gestures unintentionally comical. 


Too late to be known as John the First, 
he's sure to be known as John the worst: 
a pox upon that phoney king of England.

I would have been very much more impressed with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Oxford if they had said that Monty Python's Life Of Brian was a very clever and funny film, but that nevertheless they felt that it was wrong to make fun of Jesus. I would have been very much more impressed if some of the Muslims had been prepared to say that the Satanic Verses was a very fine novel but they nevertheless believed it contained a grievous blasphemy against their Prophet. I wish more people were prepared to say (like the young actors who appeared in her movie) that JK Rowling is completely wrong about gender despite having written some wonderful books which have given joy to literally dozens of children. (As an admirer of Dave Sim, Richard Wagner and John Lennon I get quite a bit of practice at this kind of thing.) But the impulse to say that Life of Brian is tenth rate adolescent comedy, that the Satanic Verses is meaningless, illiterate, unreadable verbiage; and to refer to the Potter series only as Those Shitty Wizard Books is very strong. 

You might also think that Rushdie writes a load of rubbish but ought to be allowed to carry on writing a load of rubbish without being murdered. Even Dilbert was quite funny until it wasn't.

Tony Benn used to deprecate republicans who said nasty things about the Queen. (He always spoke in terms of letting her retire with a generous pension and possibly even remaining in Buck House until she passed away.) I wish that more Republicans were prepared to say that the Coronation was a magnificent and moving service, replete with meaning and significance, brilliantly enacted; a good example of one of the things which our country has always been terribly good at, but that they nevertheless thought that now would be a good time to move towards an elected head of state. Or no head of state at all. 

Perhaps some Monarchists could say that they approved of the hereditary principle and a head of state who was not a politician, but that nevertheless the Coronation was archaic, expensive and a bit silly. 

I have a kneejerk reaction against cynicism and flippancy. Smartarses on Twitter and in the Guardian saying "Charles who?" and "What's so interesting about an old man in a funny hat?" make me all the more likely to go and watch it. As a matter of fact, he is your king. The argument that he ought not to be is one I am eminently prepared to listen to. 

Is the argument a purely aesthetic one? Are we talking about a difference in taste between people who like big ceremonies and people who don't? Would an elaborate investiture ceremony for President Attenborough or President Farage be just as bad as the coronation? Would republicans be basically fine with the monarchy if William IV were sworn in at a quiet ceremony in the church hall of St John the Baptist's Windsor, with quiche and sandwiches afterwards at the Horse and Groom? 

It's a bit like quitting the EU. You can whip up support for a single negative proposition, but unless you have some idea about what happens next a lot of us will stick with the status quo. I don't want to have an in/out abolish/retain referendum and then spend a decade arguing about whether what the people voted for was a Soft Republic or a Hard Republic or possibly the Australian model; and decades after that of both sides saying that this isn't the republic I voted for. 

We could have an elected president who rides around in a golden coach and is given magic gloves by Lord Singh. We could even have an elected King if that was what we really wanted: wasn't there a scheme at one point for George Washington to be called King of America? We could decide we didn't need a head of state at all: Kier Starmer could perfectly well become Prime Minister without kissing anyone's hands and we could take it for granted that Parliament was open when the new term starts. There's no particular reason why Charles and William and George couldn't carry on calling themselves Kings if some people wanted them to. Unless and until Kier Starmer abolishes inherited wealth, they would still be immensely rich. "Kings of England" could be allowed to exist, but with no more legal or constitutional standing than than the Pearly King Of Lambeth. I am not quite sure who owns the Crown Jewels, and I expect the Guardian would want them smashed up and used to make amends for the slave trade, but there is no particular reason that they couldn't be taken out of the museum and lent to the former royal family on solemn occasions. Is there a proposition on the table or are we still at the "republicanism Means Republicanism stage?"

You can say the same thing about Scottish Independence. 

When Helen Mirren appeared insufficiently sad about Diana it looked as if public opinion might finally turn against the monarchy. Fortunately Michael Sheen phoned her up in the kitchen and it all blew over. The day after tomorrow some dreadful scandal might erupt -- say if it turned out that the Royal family were more deeply implicated in the Duke of York's little peccadillos than they have been admitting -- and the country could turn republican over night. It is widely thought that Mr Rupert Murdoch dislikes the monarchy but feels it sells newspapers: that could change. But in any referendum, all the monarchists would go out and vote; and the six or seven republicans would go out and vote; and the apathetic majority would apathetically stay at home. No party is ever going to put abolition or reform in its manifesto, because if they did they would be crucified by the right wing press. And anyone within shouting distance of Ten Downing Street loves the reflected glory of a real live king. We briefly had a chance of a reforming Prime Minister but, we blew that because of beards and jumpers and murals, and, admittedly, because of the national anthem. It's like PR in the UK and gun control in the United States. A nice idea but it's just not going to happen.  

Louis was the king of France before the revolution
But then he got his head cut off which spoiled his constitution

On May 1st, a group of Morris Dancers (no, really) gathered in a green hill near Park Street in Bristol to watch the the sun come up and celebrate the fact that summer was a coming in and winter had gone away, oh. Mr Rumberlow got very jolly about it. I plan to go every year, but when it comes to the crunch, 4AM is a bit on the early side. It's an ancient tradition that goes right back to the 1960s; Morris Dancing is a pagan fertility rite that was dreamed up in Shakespeare's time and reinvented by some eccentric Victorian scholars. (Probably.) Everyone joining in the ceremony knows this perfectly well. Doing country dances on the first day of spring feels appropriate: and it says something about what you think about England and nature and music and sticks and handkerchiefs and bells. There's not that much difference between doing the kind of thing you think an ancient tradition ought to look like and keeping up a genuinely ancient tradition. And genuinely ancient traditions also evolve and mutate. Do the ceremonies still performed by American and Canadian First People's have historical continuity with their pre-colonial forebears, or are they partly revivals and reenactments? Highland games and the Gaelic languages are mainly inventions by the nationalist groups, but that doesn't mean they aren't important, and indeed, fun. 

The traditions associated with the coronation of a new King aren't nearly as old as most people think. Nothing is. But some of them are clearly pretty old: William the Conquerer is definitely depicted with an orb and sceptre in the Bayeux Tapestry. I don't imagine they played Zadok the Priest at Solomon's coronation in 1000 BCE, but anointing was definitely a thing they did to kings in the Very Olden Days. (Wasn't Zadok the villain in a dreadful Sean Connery sci-fi movie?) There will always be people who insist that these are exactly the same cakes that Alfred the Great burned, and will fight anyone who denies it. And there will always be people who think that if you can show that any part of the tradition is a later invention, the whole affair is debunked. But most of us can see that that there is a ludic element to religion and monarchy and folk music and don't have a problem with it. Evangelical Christians like to pretend that they are doing baptisms in exactly the same way that the primitive church did baptisms in the catacombs before being thrown to the lions, with very much the same guitars and very much the same overhead projectors. They also know in their hearts of hearts that that's nonsense: but it doesn't make the service less holy for them. Quite a lot of Jews admit that the Exodus, as an historical event, probably didn't happen, but they still do Passover. (David Baddiel is very good on this.) 

I do not, in fact, find it funny that an MP holding a ceremonial position had to perform a ceremonial duty involving a ceremonial object during what was undeniably a ceremony. I don't think that the fact that Monty Python made a joke about ceremonial swords in a comedy film about a legendary king makes it absurd that we use ceremonial swords in ceremonies involving real ones. (That was another good  argument against Life of Brian: if you ridicule religion or kingship in a big film, then ignorant people will come to find religion and kingship intrinsically ridiculous. That was also a good argument in favour of it.) And I certainly don't think "It's not really a feudal sword: it was made for Charles II in the seventeenth century" is a particularly devastating argument. A ceremonial item made in 1678 is still quite old. Older than the Conservative Party and Morris Dancing and America. Doing the same thing we did when the Queen was crowned, long before most of you were even born, still counts as tradition. 



I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Gavin Burrows said...

“maybe anarchists just don't get up early in the morning.”

The day I made all that effort to be up before 10, and already forgotten.

Brief summary of argument: Our enlightened rulers are always telling us that we all have to get poorer, that many of us have to go hungry, that some of us have to die of poverty, because “we can’t afford” anything else. So when they suddenly find a wodge of cash behind the sofa to lavish on a right royal piss-up, it seems a bit of a give-away, and worth pointing out.
But of course they weren’t cutting our pay so they could splash the cash on the Coronation. They wanted less for us so there could be more for them. The Coronation is an indication of that, but not the cause. Which means opposing it is not exactly a priority. Ultimately, it’s a distraction and should be treated as such. While it’s clearly dodgy (however unsurprising) that entirely peaceful Republican protestors should get banged up, there was never the slightest chance of me joining them.

“And genuinely ancient traditions also evolve and mutate.”

I’ve always said that what makes the folk tradition what it is isn’t that it’s been passed down the ages to us unchanged, but that it has constantly changed and keeps on changing. People don’t get this out of a combination of alienation and projection, where they want to believe the real time was some other time, which now we can only access by evoking. They’re prelapsarians.

Richard Worth said...

As a life-long monarchist, I fully accept that if I was a Venetian I would serve willingly under the Doge and Council of Ten, and as a Roman in Rome's quarrel I would spare not land nor gold etc. However, I have a funny feeling that like hiding the Philosopher's Stone in the Mirror of Erised, no-one in the UK actually wants a Republic. They may want an egalitarian Socialist Republic, or a Scottish Republic, or a low-tax, free enterprise Libertarian Republic, or specifically, a Republic where people like them get a better chance in life. This may not be a bad thing in itself. However, if you offered most people a country with Rishi Sunak as President, or indeed David Attenborough as President and Sunak as Prince Minister, they would fail to see the benefits.

Stephen Watson said...

(Wasn't Zadok the villain in a dreadful Sean Connery sci-fi movie?)

It was actually Zardoz because (spoiler alert!) it was an alias taken from the cover of a copy of the wiZARD of OZ.

Andrew Rilstone said...

But it would still have been cool if when Penny Mordaunt appeared, everyone had chanted "The Penis Is Evil! The Gun is Good!"