Thursday, May 11, 2023

Said Alice (2)

So, yes, I went to the Cathedral to watch Charles ascending the throne on a big screen. 

It seemed the thing to do.

Grown-ups have talked about the Coronation all my life. There is a soap opera and a kind of chicken named after it. It is connected in my head with the Millennium and the Blue Peter time capsule. A thing I knew when I was little would happen when I was old. I could have watched it on my I-Pad, but I would have been tempted to make a cup of tea or check Twitter. I would have liked to go to the Abbey, but like Meghan and President Biden, I somehow got left off the guest list. I wanted to have a specific memory of the Coronation as a thing I did; not a thing I half watched on TV. I suppose I will be around for William's but definitely not for George's.  

And so the burning question is: did I or did I not pledge my true allegiance to his majesty and to his heirs and successors according to law?

Church services often involve public responses. May the Force be with you, and also with you. Do you renounce Francis Ford Coppola and all his works? The congregation even have to say "I do" during a Christening ceremony, even if they don't particularly know the Mum and Dad whose baby is being dipped in the font. There may even be a "Will you help and support the happy couple?" in the marriage service. 

A lot of people pretended to be very shocked that the coronation service was going to involve a public declaration of loyalty to the new King, and then a lot of other people pretended to be even more shocked that the first lot were shocked. One side were Orwellian and the other side were Traitors. 

What had actually happened was that Charles thought it would be a wheeze if the traditional Homage of the Peers (where members of the House of Lords say that the new incumbent is quite definitely king) could be replaced by a Homage of the People in which ordinary folk get to say so as well. In a last minute Anglican compromise, the good Archbishop decided to invite everyone to swear allegiance, instead of actually calling on them to do so. They were also allowed to say God Save King Charles if they didn't have the full script in front of them. I don't know why the BBC couldn't have scrolled it across the screen with a little bouncy ball. 

Yes, of course, I mumbled along with the rest of the congregation, as I would have done at any other service. 

Shall I tell you a secret? I have seen avowed atheists mouthing "I believe in God the Father Almighty" when they've found themselves attending church for some social reason. I don't actually see much wrong with that. Paris is worth a Mass. 

When the King of England started pushing Yankees around
We taught him a lesson down in Boston town
A very brave negro, Crispus Attucks was the man
The first to fall when the fighting began

I found it all rather beautiful and moving and impressive. 

I am sorry, but I did. 

I was particularly impressed, for some reason, by the choir singing "Vivat Regina Camilla!" Last year I was particularly struck by the simplicity of the Palace's announcement: "the Queen died peacefully at Balmoral" and without a pause "The King will remain here until tomorrow." Not even "the new King" or "King Charles": just "the King". 

Camilla looked utterly terrified throughout; Charles maintained the correct sense of dignity and bemusement and managed to refrain from swearing at his fountain pen. The reason he read the vows off the cards is that they are the part of the service with constitutional force and he has to get them exactly right. I enjoyed the Gospel Choir and the Greek Orthodox band and Sir Bryn doing his thing in Welsh. I nominate the curly haired lad with the freckles who enunciated just slightly too much as the Best Chorister, but the row of young chaps with big spectacles are very highly commended. Some of the barking mad pageantry is undoubtedly fascinating: I enjoyed Penny Mordaunt giving the sword to the king and the king giving it to the Archbishop and the King buying it back and returining it to Penny. 

It is strange to think that there is someone whose job it is to know all these stuff: the Royal College of Heralds, I suppose. I believe that part of the fun of being a Freemason is learning the ins and outs of a deliberately obscure rite. That's also part of the fun of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It is strange to think that there is still such a thing as the Royal College of Heralds. 

I don't think anyone could fail to be impressed by the theatre of the old man taking off his cloak and his tunic in order to be anointed (behind a screen). You can use words like "cos-play" or "dress-up" all you want: I like the theatricality and artifice. The actual King is dressing up as a King; the real King is role-playing being a King, with props and costumes which are the kinds of things we imagine a pretend-king ought to have. Orbs and coaches and robes and rings and gauntlets. If you don't go to church and aren't used to people wearing cassocks and robes and mitres and standing up and sitting down and kneeling I can see why it might all look a bit silly. If I were visiting, say, Oklahoma and had the opportunity to see, say, the investiture of a knew Shawnee leader I would most certainly go and I expect I would find it interesting and impressive. Finding it silly and quaint would be cultural appropriation, I shouldn't wonder.

Joseph got a royal pardon and a host of splendid things
A chariot of gold, a cloak, a medal and some signet rings.

C.S Lewis (we were bound to get to him eventually) thought that the Book of Common Prayer would, sooner or later, have to be revised: it was four hundred years old and words change their meaning. 

But he didn't think the church was ready for a new prayer book quite yet. He said that two things would indicate that the time was right. First, the Church of England would have to be going through a period of comparative theological unanimity; and secondly, there would have to be an obvious Anglican poet who was good at writing liturgy. You'd need to be at point when the Church was pretty clear what it wanted to say and had someone on hand who could pick the right words in which to say it. This seems admirable good sense. I think we can probably agree that neither condition was conspicuously met in either 1980 or 2000. 

I think something similar applies to the British constitution. Is there a broad consensus about what an English British Republic, or a reformed English British Constitutional Monarchy, ought to look like? Is there someone other than Olly Murs on hand to compose a new National Anthem and someone better than Pan Ayers to write a Presidential oath of office?

The King was in the counting house, counting out his money
The Queen was in the parlour, eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden, hanging out the clothes
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose

The great Scottish Folk Singer Dick Gaughan once remarked that he couldn't make up his mind about Johnny Cash. "Sometimes I think he's great. But sometimes I think he's a wee redneck shite." I agree. But I am actually not un-fond of the Redneck Shite genre. The one about all the Texans getting slaughtered by the Mexicans in a fort, for example. The Johnny Cash monologue about the American flag somehow crosses the "so bad it's good" line and comes out the other side. On second thoughts, I do like to brag, I feel mighty proud of that ragged old flag. 

Of course, the Ragged Old Flag isn't about a piece of cloth, any more than the Old Rugged Cross is about a piece of wood. It's a metaphor, or possibly a symbol. I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and the republic for which it stands.  

I understand that situation comedies have given British viewers the impression that the Pledge of Allegiance is more ubiquitous in modern American schools than is actually the case: but I was never as horrified by the idea as some of my fellow Corbynites seem to have been. I suppose if you want to go the whole way and imagine that there are no countries (which isn't hard to do) then we shouldn't be pledging allegiance to anything at all. But as long as we are allowed to have nations then I think we can probably have national symbols, and symbolic shows of loyalty to those symbols are somewhere between perfectly harmless and quite nice. People have put the Union Jack to bad use, but then the have done the same with the Hammer and Sickle and the Christian Cross. 

I do have a problem when devotion to a flag imbues the flag itself with magical properties. It's one thing to say that you bring her down slow every night, don't let her touch the ground and fold her up tight. That's a matter of form and etiquette. It's another to say that if you don't handle the flag correctly you are guilty of literal treason. Most of us understand the difference between The Flag as a symbol and the flag as a piece of cloth, although some of us sometimes pretend not to. Most of us understand that when we talk about loyalty to the Crown we aren't talking about being loyal to the thing on Charles' head, pretty as it unquestionably was.

William, William, Henry, Stephen
Henry, Richard, John, oi!
Henry, Ed, Ed, Ed, Rich two
Then three more Henrys join our song
Edward, Edward, Rich the third
Henry, Henry, Ed again
Mary one, good Queen Bess
Jimmy, Charles and Charles and then
Jim, Will, Mary, Anna Gloria
George, George, George, George
Will, Victoria
Edward, George, Edward, George six
And Queen Liz two completes the mix

We used to be told that the point of the Monarchy was that it stood above party politics. I used to partly believe it. I don't say that Prince Phillip was apolitical. Nothing is apolitical, not even David Attenborough or Rice Krispies. But the Silver Jubilee didn't feel like a Labour Thing or a Tory Thing -- it was just a Thing. There were actual Communists who pretended it wasn't happening, and young men with safety pins who were very rude about it, but most people were no more For or Against the Jubilee than they were For or Against the sky. Even the Punks were relatively amusing and quite cool; green hair and safety pins rapidly found their way onto postcards alongside beefeaters and fish and chips. The dissent was part of the festivities. In 1977 I pointedly didn't like pop music and would have thought that the Sex Pistols didn't play proper tunes. That's how sophisticated I was at the age of 13. Only since I started going to folk music have I been able to appreciate the punk's poetry of rage. 

Lee Anderson is odious, of course, and it's his job to be odious, but surely even he can see that "If you don't like the monarchy, your should emigrate" is a bit of cliche, a Viz level parody of what Mr Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells would have written, probably in green ink? 

But is it not rather counter productive? If the point of Charles is that he stands above politics, then why would a Monarchist work so hard to rebrand him as a Tory symbol, to spend so much time saying that Labour don't love our King? If you repeat over and over again that things are "as Republican as Apple Pie" then haven't you spoiled Apple Pie as a symbol of wholesome patriotism?

We're the flowers in the dustbin
We're the poison in your human machine

I read Roger Lancelyn Green's Tales of King Arthur when I was maybe nine or ten; off the same library shelf where I found Chris Godfrey and in the same year I discovered Spider-Man and the Wombles. 

I read TH White's Once and Future King in the fifth form and washed it down with some Idyls of the King. The same people who did Children of the Stones did a TV show about a juvenile delinquent who turned out to be the One True King of England. His probation officer was Merlin. I was given both volumes of the Penguin Malory for my eighteenth birthday and read them all the way through, even the Tristan sections. My whole long Arthurian infatuation culminated in a multi year game of Pendragon . 

But even without round tables and swords in stones, the Kings and Queens of England the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Their other Realms and Territories have always been there. Victoria was not amused; King John was not a good man; one Henry inadvertently ordered his men to kill the archbishop and another one beheaded several of his wives. George the third went mad and Richard the third lost his horse and another Henry found the crown hanging on a gorse bush. Upon this charge cry God, for England, Harry and St George. Five bad kings and two genuine dates. I don't believe in the mystic Albion or that the king and the land are one. I am not sure I believe the King is the head of the Church; in fact I am not complete sure how the Anglican doctrine of succession works. 

There is much to be said of Rob Young's notion of Electric Eden. Folk music as the music of an imaginary England: the songs create the past. A mythology for England: who said that? 

If you want to be cynical about them, Coronations are historical cos-plays or expensive dressing up games. If you want to be less cynical, they are adding new chapters to a story which goes on an on forever. The beginning of the story might not quite stretch back to Lear and Cymbeline or even Ethelston and Cnut but it certainly goes back to Charles II and the Prince Regent. 

Can you enjoy the story, the holy oil, the ancient book, even if in these enlightened times, no-one believes a word of it? Or does that put you in the category of one of those clergyman who sings Jesus Christ Is Risen Today on Easter Sunday and then writes a learned article in the Observer about how it's all a load of bollocks? Do Charles and Camilla and Justin Welby and Rishi Sunak believe that God chooses Kings of England? Do they believe that King Charles is connected to a spiritual power-grid that draws power from Henry VIII and Saint Augustine and Saint Peter and ultimately Jesus? If they don't, then wouldn't we have to say that the whole operation is not so much a charade as a blatant lie? The Church of England carries on because one or two of the clergy and several of the laity really do genuinely believe in God. I doubt if one single person, in that sense, believes in Charles.

A dying race, numbly rehearsing the ancient ways in a blur of forgetfulness. But today, the ritual gives no comfort. 

By tea-time tomorrow, all this will feel very irrelevant. Sacred role-play will have given way to a silly Command performance and lots of cream teas, and by the end of next week, there will be nothing left but Duchy Original Shortbreads and equestrian march pasts. How long will it be -- days? weeks? -- before the Daily Mail forgets the loyal toast and denounces the King as a woke commie? Some people want to keep the King but lose the pageantry; I rather wish we could keep the pageantry but lose the king. The republicans want to scrub the illuminated capitals off the constitution and have a country that conducts itself in black typescript, rubber stamps and filing cabinets. And that would certainly be much more sensible. But I wouldn't march for it and I don't know if I could bring myself to vote for it. 

Do you think the king knows all about me?
Sure to dear, but it's time for tea.


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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Michael said...

I must admit to a little shock when I got to re-writing the constitution, and the notion of an English republic - but I do like the idea, alongside, presumably, Scottish, Welsh and NI republics. And did you really mean to talk about Kings and Queens of England exclusively? I mean, I don't agree with a monarchy, and the monarchy I don't agree with is one of a United Kingdom, more or less.

Andrew Rilstone said...

fixed :)