TIMED TO PERFECTION: A gun salute from Tower Bridge to honor our new king
As the cannons roar over Hyde Park and the Tower, the clatter of horses’ hooves rise above the roar of mundane traffic, flags flutter and the golden coach or carriage of cannon passes in front of the massed crowd, it is both exciting and reassuring. It doesn’t happen often, but these things are part of who we are.
They also tell us that there is a nation, a United Kingdom of free citizens, which is above and beyond any temporary political power. Crowds who lined up to file past the Queen’s coffin, as they did for her mother before her, saw it guarded by soldiers (real ones going to war, not actors).
These events are a form of theatre, a spectacle open to all, even brilliantly open today in the age of television.
They belong to the nation, not to the individual monarch.
In the case of the Queen Mother, there was a wonderful picture of Tony Blair and his acolytes in the corner of Westminster Hall as the marked coffin was there, and they were sort of parked in that corner.
It was as if this political cadre – who was, you may recall, particularly prone to grandstanding – was being told that it was temporary. Disposable.
Not, at this precise moment, as important and dignified as an old lady who represented the nation.
Curiously, it seemed egalitarian: this kind of spectacle and ritual has nothing to do with showbiz stardom, parade and personal wealth.
The pomp and pageantry is an escape from the banality that we all possess.
It tells us that we are not dull and broke and in decline as a country, but heirs to a long history, both good and bad, a people who must struggle together in this island nation to make his next chapter a good one. It is gratifying.
We all need rituals: we go to weddings, funerals, and the most serious courts.
Indeed, whenever judges are suggested to ditch their wigs, there’s evidence that victims, witnesses, and even defendants tend to like them.
The suits emphasize that the law is high and serious business, and none of us stand above it. Lady Butler-Sloss, when her job was in the hardships and sorrows of the Family Division, asked children involved in cases if they would be more comfortable without the wigs.
They were outraged: they saw that this particular symbol of 18th century horsehair showed the seriousness with which their lives were taken. When it comes to the feathers and medals of our royal pageantry, it’s strange that anyone would scoff at both established and non-modern symbols, given that we all seem to adore fantasy worlds like Game Of Thrones and like to throw the boring everyday clothes for ridiculous superhero cosplay. .
To a much lesser extent, I tend to defend the ceremony of decorations and investitures of the Palace. I rather wish the word “Empire” wasn’t there in the initials CBE, OBE and MBE, and indeed some of the policy recommendations for knights and peerages make you shudder.
But if you actually go to an investiture, the vast majority of those who receive it are people whose accomplishments and merits are profoundly “ordinary”: lifelong community servants, veteran foster mothers and midwives, long-serving civil servants in tedious public service jobs, heroic firefighters. It recognizes hundreds of people who have served and deserved much, but who normally wouldn’t be likely to walk into Buckingham Palace in their finest clothes and have a face-to-face moment, in real life, with a monarch or their son or daughter, who with their own hands, humbly pinning them a decoration and giving thanks.
HIGH NOTE: The State Trumpeters marching band as Charles is proclaimed king
The last 10 days have been gloomy, historic, fascinating: in some ways encouraging and in others rather irritating.
That last feeling occurs when you find yourself reaching for your trusty TV-Brick (foam rubber, very useful) to bounce into the smug face of a ridiculous “royal expert” who’s never met one.
Sometimes you want to dive across the screen, grab some idiot and tell them to go to detention and write the simple phrase 1,000 times: “Roughly heckling a funeral procession is not freedom of expression”.
But overall, the period since the announcement of the Queen’s death on September 8 has been more uplifting than depressing.
There was a sense of national unity, a mixture of wistful historical awareness, sympathy for a family and harmless sentimentality (oh my, those marmalade sandwiches that attract rats to the park!).
It was oddly exciting to hear the proclamation read, earnestly, from the balcony of the mayor of our local small town, with small children held aloft and urged to remember it.
Of course, there is republicanism – there always has been – even under Queen Victoria. But even the harshest Republican arguments, when civil, have been interesting to soft monarchists like me.
They help you focus. Now doesn’t seem like a good time to talk about it with that “Not My King” type thing that signals virtue. Not while world leaders gather for the funeral. The abolition of the monarchy is a valid minority opinion. We can discuss it at any time. Just maybe not on the casket of a 96-year-old man.
Another stream of thought is more interesting to untangle: the view of people who don’t care about the useful, day-to-day affairs of the constitutional monarchy and accept that a politically elected president as head of state can mean clashes awkward with the Prime Minister.
Almost certainly, in this restless country, the two would think they have some kind of mandate.
The joy of hereditary, modern, modest monarchs like ours is that they know they have no mandate.
So, like the late great Queen Elizabeth II, they keep quiet about the issues and accept the role of simply advising privately and being symbols for all that is unquestionably benevolent and kind. This current of soft monarchists are not pure republicans: but they have a terrible problem with the ceremony.
Every trumpet fanfare drives them mad: every roll of vellum, every slow-stepping great lord in a foaming costume of gilding and a huge white feather on his head. They detest pomp and circumstance and point out that it was already made fun of 150 years ago in the cartoons of Punch and the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
These anti-ceremonial thinkers pop up on social media, usually Twitter, shaking their heads in horror, chanting: “Camp, dated, embarrassing”… “Retro, imperialist propaganda”… “Aristocratic anti-democratic joke”… “Makes us ridiculous in the eyes of the world”. They even hated the solemn earnestness of Penny Mordaunt – framed by that glorious painting by Canaletto – introducing the earnest principles of a democratic constitution so that the new king could humbly say “approved” to each in turn. This elaborate, formal and important legal checkmark was watched by a crowd filled with high-profile politicians from all sides and five former prime ministers.
For the first time in history, it was open to television cameras; we have all seen it.
But then we had Garter King of Arms and various heralds trumpeting on the balcony, gleaming brass, bearskin guards, salutes and cheers and an electrifying moment of exercise as they took their knees in perfect symmetry; and the crowd sang God Save the King. And those who hate the pomp shuddered.
But many of us were oddly, perhaps irrationally, thrilled by it all (I have to say I’m particularly impressed with how these ancient Shakespearean statements always start with “While…” since almost all People interviewed on radio these days begin their response with “So,” I think I’m campaigning for an Expected instead (means just as little, but adds an air of seriousness).
So – I mean, Whereas – it’s a good time to start slowly, reasonably defending all that pomp. Just in case the new monarch thinks it would be a good idea to cut many official ceremonies while thinning (significantly and economically) the ranks of the working royal family and removing a few unnecessary dukedoms and princes.
The fact is that the two things – reducing costs and personnel and reducing the pump – do not have to go hand in hand. Of course, an overextended and overpriced royal family is inappropriate, and Charles III made that clear.
But the pomp and pageantry are different.
Once, on a BBC show, I interviewed a guy who hated it all, and said he wanted all the decorations handed out “by the Speaker of the House of Commons, in clothes he would wear on public transport”.
The sheer grayness of this concept took everyone’s breath away.
No. Let’s have a ceremony. Not always, not every day, but sometimes.
May the great historical spectacle of feathers and gold, of trumpets and drums and magnificent continue. Because we all have it.