Myth as history

The reaction to the reaction to the Queen Mother's death smacks of wishful thinking.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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The reaction to the reaction to the Queen Mother’s death smacks of wishful thinking.

From the initial establishment horror that nobody – not even the BBC – would care, we now have the palpable relief at the size of the queues. From the first talking up of 200 people at Windsor Castle to…2000 bouquets of flowers at Windsor Castle! Two hundred thousand queuing to see the body lying in state at Westminster Hall! Anybody from 400,000 to a whole million turning out on the Big Day! Forgive me if you’ve seen different figures – it all seems like a question of interpretation.

Of course, people were interested in the funeral – unofficial figures released on 10 April put the total TV viewing figures at 10million (1). Of course, the queue was long, straggling from Westminster Abbey through Datchet to Windsor. But were people there purely because of patriotic affection, as we have been told? People were reported as exercising traditional dignified composure, but they rather seemed to be going through the motions. As UK columnist Decca Aitkenhead rather aptly put it, ‘there is nothing offensive about suggesting that what most people want is the shared experience of a giant queue’ (2). They should try commuting (See The Queen Mum Queuers, by Josie Appleton).

The camera shots passed off as demographic analysis were the stuff of myth-making, not historical record. The BBC, clearly reeling from the shock of its initial outpouring of sensibleness, told us excitedly that people of all ages and all multicultural backgrounds had joined the mourners at Westminster Abbey. Cue shot of lone teenager; cue shot of lone Asian in turban; amid the otherwise undistinguishable sea of white middle-aged women in fleeces and anoraks.

The Daily Mail is particularly excited by an opinion poll commissioned by the Independent, which found that nearly six out of ten 15- to 24-year-olds see no need for reform of the monarchy. ‘Young people voiced strong support for the monarchy’, claims the Mail (3). In every other situation, the notion of ‘youth apathy’ – that young people cannot be bothered one way or the other about anything – has been completely accepted. Yet the fact that young people really can’t be bothered one way or the other about the monarchy is now interpreted as ‘strong support’. Desperate times, as they say, call for desperate measurements.

For those trying to be a bit profound, the QM Funeral Turnout has provoked a discussion about how today’s society really cherishes those traditional values that we thought we’d lost. Hallelujah! cry the columnists. Tradition, dignity, respect and duty are not dead! But what was the most-often cited ‘value’ represented by the Queen Mother? Laughter. Even the vicar said it. Maybe there were some good jokes to be made at her expense – but laughter was hardly the spirit that supposedly made Britain great.

So cherishing are we of traditional values that all anybody seems to care about is whether Prince Charles actually cried or not. Tears ‘pricked at his eyes’, apparently. How does anybody know that? And am I the only one to think that it’s a bit pathetic for a fiftysomething man to style himself as ‘devastated’ by the death of his 101-year-old gran (but not too devastated to give an eloquent TV interview), when most people his age are worrying about the demise of their parents? And for all that the funeral supposedly affirmed the best of British pomp and ceremony, it now transpires that the Queen’s poem of choice was an anonymous verse circulated on the internet, and previously used for the funerals of everybody from a 52-year-old alcoholic to a 15-year-old American.

There is one thing about this whole charade that is typically British, and that is its self-consciousness. Everybody from commentators to the people in the queue is now singing from the same hymn-sheet, about being part of a ‘moment in history’ and the ‘end of an era’, as if willing themselves to believe in the historic importance of the event.

It took a matter of days for the BBC to join its enemies at the Daily Mail in bullying the British people into mourning. The Guardian newspaper, which delights in slagging off the monarchy at times of non-controversy, endorses this whole sickly shebang. ‘The debate about monarchy is not over, but it is not for now’, preaches its leader of 10 April. ‘Yesterday’s service was about love, affection and respect for a remarkable life. That was what genuinely united people this week.’ (4) Why do I feel like I’ve come from another planet?

Now we read stories about how the reaction to the funeral shows an awakened interest in the monarchy, which will lead to the success of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in June 2002. The Times (London) reports that the Golden Jubilee Office has received over 900 applications for Golden Jubilee street party planning ‘toolkits’ in the past three days, compared with 200 applications in the week before the Queen Mother’s death (5). But when we read that Dagenham council in East London has now received 22 toolkit applications – ‘three this week’ – instead of none, and that Sheffield has 15 confirmed street parties compared to two in January, this new wave of interest seems rather less impressive.

No doubt the excitement about one shared national experience has sparked people’s enthusiasm to have another one in two months’ time. And if the Golden Jubilee is fun, so much the better. But let’s not kid ourselves that this whole thing represents some kind of continuity of people’s traditional attachment to the monarchy, that things have not changed as much as we thought. The genuine quality of the experience (as opposed to the fictional reportage), and the confusion surrounding the reaction to it, in fact indicates how much has changed.

That aspects of the past can be recycled and reshaped to fit the present mindset should tell us something interesting about now – if only we could get beyond the idea that really, it’s all the same as it was 101 years ago.

Read on:

The Queen Mum Queuers, by Josie Appleton

It ain’t that I got no respec’, Ma’am, but Ali G was a very confused bit of PR, Mick Hume, The Times, 8 April 2002

Queen Mummified, by Jennie Bristow

(1) 10m watch royal funeral in UK, BBC News, 10 April 2002

(2) A day out passed off as royalism, Guardian, 9 April 2002

(3) ‘The monarchy doesn’t need any changes, say the young’, Daily Mail, 10 April 2002

(4) Gladly into the night, Guardian leader, 10 April 2002

(5) ‘Awakened affection boosts plans for jubilee’, The Times (London), 11 April 2002

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Topics Politics


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