A Sideways Glance at The Funeral
Monday morning. Impossible to escape the demise of the old lady who resided in the castle up the road from where I live. The Long Walk, which the cortège will pass along in a few hours, is just two minutes away, it’s where I take my daily constitutional. I haven’t been out there for the last few days – they’ve put up barriers to control the crowds they expect to come and watch, and the grass is pockmarked with outside broadcast vans. The press began to descend on the town the very first day, along with the throngs laying flowers, who they duly interviewed – the first tv crews were already there the first evening when I returned from London after seeing a friend off on the Eurostar. I couldn’t avoid going into town a couple of times over the next few days. There are always groups of tourists in the town centre, but the people now swarming around the castle weren’t your usual culprits, and they were a little subdued as they made their way to the castle gates.
It’s eleven in the morning and my patio door is open to the early autumnal air when I hear an odd noise. At first it sounds like someone on the Long Walk with a megaphone, and then it dawns on me that it must be one of the screens they’ve set up on the grass to broadcast the funeral. I turn on the television and my surmise proves correct. The odd thing is that the sound from outside is a second or so in advance of the television signal, so what I’m hearing through the open door is a pre-echo. This is slightly disconcerting.
Actually I been finding the television coverage transfixing. The BBC has turned the whole spectacle into a masterpiece of slow television. A veritable field day of uncountable cameras and microphones. In the Abbey they were all discreetly out of sight, the wide shots punctuated by telling close-ups. And before that, the public filing through the lying in state, which if you watched for long enough, without commentary, genuinely suspended normal time. But watching people file past didn’t mean I could understand what made them do it, although I noticed how many of them made the sign of the cross in front of the coffin.
From the word go, following plans honed over the years, the establishment enacted a protracted display of conviction in their own legitimacy, in which television was complicit (as it has been since ever since the Coronation, which I remember watching at the age of six on our new television set). Of course no-one could know the moment would arrive two days after the induction of the Queen’s fifteenth prime minister in the midst of a multi-crisis (perhaps she took one look at the new one and thought ‘that’s it, I’ve had enough’), but constitutional custom demanded the suspension of politics. The mainstream media seemed to interpret this as meaning no politics from anywhere in the world. Instead we were treated to endless obsequious babble and trivialities in between the enactment of rituals which seemed perfectly choreographed for the cameras, including those which had never been televised before, like the Accession Council, the ceremonial swearing in of the new king before the Privy Council, which purported to reveal the inner workings of constitutional monarchy but only mystified them further. The whole business was entirely performative. We are given to understand that the late Queen understood that. ‘I have to be seen to be believed,’ she once said. But not heard. Everyone agreed that her greatest wisdom was never to express a political opinion, while former prime ministers coyly admitted that she had a store of knowledge and experience from which they benefitted. If so, I can’t see the evidence for it myself. In fact, she was protected by a convention which had the force of a taboo, never to repeat what she said in private, where she was reportedly friendly and amusing. She could well afford to be.
Wasn’t it Thomas Hobbes who said that power is the reputation of power? Nowadays known as soft power, of which, in the case of the United Kingdom, the monarchy in the person the Queen has been the very epitome, though this works differently at home and abroad. The funeral itself, the ritualisation of grief, represented temporal power paying obeisance to an illusion of heavenly authority, in the presence of foreign dignitaries paying obeisance to what was effectively an imaginary enactment of former imperial grandeur. The processions, on the other hand, resplendent with uniforms and medals, spoke of the central role of the military power through which the empire was maintained, which stands behind the state under the banner of allegiance to the crown in a way that cements them together.
Television simply has to present this for its ideological symbolism to seep out without any special effort except getting the best shots, and there are moments when even the antipathic viewer is liable feel themselves sucked into the emotivity of the spectacle. But it did much more, by revelling in the choreographed popular participation in the proceedings, above all in the queue. A foreign-born friend who’s lived most of her life in London and is no more of a royalist than I am, described it as ‘a triumph of Britishness’: not the purpose of the queue, the outpouring of emotion or collective grief or the people in it, but the queue itself, the motherlode of queues, the queue to end all queues. Like something from Douglas Adams. ‘You cannot leave The Queue. You cannot get into The Queue further down. You cannot hold places in The Queue. There are wristbands for The Queue.’ Thousands upon thousands of people cheerfully shuffling along for miles along the river bank to end up in a moment of silence echoing round a coffin, on top of which lay a treasure trove of gold and diamonds said to be worth anything from £3bn-5bn, lying in an ancient stone hall. On television it became poetry, the nation as performance artists.
For me, the strangest moment was when the cortege arrived in Windsor and processed up the Long Walk to the Castle. There was a moment when standing on my patio I could hear the band in the distance, the sound muffled by the trees, but the street in front of me was silent and empty except for a few stragglers. On the television, however, was the picture of a scene bizarrely happening just out of sight, or rather, because of the delay I’d discovered in the morning, of what had already just happened. I felt for a moment strangely disconnected.
And the music? In the Abbey, mostly undistinguished but impeccably performed. In the processions, a succession of excellent bands playing a repertoire of funereal marches, always in perfect step at 75 beats per minute, perfectly captured by expert sound engineers. Best of all, however, I had a front-row seat for the bands marching past me down the road on their way to join the cortège for its final stretch. It isn’t often you get to hear the splendid noise of massed kilted bagpipers anywhere these days, especially right in front of your own window.