Well the day none of us, at least I didn’t, think would ever come has indeed arrived. The Queen is dead. You all know the facts, longest reigning monarch in English history, 15 Prime Ministers, a calm constant in an increasingly complicated world. She is the only monarch most people, across the world, have ever known. Her face decorates tea towels and faux china cups around the globe.
Only two days before her death I became her subject in a moving and thoughtful ceremony at Lambeth Town Hall. I was told that as a British citizen I am to be tolerant and respectful and allow others their freedoms and rights. When the people gathered at Buckingham Palace were interviewed by the media, shortly after the announcement, almost all mentioned the Queen’s charity, her kindness. We are certainly sorely lacking in those qualities, in general. Recently, my husband and I invited a young Ukrainian mother and her two little girls to live in the now vacant boys’ bedrooms. Although this arrangement does not violate any part of our lease (I won’t go into the boring details, our lawyers were on it, yes it came to that), our landlady went, as they say here, completely mental. Screaming down the phone at me that, and I quote, ‘these people take everything’, including, or according to this woman, especially, other peoples’ houses. Only the day before I swore my allegiance to her, the Queen welcomed our new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, to run the country. I am not a politics addict, so maybe the announcement passed me by, but I don’t remember taking people’s houses away was part of the new Conservative platform. While I have nothing but contempt for the landlady, I understand that fear of the future is a real thing. The Covid years have pushed so many families into food poverty and now we can add fuel poverty to the list. Plus, an overwhelmed health care system, a growing mental health crisis, much infrastructure that is well past its sell by date and rail and postal strikes looming. No wonder people are angry and afraid and suspicious of others. I digress.
Where was I when I learned of the Queen’s death? Standing in Victoria Miro gallery in Hoxton, surrounded by people. I had only been there a few minutes, had only seen a few of the pieces, when the news popped up on my phone. My friend, Sara, and I stood stunned as everyone around us, oblivious to what had just been announced, carried on chattering and yapping. It was a long, strange, surreal moment. Eventually a Director appeared, shared the news, and announced that the show was closing immediately out of respect. As we left the building, the queue, full of what I call The Club Kids, in their fabulous outfits, had wound its way all down the street and around the corner. We tried to tell them that the show had closed and why, but no one believed us. As more venues closed and people spilled out onto the streets no one seemed overtly sad or emotional, just confused. It was in a similarly bewildered state that I made my own way home. For most of us this death will change nothing about our daily lives. Yes, eventually we will have some new looking money (but who uses cash anymore?) and a new cipher will appear on new post-boxes, but then who uses the post anymore? Admittedly, King Charles the third has an awkward ring to it, but we will get used to it, as we get used to just about everything we originally object to. Including, I am happy to report, the landlady, who gave up the fight just before the Queen’s funeral. Little girl laughter safe and well in my house. Again, I digress.
I joined the queue for the lying-in state. I felt I needed to be part of this history, and I was encouraged to do it by my friend Mini, a firm Royalist and an incredibly wise woman on the logistics front. I believe we waited the least amount of time anyone waited, that being 5 hours and 20 minutes. That alone made it worthwhile. We joined the queue on the Thursday morning, 10 minutes before 7 am, at London Bridge. It moved along at a steady pace until we reached the part of the embankment in front of Thomas’ Hospital. Everyone had somehow disappeared at that point and we could have run at a full sprint to Victoria Gardens. We chose a powerful walk instead and arrived, having at that point only waited 2 hours, thinking we were almost done. Ha. As everyone who did it will tell you, the real queue starts in Vic Gardens as you turn back on yourself again and again and again. Like the longest rollercoaster queue ever. But a jolly queue. People, and when I say people I mean middle aged white women, as we made up 98% of the crowd, were laughing and chatting and sharing the fruit and chocolates they had brought along. The weather was lovely, London looked gorgeous, very pleasant morning. The security checkpoint was unbelievably efficient. I am not the first to suggest that airports could learn a thing from this detail. And then into Westminster Hall. It was beautiful and silent, and it was only then that I wished I had dressed a bit better. But then it had been cold and rainy when I left the house, and at 6 am I wasn’t that fussy, the woman in front of me had on gym kit, and no one was looking at me (except they were, as it was all live streamed and I got sent many screenshots of myself, alas). We were held at the top of the stairs for quite a time, which meant we saw the impressive Changing of the Guard. I always have to remind myself that these same men who perform this ceremony are active soldiers. The discipline to do both astounds me. We were eventually invited to walk past the coffin, at a pace, and then suddenly, after all that time, re-emerged into the sunlight and chattering and laughing of crowds. Never mind the wait, the final 30 minutes were surreal in way that fixes in the memory.
But back to the monarchy. As the procession made its way from Scotland, there came disturbing reports of people being arrested and threatened with arrest for voicing anti-monarchy opinions within earshot of gathered crowds. In Parliament Square, a lawyer, with a busy Twitter account, held up a blank piece of paper, and was cautioned by the police. These aren’t violent demonstrations, just lone citizens expressing personal convictions. Such over the top responses suggest a weak leader. I fear Charles will be a weak leader. He said himself in his first Kingly address that he has waited 50 years for this role, and I am afraid those 50 years have moved on and left him behind. But leadership will be the least of his problems. The most difficult thing for Charles will be to convince the younger generations that the monarchy is relevant. I know for every friend who reads the previous sentence and gasps at the horror of the sentiment, I have at least two friends who are thinking exactly the same, if they are giving any thought to the monarchy at all, and those are people in their middle years. The future belongs to the young. The young feel passionately about things, not least what a post-colonial world should look like. Charles will need to find a way to make the youth believe that he has something positive to add to this conversation, no small task, not least because should he try he could simultaneously alienate the people who want to adore him most.
The past is under constant re-evaluation at the moment, and rightly so. Within days of the Queen’s death I visited the British Museum. I love the British Museum; I am a member. I have ‘done’ the 100 objects. I also know that much of what is there shouldn’t be there…and so I need to start saying goodbye to some of my favourites. There was a Book of Condelence available, in the Great Court. I could not resist the irony…. If anyone is confused about this paragraph, I suggest you google James Acaster, British Museum. It is piece of comic genius that explains the situation better than I ever could. The spoils of Empire become problematic when the Empire is revealed for what it was…
The Queen was able to avoid this conversation because she famously never shared an opinion on anything. The public, for the most part, were happy with that. As she aged, she became less a symbol of power and more the lovable, smiley grandmother. Charles in known for having opinions and no one considers him a cuddly grandfather. Nor will he be afforded the mantle of silence. Good luck to him.
So what have I taken away from the Queen’s death and the reaction to it? Women. I think about women. How can we continue to have a world that insists on the inferiority of women when some of the greatest of the greats are women ? When we consider England’s great monarchs Elizabeth I, Victoria and Elizabeth II top the list. Women all. Yet for most women in the world today life is very, very, very hard, in both rich and poor countries. The United States of America has recently delivered its own shocking blow. The previously mentioned art opening was for Katy Hessel’s book launch, The History of Art (without men), a long, long, long overdue reassessment of art history. At time of writing, protests are gathering speed across Iran and the world, as women are removing their hijabs and cutting their hair in anger over the death of Mahsa Amini and toward a government that insists the oppression of women to be ordained by God. Will the rise of women finally topple this Islamist regime? We can but watch and wait. The times they are a changin’, as they always are. Ever thus. The only constant is change. May it be for the better. In particular for women. Rest in Peace Elizabeth, Rest in Peace Mahsa Amini. May you encourage the living to rise.