The Queen arrived at my door. She stood there, a sturdy figure, wearing an elegant pale blue coat, a jaunty hat in matching blue with one of her Launer handbags looped over her left wrist. I didn’t invite her in, but I knew what I had to ask. It was this: could she please, please live long enough to see through her Platinum Jubilee in June?
I had that vivid dream in March this year. Friends had some fun with their interpretations: I was facing my own mortality, it revealed my secret obsession with royalty, it was a classic anxiety dream, the Queen was a projection of myself – and so on.
But now she has died and I am wrestling with deep unexpected sadness. No way am I a monarchist, nor can I wish us to be a republic. But I have long been interested in the odd phenomenon that is British royalty with its combination of immense wealth, lack of privacy or individual freedom and strangely pointless ‘work’.
None of this has anything to do with my current feelings of loss, shock and bewilderment. I am surprised by the depth of my emotion. And I know I am not alone: everyone I speak to seems touched by their sense of it having caught them unawares. One notably imperturbable friend surprised me by saying she planned to be in central London for the funeral; another, an avowed anti-royalist, confessed to crying on hearing the news.
The death of a 96 year old cannot be a surprise, nor is it a tragedy. Yet it feels like both.
I’m currently reading Robert Harris’s enjoyable new novel, Act of Oblivion, set in the year of King Charles II’s Restoration. The main character, whose role is to chase down the Regicides who executed Charles I, repeatedly muses that the actual behaviour of the monarch is beside the point. They have been anointed: God has decreed that they are special. It is the role that matters not their moral character.
Three hundred and sixty two years later, the younger members of the royal family are disavowing all of that. They want to rip away the props, the elaborate sets, the comically elaborate costumes, the scripts written by someone else – and who can blame them? They have authorised biographies, made podcasts, espoused political causes, been interviewed by other celebrities, made allies of paparazzi, studied how to be a ‘brand’, monetized their royal status. We have overheard intimate phone calls, seen private photographs, read accounts from former ‘friends’, servants and lovers who have betrayed them. We know more than is good for us about their often painful family relationships. This generation doesn’t want our projections and fantasies, they want to ‘speak their truth’ and be seen for how they see themselves.
The Queen’s view seems to have been the absolute opposite. She seems to have concluded that to maintain your authority and the mystique that is its foundation, the monarch had to be personally invisible, even while your image is the best known in the world. We are offered apparent evidence that she was kind, had a quirky sense of humour, disliked Margaret Thatcher, had political wisdom, tolerated her husband’s indiscretions and shook out her breakfast cereal from a Tupperware container. Really? Who can be sure? We can’t be sure and that’s why so many of us have projected on to her whatever we wished to see.
My guess is that what I and others wish for is a steady presence embodying duty and stoicism rather than 21st century mantras such as ‘personal fulfilment’ or ‘becoming your true self’. We want something different: emotional maturity. This self-control and fortitude seem particularly precious in the face of political, social and environmental turmoil. We want someone with a moral compass at a time when this seems so lacking in public life.
The immediately coming winter will for certain mean impoverishment for many people unable to heat their homes or to buy enough to eat. There will be a general mood of anxiety, spite and irritability. The damage of Brexit will become increasingly impossible to conceal, even while both main political parties have to pretend that it was ‘the will of the people’ and cannot therefore be undone. Our new Prime Minister has an unstable party to manage with a lurking predecessor who will be eager to show how much better a job he would be making of it had he not inexplicably been forced to resign. She faces the probability of strikes and other forms of civil unrest.
No wonder, with all of this, that the death of that magically unknown Head of State feels like a personal bereavement even when it clearly is not. Nor is it the ‘recreational grief’, that public outpouring of allegedly fake emotion, so sneeringly described as self indulgent nonsense after the untimely death of Diana in 1997. It’s real enough.
I and a few friends raised a glass to the Queen last night and then another to wish her successor well. He will certainly need all the luck he can find.
Photograph taken by Julian Calder for Governor-General of New Zealand, CC BY 4.0