For someone who lived in the UK in his late teens, and have ever since visited the country for business and leisure over the decades, I have always looked at the British monarchy quizzically and at times uncomprehendingly.
And yet like most Planet Earth residents I spent an inordinate amount of time last Monday and the previous weeks watching on TV, streaming or reading the press: debates, parades, processions, tributes, national anthems, religious services, that at times felt as long as her 70-year-long reign.
What impressed me and remained with me is the following.
First, not the sheer number of people who lined up to file past the Queen's coffin in Westminster Hall, but the fact that they were willing to wait for over 12 hours or more for the honor. President Nasser's death drew throngs of people and fired up the whole Arab world, but I doubt that anybody would have waited that long for him. I still can't wrap around my head what made hundreds of thousands of Britons (and foreigners) go through what must have been at times a painful wait just to see a coffin, illustrious as its contents must have been. This will remain as one of those mysteries of the British psyche I may never unfold.
Second, the craze wasn't limited to the UK, or the Commonwealth, but was basically global. I would switch from one TV channel to another, or read the online press from around the world and for days and days they carried only one major topic; "The funeral of the century", as the tagline went. Has the world gone mad? Aren't there more important things to focus on? An increasingly scary war in the Ukraine? Global warning? Runaway inflation? Immigration crisis?
Third, in spite of billions of pixels and gallons of ink spent on the Queen's passing away and the rites associated with it, one topic was simply never mentioned. What did she die of? Sure, it's not particularly shocking that a 96 year-old would die, and sure she looked increasingly frail, but on Tuesday last week we saw her bidding farewell to Boris Johnson and greeting incoming uncurtsying Prime Minister Liz Truss with both of whom she spent a couple of hours (more below on that curtsy - or lack thereof.). And the next day she didn't feel well and then ...she was gone. She can't have been missing BoJo that much, already, can she?
The blogger appearing on a postcard
with the Queen when she visited his
Central Paris neighborhood in 2004
Fourth, the British are (in)famous for their quasi-total lack of skills when it comes to major infrastructure projects but when it comes to large spectacles, especially involving the military and extolling the monarchy, they are unbeatable. In just a matter of days they put in place a dazzling show involving complex logistics and organizational excellence that was astonishing. Cecil B. DeMille, the legendary Hollywood film-maker known for his lavish epics, wouldn't have been able to pull it off so spectacularly. And Mr. DeMille had the advantage of countless rehearsals and takes, something unavailable to the organizers: if you make mistakes it's in full view of the whole world. I was also amazed at the punctuality of the various events, despite so many unknowns and the large number of people involved. Probably explains how a tiny island lost in the mists of northern Europe managed to conquer one-third of mankind and build the largest empire the world has ever known and whose remnants the late sovereign represented.
Fifth, no one would dare make a prediction of what the new King's reign will be like, but two things are certain. One, he won't reign half as long as his august mother. Second, the road is bound to be bumpy when you see the tantrums he threw before a global TV audience just because his pen was leaking. Seriously? There's something definitely wrong with a man who goes berserk on such a mundane issue. With his predecessor, we wouldn't even have noticed that something was amiss.
Sixth, the press was the major broker in getting the show over to us and I was hugely entertained by the crass incompetence of some of the reporters or self-proclaimed specialists pontificating on various TV shows. In France, it was cocorico! as our Sun King, Louis XIV's record as longest reigning monarch in mankind's history still holds: 72 years over Elizabeth II's 70 years (she's still the longest reigning female monarch and longest living monarch ever.) However, a not insignificant detail that French TV and press overlooked is that of Louis XIV's 72 years on the throne, 10 were spent as part of a regency since he was a minor. Meaning that he exercized his full royal prerogatives for only 62 years, whereas the British queen enjoyed all the trappings of power on Day 1. In that respect she does hold the record for longest effective reign in recorded history.
The press also got it wrong when they often predicted that the Commonwealth would shrink as some countries inevitably ditched the monarchy. Actually there's no direct link between the two. Even if, say, Jamaica took the lead of Barbados and became a republic, they would still remain in the Commonwealth. Remember that Elizabeth II was queen of South Africa until 1961 and of Malta until 1974. Both are still part of the Commonwealth. Even New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden, was largely misquoted as saying she wished her country would become a republic in her lifetime. She never said that. I saw her interview on the Beeb and while she predicted such a thing, she never expressed such a wish, and clearly stated that she wouldn't instigate a move (like a referendum) in that direction. I found it very interesting to see her (and the NZ Governor-General) take a deep curtsy before the Queen's coffin, when the UK's own Prime Minister, Liz Truss, wasn't seen once curtsying to either the Queen on her last days or when she met Charles III. Maybe that Tory Liz is secretly planning a move towards a Republic with Boris Johnson as first president.
|The blogger in his teens while he lived in Britain. |
Visiting Glamis Castle in the Scottish Highlands,
ancestral home of the Queen Mother's family
and where the late Queen's sister, Margaret, was born
Seventh, a constant in my long acquaintance with the country has been the lousy, soggy, wet weather I had to endure as a price to pay to live in the UK or visit it. And yet, during those 11 days, without almost no exception, it was either flawlessly blue skies or at least lack of rain, as if the gods had decided to do their bit on the historical moment. If anything, we'll remember it for that.
Eighth, at times, especially at the end, the whole thing felt a bit protracted. Two lying-in-states were a bit much (thank God they didn't decide to drag the coffin around Wales and Northern Ireland or the 14 other "Realms" or countries where the queen was monarch!) and as we got to the end, the endless processions and ceremonies and religious services felt like stretching the point. On the 11th day, Monday, the funeral included several processions, and after the service at Westminster Hall, arriving at Windsor Castle for yet another one, with many of the same attendees, and then a third service, blissfully, for family only, it was clearly overkill.
Ninth, reflecting on the meaning of it all, it was even more astonishing that it was to honor someone who in eight decades of public service never said anything memorable. Elizabeth II must be the only head of state who never gave a single press interview (Charles and William both have - let's see whether they keep their mother's and grandmother's tradition alive once they start reigning.)
Tenth, why did Elizabeth II's popularity trump that of her predecessors, current peers and other politicians? My explanation is that rarely has a leader so much identified with her country the way she has. One revealing example that nobody seems to have noticed: She never went on vacation abroad. Not for her, skiing in Gstaad or St Moritz (as Diana was wont to) or frolicking in the Caribbean (like her own sister, Margaret). Year in and year out, it was Norfolk and Scotland, and Scotland and Norfolk.
Well, it sure was a one-of-a-kind moment and here's one prediction I can safely make: I am unlikely to witness something similar in my lifetime.