They thought she would last forever
Half an Encyclopaedia Britannica could be filled with prophecies of the Monarchy’s demise. Here is Virginia Woolf in the Thirties, after the abdication crisis. “Royalty” she writes, “is no longer quite Royal”. The flying buttresses of a “great Victorian dream” had been removed. The cathedral was sinking.
Today we had the full Westminster Abbey, with buttresses solid, and a hundred guardsmen banging their drums in the sun. Along the Mall was a polite and patriotic scene of lower-middle class England. Little old ladies from Peterborough, painters and decorators from Dagenham, sisters from Billericay, a retired accountant from Tunbridge Wells. They have packed sandwiches, and toddlers. “We expected her to go on forever”, said Wendy, as her sister Susan and husband Kevin nodded. “Forever and ever.”
Forever is carried from the gates of Buckingham Palace on a flag-draped gun carriage, scattered with white roses and white dahlias, topped with a crown fit to rule an Empire that no longer exists.
They all say they want to be part of it today. What exactly is it? “I don’t know what it is”, says Georgia, who is 25, and easily the youngest person here who is not asleep in a pram. “I think it is just what we do.” It is variously described to me as being British and being proud of being British; it is tradition and continuity; it is where they will take their children when it happens again. “It”, says Graham from Dagenham, “is the end of an era.”
The absurdity of recent days — a sleepless, red-eyed Huw Edwards on telly last night musing about whether “the Queen foresaw her own end” — melts away as the procession begins. The pigeon-scattering cannon boom in Hyde Park, the deep drumming, the cascading brass — it reduces a man in a three piece suit to tears. It silences thousands. It makes you forget briefly that we are long past our apogee, staring down at a winter where the state threatens to break as badly as it did in 1979.
Today everything works. Charles in his air marshal uniform, a man who has become an adjective, his face appropriately solemn. Even Harry, press-ganged back here from his LA podcast studio, looks fitting. (We shall pass over the Duke of York without mention.) Authority has allowed only the tiniest lines of human foliage to grow along the mourning route. The family march past us in lockstep with the drums, towards gothic Whitehall, the Cenotaph, and Churchill wary on his plinth, then disappear in a haze of red wool.
Woolf believed we would find something on the other side of the monarchy. Something more wondrous. “This unknown world,” she argued, “is after all more beautiful than Buckingham Palace.” Not today.