Crown Land

We watched the Coronation of King Charles III on the BBC. I suppose like everyone of our generation of British people this was an event we’d imagined would happen in our lifetmes at some point, but we didn’t give it too much thought. Like a human astronaut landing on the planet Mars, it would be a curious spectacle but have no immediate impact on any Earthly lives.

We were never going to go anywhere near the event itself, and several institutions such as the South Bank Centre sent out messages warning that expected big crowds. Here are some sights I saw a few days ago.

Victoria Station

West Norwood station

In my workplace

Tower Hill station

At Westminster

At Westminster

At Westminster

At Westminster – the man in the foreground was sketching a rather good impression of the clock tower

In Westminster station

Closer in:

If you flicker your eyes over these pictures it will create a living illusion of Oxford Street, I imagine:



Near Leicester Square

Flats in Shepherds Bush

Victoria Station

This morning I went out for a last burst of shopping before we settled indoors. The weather already didn’t look great. In the artisan bread shop I bought some Coronation Cookies, as shown at the top.

In the supermarket:

Then we settled down to the Spectacle of Society.

At the moment of Coronation we ate the cookies, sealing the ethereal communion with the sacred past as far as could be possible in the shadow of post-Reformation state religion.

Charles continued to espouse the state.

Finally, back to the BBC studio, for a balanced discussion between a conservative journalist and an historian who has written about the Empire. See if you guess which one is which.

David Olusoga and Robert Hardman

Unlike 1953 we now have female TV hosts.

So much bloody nonsense is talked about “new elites” nowadays. Even if we accept the flimsy idea that media presenters, HR bureaucrats, and social media influencers are the new power brokers in society (rather than merely being the new classes of courtiers doing the admin work for the real powerful men who reside in palaces elsewhere), there’s absolutely nothing odd about the rulers having a different culture to those they rule over. That’s pretty much definitional of an “elite”. The divide would be much more pronounced in the centuries when the Court language was medieval French rather than English.

Conservatives blathering about sacred symbolism have missed the point as usual, that the rulers are supposed to be a different, superior breed, and that links to the genuinely mysterious powers of The Royal Touch and the assumption that the King has the special qualities of leadership to take his people in to battle. When that very particular magic has been removed, as nobody believes in it or wants it any longer, least of all “conservatives”, the institution is really denatured. The veneration of Churchill, the last national warrior who also made inspiring speeches, may be the last trace. The protesters are quite correct: he’s not our King any more, he’s not pretending to be special in the old way, and we might as well vote for our preferred worthy candidate instead.

The absurdity of cultural nostalgia was already plain at the last Coronation, and the best portrayal of it, and everything else about modern English identities at that point, was in Nigel Dennis’s novel Cards Of Identity (1955). I liked the summary on the old Dalkey Archive edition:

But that doesn’t convey the wonders of Bitterling’s The Case Of The Co-Warden Of The Badgeries, and the prophecy of all inane Spectator decline-affected malaise.

…I found Vinson slumped in a chair and told him I had the signatures. I also told him about my aunts.

‘I found exactly the same thing,’ he said: ‘The whole cat’s cradle has fallen apart. I could forgive them if they’d died while we were away; but the fact is that they have remained studiously alive. In the old days there was never any question as to who one was: our names identified us, and where there was any doubt, one always had correct pronunciation to fall back on. One was related to everything – even oddities like Roman Catholics. Why, I remember that if I’d forgotten how to pronounce a word, I used often to have to take the opposite side in an argument, in order to avoid mispronouncing the truth.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I knew a man in the war who was asked by an artilleryman to name a certain unpronouncable objective, and he felt obliged to give the name of quite another village rather than be a traitor to his class.’

‘Exactly. And it’s that spirit that’s been destroyed. One comes home with the keys and finds all the locks have been changed. All the initials have gone from inside the bowler hats. All the value’s gone out of the currency. There’s no meaning in the church bells, no punch left in the hyphens of surnames. I don’t like it at all. If I don’t get an identity soon I shall start looking as helpless and vacant as everyone else.’

‘They had a difficult time, of course.’

‘That’s no excuse. I can forgive them for giving up their houses and utterly smashing the whole geographical web of family relationships, but I’ll not forgive them for throwing away all the old phrases they brought us up on. “What’s so nice about him,” they always used to say of a gardener or a shopkeeper, “is that you can be nice to him without his ever becoming too familiar.” Today, they’d be begging him to buy their windfalls. All the furtive pretences for which we fought have been thrown away out of boredom.’

When I looked at his drawn face I felt great pity for him – a man who now had nothing but his own resources to save him from total obscurity. ‘Why,’ he said bitterly, ‘I think I have reached the point where I am not even embarrassed at speaking my name aloud. That shows how meaningless it has become.’

‘When do we see Channing?’

‘We’ll go now,’ he said, reaching for his hat.

‘Are you going to go on wearing a hat? People don’t any more.’

‘It’s the last ditch. Aut hat, aut nihil.’

Old Channing received us gently in his rooms at the Armoury. It heartened Vinson to be met at the door by a pikeman crying some old warning dating back to the twelfth century and to be taken upstairs by a servant in the jet livery of the Coffiners. ‘I am surprised,’ said Channing, ‘to find that you have not changed your minds. Many well-bred young men nowadays would feel the Badgeries was a waste of time. Have you your ladies’ signatures?’

‘We have,’ said Vinson. ‘Though why a signature should remain valid when its author hasn’t, is more than I can say.’

‘And the eighteen peppercorns? No, don’t give them to me: you can hand them in a calico bag to the Master of the Bowmen on Lady Day. Remind me to remind the Times photographer.’

‘When do we start work?’ asked Vinson. ‘We are both very anxious to identify ourselves with the real England.’

‘Well, I don’t know that you’ll find very much work to do,’ said Channing. ‘The point is to capture the spirit of the thing.’

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