THE KING THEY DESERVE - ABSURD TRADITION
Things were so bad during the coronation on the 6th of May 2023, that the Metropolitan police were arresting law abiding protestors as the King's carriage hove into view. This had the effect of preventing those unhappy with the King, from being able to exercise their civil rights. No doubt the monarch will have something to say about that. Perhaps a few good conduct medals, as with Sussex police, for failing to investigate inconvenient planning fraud, or the growing number of police officers guilty of sexual offences, taking advantage of their positions of trust. It may seem more like a breeding ground for offenders to many news readers, as these crimes are reported more frequently than before social media. The King's brother of course in the limelight himself accused of sex with trafficked girls working for Jeffrey Epstein. And the whole royal family, because of historic links to slavery. Is that the kind of representation, the British and Colonies want to be associated with? What makes this worse, is that the Head of State turns a blind eye to injustice, when the corrupt justice system is used to disadvantage dissidents. Those dumb enough to challenge institutionalised discrimination.
THE GUARDIAN 3 MAY 2023 - GOD SAVE US ALL: BRITAIN IS ABOUT TO GET THE KING IT DESERVES - LONG LIVE KING CHARLES THE ABSURD
Viewed from Canada, the coronation is especially absurd – and the contradictions of Charles III perfectly suit the moment. Say it out loud and try not to snicker: “The coronation of Charles the Third.”
In a time of post-post-colonialism, of anti-racist iconoclasm, a time in which the very notion of gender as a legitimate distinction is contested, and Christianity has been reduced to a scandal management system with costumes, a 74-year-old British gentleman will ride a fancy carriage to an old church [A man-made religion invented by Henry VIII, not God] where a few other elderly British gentlemen in gilded dresses will declare him emperor, patriarch and head of state because God says so.
You might think you live in a time of truth and reconciliation, or perhaps even, if you’re feeling optimistic, progress. But this week if you’re British or a member of the 56 sovereign states that still, somehow, find themselves in the Commonwealth, you’re waking up in a country where a priest is going to smear oil – vegan oil from Jerusalem – on a rather pinkish, rather broad forehead to signify one man’s status as the Lord’s anointed.
The coronation cannot be described as a popular event. In April, various polls gauging the public mood around Charles’s ascension found that only 15% of the British population were “very interested” in the coronation. In Canada, where I live, the majority of citizens are in favor of severing ties with the monarchy altogether (up to 70% in Quebec). The crown itself seems embarrassed by all the fuss. The coronation ceremony has been curtailed, and will last a little over an hour, we’re promised, as opposed to the three hours allotted for Queen Elizabeth II.
For Canada, the absurdity of the coronation is basic: we are not a British colony, but we have a British king. For the British, the national pride supposed to underlie a coronation has been exposed and harried: UK GDP cut by 4%, a lost £100bn a year in output, the pound losing a fifth of its value, all since Brexit. It’s hard to celebrate when inflation is at 10.1% [More like 40% in real cost of living crisis terms] and the Bank of England has to raise interest rates again, especially when it costs £100m.
As of April, only 34% of Britons still believe that Brexit was the correct decision. And underlying the recognition of their error is a dawning realization of the failure at its root: the British people – not the press, not the politicians – failed to understand their place in the world. Nostalgia and vanity, and ultimately self-deceit, led them into a calamity which seems, at the moment, impossible to recover from.
This week, on his fancy carriage ride, Charles will be surrounded by many preposterous objects. He’ll be holding the world’s largest diamond on the end of a stick. He’ll be wearing a hat with a ruby that Henry V wore into battle. He’ll be sitting on a chair over the Stone of Destiny, a stone English kings stole from the Scots over 700 years ago.
The real absurdity will be deeper, for both Canada and Britain. Charles is a symptom of twin identity crises: the man represents us, but it’s hard to think of anyone less representative. I mean, it’s all fun and games, but his face is going to be printed on my money.
“God save the king!” I find myself shouting, absurdly.
At an April evening sponsored by Bollinger champagne in the Burlington Arcade in Mayfair, the Illustrated London News is unveiling a painting of Charles. I have sweet-talked my way past security by explaining, with all the open-faced Canadian innocence I can muster, that I am just a little reporter from far-away Canada and I’ve come to Britain to understand the preparations for the grand coronation. It works. I’m in.
The crowd is fancy-British, with that sumptuous London opulence that verges on the cloying. The luxury is dense. Jeroboams of Bollinger – Churchill’s brand – circulate, bottles so heavy that the servants have trouble lifting them up for the last drops. The Scottish London regiment, in full uniform, has come to pipe in the portrait, and one of their members is wearing a regimental leopard skin called Clarence, after a cross-eyed lion in a 1960s television show called Daktari.
I’d forgotten what it’s like. I am, once again, a colonial in the imperial metropolis: you know enough to know there are codes at work, but you don’t know enough to understand the codes themselves.
When the owner of the Illustrated London News, Lisa Barnard, gives a speech before unveiling the portrait and mentions some aristocrats, I have no idea who they are. They sound important, or rather important to her. Later, when she mentions a story about Prince Philip being worshiped like a god by a remote tribe because of a portrait (this did happen, among the Kastom people near the villages of Yaohnanen and Yakel on Vanuatu) and wonders if the same thing might happen with the portrait of Charles they’re unveiling, I’m not sure if she’s kidding.
Next up, the portraitist, Alastair Barford, describes his time observing the prince, noting how kind Charles was to everyone. “He seemed to genuinely care about them,” Barford says. “Something you wouldn’t associate with a king.” Is he saying that Charles isn’t kingly? I’m not sure. I tend to take any compliment paid to Charles as a backhanded compliment but I could so easily be over-reading.
Once unveiled, the portrait is really rather good. As someone who has spent several weeks for the purpose of this piece looking at everything you can put Charles’s face on – tea towels, biscuit tins, trays, Christmas tree ornaments, mugs – I have learned that his face steers naturally towards caricature. It takes real skill and care not to make him look like a cartoon, even in photographs. Barwood has captured the contradiction so apparent in Charles’s face: befuddlement in the midst of polish, excellent tailoring and superb manners combined with a palpable, almost painful, diffidence.
His face betrays a deep shyness overcome at great difficulty; he lacks his mother’s immense entitlement.
See, I knew what the Queen’s face meant, what it stood for. There she was, my whole life, looming in the darkened hockey rinks on the Canadian prairies, waving from the tops of airplane staircases, or smiling somewhere in the Caribbean like a tourist on the most exclusive package tour available.
The Queen was why I, a Canadian, had to learn which fork went with which course. What if I were invited to dine at Buckingham Palace and embarrassed myself by using the fish fork instead of the venison spoon? What would she think of my parents?
Queen Elizabeth was Big Granny, the Granny of us all. Granny grew up in the past. Granny lived in another country. Granny smiled all the time, so you never knew whether she was happy. Granny walked in a private forest where no one walked but her. Granny knew that privacy was dignity.
Granny also knew How Things Ought To Be Done. Some of the How Things Ought To Be Done were small: one might eat asparagus with one’s finger but nothing else. Some of the How Things Ought To Be Done were large: my grandfather had to go and bomb Germany for several years.
Charles’s face, in contrast, is far more human to me than the Queen’s: the weak chin, the spaniel ears, the leonine hair. The sort of man you might dread being seated next to at a dinner party but then turns out to be surprisingly pleasant. At first he drones on about his garden, indulging himself in a rant on contemporary architecture but then, a couple of bottles in, he tells you that he’d like to be reborn in the next life as a tampon.
Once the portrait is unveiled, three cheers erupt, followed by “Long live the king!”
And I join in, because the weirdest fact in this entirely weird scene is that I share a head of state with these people, and that head of state is King Charles III. Absurd as it sounds, when I was cheering the king, I was cheering my own.
You know who doesn’t believe those polls about the diminished appetite for the coronation? People who sell coronation memorabilia.
The celebratory line of Sophie Allport, part of her hugely successful housewares business based in Lincolnshire, is selling briskly. Several items, including the tea trays, are already sold out. “It has gone absolutely bonkers,” Victoria Eggs, a London-based designer, says of her coronation pieces. “The repeat orders have been mad.”
Both Allport and Eggs sell a style: “Quintessentially British”. The question of what is “quintessentially British” has been an intellectual parlor game for generations. For Allport and Eggs, the question isn’t a game. It’s business.
Allport sells rural British cleanliness: bright whites, cheerful sunflowers, mugs adorned with scenes from the Chelsea flower show. Her coronation tea towel shows Buckingham Palace with plenty of Union Jacks and gentle placid portraits of Charles and Camilla. “I had to ask certain members of my family if they were accurate,” Allport says. “They are faces that you see every day but to try to paint them in watercolor is difficult.”
Eggs emanates a vibrant put-together chaos as we sit down to tea outside Tower Bridge. In her world, Christmas dinner is on the table on time, despite everything. Somehow the garden is presentable in time for the Easter party. You’d envy her, but she’s entirely too sweet and self-deprecating to envy.
Her coronation design is a forest-green emblem, restrained and elegant, and she can unfold Talmud on her tea towel. She literally shows up to our meeting with a footnoted image of the towel, explaining every reference. Some hidden meanings are ancient, some are new. There’s the shamrock, the thistle and the Tudor rose. There’s a lot of foliage because whenever Charles plants a tree – which is often – he shakes its branch to wish it a good life. There’s a parachute – a nod to Charles being appointed colonel-in-chief of the parachute regiment in 1977. And there’s a little bee, too. (Remember when everyone mocked Charles for going on about the plight of the bees and then it turned out he could not have been more right?)
It’s a rather elegant piece, this tea towel, an intricately interwoven series of inside jokes, missing two things: Charles’s face and the Union Jack. That kind of nationalism is anathema to Eggs’ designs. For her, she explains, Britishness is about “special moments in time, and trying to re-create that in design”.
Some of the special British details she describes I recognize – afternoon tea, double-decker buses, and so on. Others are more confusing to a colonial. One of the “special British moments” Eggs tries to capture is a childhood memory of sitting on the beach in the rain. “We would go on holidays to the seaside, and it would be raining but that didn’t stop us building sand castles and sitting having ice-creams and fish and chips,” she tells me. She remembers “being wrapped in a towel which, if you were in another country, you’d be lying on. We had it wrapped around us in the drizzling rain, eating fish and chips”.
In all honesty, I don’t know what she’s talking about. But it also does sound like the most British thing I ever heard in my life: happy to be sitting in the rain making sand castles. Not only happy. This is one of her happiest memories. Nostalgia compensates for the discomfort, I guess.
Brexit was a nostalgia movement; that was the source of its power. “Take back control” – the key word was “back”. Allport and Eggs sell nostalgia, too, but Brexit devastated their sales. “Twenty per cent of what we used to deal with were European customers and they’re basically gone,” Eggs says. Ten years ago, the world was the limit for top-notch, highly successful British designers like them. Now the limit is Dover, and even there the delays are crippling. “We were selling into Europe, we had built that up over years, and Brexit has almost foundered everything we’re trying to do,” Allport says. “We’ve become busy fools.” The direct losses are painful enough. But worse is these women’s sadness at their forestalled future.
Britain is like a kid who dropped out of university in a fit of over-optimistic defiance – I can make my own way! – and seven years later realizes how the world works. A fit of nationalist nonsense has made it next to impossible to export British iconography.
Not 500 meters from Tower Bridge, where you can purchase Eggs’ material in the gift shop, mudlarks scrape for buried British treasure. A mudlark is a sort of amateur archaeologist who digs up what can be found on the riverbank. The Thames is a tidal river, and its height can vary between 7 and 10 meters. It churns up mud and deposits fresh artifacts every day along the banks. Some bear the faces of other kings, other arcs in history.
My guide to mudlarking is Jason Sandy, author of Mudlarks: Treasures from the Thames, and the organizer of a show, currently at the Eames Gallery in London, displaying centuries of mudlarking treasures. He once found a Roman pin with a woman’s face on it, which is now on display at the Museum of London. That’s his claim to fame.
Mudlarks are an established British type – the eccentric hobbyist – so it’s inconvenient to discover that Jason is from Virginia. Still, it’s a relief to talk to him; he has the open enthusiasm and frankness of an American. He’s uncoded.
As soon as we begin, Sandy finds a penny with George II’s face on it. My new world eyes are shocked, I admit: the face of the king before Mad King George, just lying there in the mud. Sandy and I share the amazement. “You’re just scraping the surface,” Jason says, and he means it literally and metaphorically.
In another seam on the banks – its location must remain a secret under the rules of the mudlarks – Sandy regularly finds coronation memorabilia. As we walk through the mud, we find a cracked cup from 1953, with Elizabeth’s face, and just the unicorn with the Union Jack. Older stuff, too: a fragment of George the V’s pomaded hair on an egg cup, porcelain showing the face of Edward the VII.
Why here? Why coronation memorabilia? Sandy shrugs. “Historically, the river has been sacred,” Sandy says. “That’s why so many votive offerings have been put in the river.” One of the earliest offerings was the Battersea Shield put there by Celts. More recently, Diwali lights have also found their home in the mud.
History here is regurgitation. It’s like London has consumed too much history and spews it up on itself with the tides.
Holding the smashed teacup with Elizabeth’s face, I cannot help but think of my mother in 1953, beside another muddy river, the Petitcodiac. My Canadian mother grew up in Lower Coverdale, New Brunswick, and that year, my grandmother drove her the seven miles to nearby Moncton to see the film of Elizabeth’s coronation. It was the only film she saw her entire childhood, the only film she saw before going to university. That’s how much the royal family mattered.
There were reasons for that significance. My original Canadian ancestors were press-ganged into the Royal Navy out of Wales for the war of 1812, and a little over a hundred years later, my great uncle Driver Leaman died in France fighting for the British empire. He received a letter on Buckingham Palace stationery – I have it framed on my wall – signed by “Mary R and the Women of the Empire”.
When Driver died, a local newspaper reported a letter he wrote to his mother: “After he was discharged from the hospital in July 1915 he was considered unfit for service and could have come home. But he wrote her and told her that his place was there.
HE SAID HE WAS NOT ONLY FIGHTING FOR HIS KING AND COUNTRY, BUT FOR HIS HOME AND MOTHER.
” That’s who I come from: cannon fodder for the British empire, a lot of men who died for a lot of British kings.
My own indifference to royalty could hardly be more total. Meghan Markle used to live a couple of blocks from me in Toronto, and when the prince would show up, black Suburbans would block off the sidewalk. It would annoy me that I had to walk around them, but I didn’t complain to the authorities. That’s about the limit of the sacrifice I’m willing to make for the king and his heirs.
For what it’s worth, I’ve never met anyone in Toronto who has a bad word to say about Meghan. Her story is a fairytale, all right. A young woman falls in love with a prince, and ends up in a chamber of horrors. I genuinely feel sorry for her. She probably thought she was just adding herself to a celebrity family.
After all, the normalcy of the royals is one of the sources of their unique power: they’re so recognizably banal. The embarrassing dad with the second wife he loves. The brothers who love each other but can’t stand each other. One daughter-in-law wound up so tight you’re just waiting for the breakdown. The other daughter-in-law with a problematic dad who keeps badmouthing everybody. A whack of beautiful grandchildren – who knows what their craziness will be? Go to any wedding in a Toronto suburb, and you’ll find a similar scene. That’s life. That’s what life looks like.
Partly, the muted enthusiasm for the coronation is down to Charles’s extraordinary lack of glamor. He’s just too human.
“What he can’t perform is what his mother did so well,” Jonathan Coe tells me over risotto in Chelsea. “Be a blank.”
Jonathan Coe, to me, is the great chronicler of the British devolution of the past 50 years. Zadie Smith and Martin Amis do London, but Coe, via Birmingham and Cambridge, in books like The Rotter’s Club and Middle England, has a simultaneously broader and narrower scope. He understood, better than any other writer, the interplay between cultural nostalgia and political projection that led to Brexit.
Coe is very useful to a colonial like me; he has studied the codes so thoroughly that he has seen inside their fundamental absurdity. He is past surprise; he has registered the workings of the mechanism. What seems absurd to me about British life because I’m an outsider seems absurd to him because he’s inside.
For Coe, the lack of enthusiasm for Charles has an obvious source. There is “no enthusiasm for anything”, he says, “The nation is demoralized.”
The gap between the over-60s and the under-30s is so pronounced, at this point, that they live basically in different countries. They consume different narratives on different media; they work in different economies, with the assumption of a social safety net for older Britons while younger people live in neoliberal precarity following a decade of Conservative austerity; they are nostalgic for different Britains. “There is no national story we can agree on,” Coe says.
Charles inhabits the division: too progressive for the right, too regal for progressives. He is both the ultimate icon of Conservative values and the most important non-activist figure in contemporary environmentalism. In another era, he could have been hugely unifying.
But his coronation is taking place under the shadow of failed national symbolism, obvious in the catastrophe of Brexit but in the 2012 Olympics, too. “It lulled us into a false sense of security,” Coe says of that ceremony. “We could think of ourselves as a country that was multicultural, laid-back, ironic.”
Under the surface, the nostalgic codes of the British people were shifting. The silliness and amateurism of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liz Truss were symptomatic of imperial nostalgia, of a longing for a time when Britain could afford such anarchic personalities. The Conservatives fulfilled Peter Cook’s prophecy of Britain “sinking giggling into the sea”. But Coe sees the root of that collapse in a spiritual malaise inside the British people. “We can’t let go. We can’t admit that we’re living in a small country,” Coe says. “We have a reality problem.”
Watching Brexit from Canada has been confounding exactly because of that reality problem. The British situation has never been more recognizable to a colonial: they’ve turned themselves into a smallish northern country on the periphery of a great power, in the slipstream of history. At the same time, they don’t know how to behave like a small country. The irony of “take back control” was evident to everyone in Canada – nay, to almost everyone. When you’re a small power, your main source of control is being on the inside of large international institutions, not outside them.
I still think the British, even the elite, don’t quite recognize how much trouble they’re in. When Trump canceled the North American free trade agreement, and Canada had to deal with the existential threat of coming to terms with a partner who accounts for 73% of our trade, our negotiators refused to sit at the table if there were a sunset clause (that is, when the agreement expires after a set period). The reason was simple: if you’re a small power, and the big power has a sunset clause, businesses won’t invest because of the uncertainty in the structure, and the big power can just wait to renegotiate when they’ll be stronger and you’ll be weaker.
Meanwhile, the current trade and cooperation agreement between the EU and the UK is subject to “renewal, revision or termination” every five years. If the British don’t know they’re in a small country now, they’ll know soon. In 2020, Europe screwed them in haste. In 2025, Europe will be able to screw them at leisure.
To be a small country is to know that you can’t afford to be absurd. You can’t leave negotiating trade agreements to people whose primary qualification is that they know there’s no ablative in Greek. When someone like Nigel Farage talks about restarting connections with the Commonwealth, it’s good for a laugh (God knows, we laughed in Canada) but not for the management of the country.
The deepest tragedy of Brexit is that the fine British sense of humour, the comfort with absurdity that may be their best national trait, undid them. What “kept us grounded and has given us a meaningful sense of reality”, as Coe puts it, soured. “The absurdity of Johnson was a way to hide from reality.”
Charles himself has always had a fine sense of humour. It’s one of his best features. Charles was honorary president of the Goon Show Appreciation Society, and when Spike Milligan received a lifetime achievement award at the British Comedy Awards, presenters read a heartfelt, touching letter of appreciation from the Prince. “The groveling bastard,” Milligan responded. The crowd was weeping with laughter, hysterical, out of control. The slapstick element has already appeared in Charles’s life as King. When Liz Truss showed up for their weekly meeting, he said, “Back again? Dear, oh dear.” I mean, it was what everyone was thinking.
At home, for the foreseeable future, every time I look at a coin or a bill, I’ll think: we’re the possession of that guy?
During the spasms of jingoism that afflicted the US and the UK, Canada has devoted itself to decolonization, to truth and reconciliation. Rather than wallowing in national symbols, we have been tearing them down. Every public event begins with a land acknowledgment referring to the large-scale pilfering that founded the country, and it is quite common for children not to stand at the national anthem in schools in Toronto. In his first international speech, Justin Trudeau described Canada as a post-national nation, one that would not fall victim to follies that we saw spilling out in the US or the UK.
As a result, Canadian culture has become more or less an unending, mostly ignored description of our national crimes. Nothing could demonstrate our colonial mentality more than these flaccid attempts at apology. The purpose of Canada, as a British colony, was to demonstrate to the world just how much better we were than the Americans. More virtuous, more upstanding. That’s the role the British gave us in their empire, and we continue to fulfill it long after the empire has vanished.
“Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity,” Marshall McLuhan said in 1963. We have returned to that condition. The Canadian government plans to bring in a million immigrants next year. “You guys want to be here. We must be worth something,” that policy says. “Maybe you can tell us what we’re all doing here.”
Every time a Canadian sees Charles on the currency, they’ll know: our country makes no sense, and we have no plan to change it. Canada is a colony in search of a metropolis. We have become a colony of the absurd. There could be no more appropriate head of state to represent that absurdity than Charles.
The point of a king is to be a blank, to be a screen on to which a nation can project itself. Martin Jennings, the sculptor who carved Charles’s face on the new British coins, is used to capturing the spirit of famous public figures like George Orwell and Philip Larkin, but the figure of Charles on a coin was a different exercise. “It’s an effigy,” he says. “What I was producing was something that wasn’t supposed to be expressionistic. It wasn’t meant to be a dynamic representation of the emotions I saw running across his face. It’s meant to have a repose, a stillness.”
The process of reducing expressiveness required a studious reserve on Jennings’s part. He had to take everything he thought he knew about Charles out of the representation of his anatomy.
We are still projecting on to our kings. Both Britain and Canada find themselves stuck in political situations that make so sense, but without real alternatives. Every British patriot, everyone who cares about the future of their country, should have one goal in mind: to get the UK back inside the EU as swiftly as possible. This obvious political necessity seems, if not impossible, then remote at best. Nobody anywhere close to government is seriously considering it, not in public anyway.
As for Canadians, we might complain about the monarchy but nobody is changing the system. Why would we? Constitutional monarchy is the most successful form of government that exists. Of the top 20 countries in the Economist’s annual measure of democratic health, 10 are constitutional monarchies. Go and look at how republics are doing: do you want the politics of the US and Israel? Constitutional monarchy is so successful because it is nonsensical, because it acknowledges the stupidity of national pride. It staves off the great danger of taking your country too seriously.
If, 70 years from now, a mudlark were to scrounge one of Victoria Eggs’ mugs in the Thames mud, it would represent the current moment perfectly. Prince Charles, in his confusion, his uncertainty in his role yet his determination to play it well so that he doesn’t disappoint his dead mother, is just about right.
Charles’s face means being stuck between traditional iconography and celebrity culture. It means living with a past that, while fraught with violence and idiocy, nonetheless upheld values that some cannot bring themselves to abandon and a future that, while much freer and more sensible, can also be cruel and vacuous.
I fear the reason we don’t like Charles, the reason we don’t want to celebrate him, is that he represents ourselves at this moment in history all too well. He is our king; that’s the most absurd fact of all. The face that represents us does represent us. His absurdity is ours.
[Globalization rationale will eventually lead to an international understanding that while the human race has developed national identities, the greater cause, survival of the planet, in order for the species to thrive, should prevail. In which case an agreement as to free trade, with an international council of nations, might be created to eliminate borders, and armies to protect one identity from another, but to protect all identities from abuse by another, as a common cause. In such a Utopia, there is no room for empire building or dictator warlords, but rather a harmonious equality, where every man and women benefits from a collective society, collective thinking and care for one another. In such a society, there can be no room for a King or Queen, who is not an elected official, and may not represent the wishes of the electorate, and may not promote justice, transparency and full accountability, as a requirement for a sustainable planet earth.]
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