At this point, creating images is almost the only thing England is good at. The realm is sinking deep in its own nostalgia, so it’s unsurprising that they’ve gone all out for the last rites of Queen Elizabeth II. It wasn’t always thus. .
When I sat on the curb on Bloor St. with my fellow tykes in 1951, as the beautiful young princess rode by in a convertible, it wasn’t just to “be there” or take part in history or comparable bilge. Royal visits served a purpose of empire: ginning up the colonials to come and sacrifice their young lives in wars that reflected British, mostly English, interests.
(Yes, the Second World War was different from the Boer War or the “Great” War, but the visits were on the same dazzle-the-locals model.)
When Elizabeth “ascended” the throne in 1952, and we learned to draw and colour the crown she’d wear, a quarter of the earth’s population still lived under that crown — and that was after India and Pakistan departed. By her death, it had shrunk to a few islands, many of them plotting to get out. Even in the late sixties, Rule Britannia had transformed by necessity into Cool Britannia, wittily concealing a monumental decline.
Her predecessor Queen Victoria also had an image, but it was linked to an actual empire. When Canadians tried to break free in 1837, they were driven back to an island in the Niagara River, from which they shelled British forces. A cannonball severed a British soldier’s leg, who asked for the limb, raised it and shouted “Three cheers for Queen Victoria!” before dying. The last time Britain sent the fleet to enforce its control of a colony — the Falkland Islands/Malvinas, off Argentina — if a trooper gave three cheers, it’d have been for Margaret Thatcher, not Elizabeth.
In a way, imagery replaced empire: it didn’t reflect it, unlike Rudyard Kipling’s images, which fed off and portrayed an energetic imperial reality: “Kim,” “Gunga Din,” virtually everything he wrote. Whereas images based on mere other images — like the superb series “The Crown” — are paltry and fade, they require constant pumping up. People must be told how meaningful it all is, and urged to get out and file past the corpse. It’s wearying.
Like the young Canadian tourist who’d flown in from Ireland, and told the CBC he didn’t plan it this way but it all just worked out. Nice of the Queen to die on the London leg of his trip. The reporter chuckled and said we’d all been part of history today and will be again (hint, hint) at Monday’s funeral. Or the young man asked by the Financial Times why he was there: “I dunno. She seemed all right.” Yes yes, we came, where are we supposed to go next?
It’s understandable — every human wants to be part of something larger. Who wants to expend their precious, limited selfhood on a lifetime where nothing happens? But whipping it up artificially, or artifactually, has diminishing returns.
What happens next? Charles, poor putz. His “mummy” knew enough to say and do almost nothing, thus letting meanings be projected onto her. Even when she blew the moment, as in the Wales mining disaster of 1966 or the death of Diana, it was for staying silent, which she easily rectified by intoning a remedial script. Reticence served her well for 70 years. Charles, in three days, screwed it up by lashing out at a leaky fountain pen, replacing the earlier image of hankering to be a royal tampon that after decades, he looked finally to have shed.
Canada for some reason hangs in there. Who truly wants your highest, even if symbolic, authority living in another country? Yet we can’t break away. I’m thinking of images painted by (my lifelong friend) Charles Pachter: her majesty and a majestic moose, gazing at each other with a kind of intimate incomprehension across a barren northern landscape.
They have no idea what connects them, but they’re locked in.