Much Ado About Nothing
The Maltings is the name of a community playhouse and art gallery in Wells-next-the Sea, on the coast of Norfolk, England. It’s a new facility and the pride of Wells, a tourist hub with a vestigial fishing fleet. I was there, two weeks ago, with my English wife Harriet, and her octogenarian parents, Sally and Michael, to watch a production of Much Ado About Nothing, broadcast live from the National Theater in London. We were 15 minutes early and had just sat at a table in the foyer with our glasses of wine, when Sally said,
“Oh, the Queen has died.”
Harriet and I had been following the news and knew that Elizabeth’s family had gathered at her bedside in Balmoral and that the prognosis was grim.
“We know she’s sick,” Harriet said.
“Not sick, dead.”
“Yes, she could die,” replied Harriet, who is partially deaf.
“No, she has died!” Sally said emphatically.
“You mean she’s dying?” I contributed.
“No, the Queen is dead. Dead! I just heard it from somebody here.”
And so it continued for a few more minutes, until the house impresario, a man named Harris, called for attention from behind the bar. In a deep baritone, he heralded:
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is with deep sorrow and regret, that I must announce that our dear Queen, Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, has just passed away. I know we shall all need some time to quietly process this tragic news. I’ll be back with you in a few minutes with some announcements about tonight’s performance.”
“How tiresome!” Sally said, audibly. “When someone that old dies, it’s not ‘tragic.’
Sally’s expostulation turned a few heads, and though I am no royalist, I thought, as the only American in the room, I should make a show of respect on the occasion of the queen’s demise. So, I said:
“You mean, Sally, the death of such a beloved figure at age 96 calls for celebration of her life more than mourning over her passing?”
“What utter nonsense. Now we all must look as if we are grieving,” Sally said, drawing out the ‘e’ sound. Harriet and I smiled embarrassedly. Michael extended a long arm and embraced his wife.
After a few minutes, Harris came back to announce that because of her majesty’s decades of generous patronage, the staff and players of the National Theater decided the show must go on. We then trooped to our seats and watched a ripping version of Shakespeare’s comedy, audaciously set in the 1930s at a Riviera hotel named The Messina. It was all suitably antic, and I mostly forgot about the old queen’s death, except when, in Act IV, Scene 1, Claudio falsely accuses Hero – at the wedding altar — of adultery. The Friar who was to marry them, disbelieves the charges and after the wedding party disperses, urges Hero to feign death in order to catch the slanderers. (It’s not clear how this would work, but never mind.) He says to her parents:
Let her awhile be secretly kept in,
And publish it that she is dead indeed.
Maintain a mourning ostentation,
And on your family’s old monument
Hang mournful epitaphs and do all rites
That appertain unto a burial….
Marry, this well carried shall on her behalf
Change slander to remorse.
Hearing the lines, I thought about the late queen’s son, the new king Charles III. He too was slandered for infidelity. Could the queen’s death “change slander to remorse?” Charles was also accused of profiteering from the Duchy of Cornwall; selling knighthoods for cash (literally, banknotes stuffed into suitcases); and bad taste in architecture. Then I remembered – all these charges are true!
And what about the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, appointed just days before Elizabeth’s death, and the previous PM, Boris Johnson? The first was roundly attacked for waging a leadership campaign based upon platitudes about an “aspiration society,” and mocked for emulating Margaret Thatcher, a woman loathed even by her late, serene Majesty. Johnson was maligned for lies, fecklessness, corruption, and sloth. Would the queen’s death spur Tory politicians to remorse? Would they act to mitigate the impact on the poor of soaring food, housing, and energy prices? Would they invest whatever was needed to restore the dysfunctional National Health Service, fix the decaying transportation infrastructure and rein in the corruption, greed, and financial hoarding of the British political and business elite? Not bloody likely.
Fifty Years of Neo-Liberal Britain
I first visited England in the summer of 1974 in the company of my best friend (later the celebrated casting director) Andrew Zerman. We both just turned 18. To pay for my plane ticket (Icelandic Airlines from JFK — overnight layover in Reykjavik airport), I redeemed the savings bonds I got for my Bar Mitzvah. In London, we stayed for free in a basement apartment in Kensington belonging to John Goldstone, producer of the Monty Python movies, who was a friend of Andy’s father. I’d never heard of Monty Python – episodes were first broadcast in the U.S. later that year – and we never did meet John, who paced the floors just a few feet above our heads.
During our first days in the flat, I remember spending way too much time flipping through the pages of Time Out, hoping to find swinging London. But we were several years too late to the party. I never saw Twiggy or Mick and missed out on shopping at I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet on Carnaby Street. Both Oz and International Times had ceased publication the year before. I didn’t go to concerts at the Marquee Club and never got invited to drug-fueled orgies – or any orgies.
In fact, London in 1974 was a sober place. Economic activity had declined more than 9% from the year before, average salaries were dropping, and inflation reached 16%. By the end of the year, Labor was returned to power, but inflation, strikes and rising unemployment continued to buffet the economy. High Street retailers suffered, discretionary spending shrank, and parents no longer had the luxury of supporting their countercultural childrens’ debaucheries. A year later, the far-right populist Margaret Thatcher vowed to restore British greatness by firing striking workers, reducing social spending, cutting taxes and education funding, privatizing public utilities and services, and generally curtailing the welfare state. She soon became leader of the Tory party and was elected prime minister in 1979 — whereupon she did most of what she promised, except bring prosperity to the working masses. The leftist critic Stuart Hall called the Thatcher years a period of “regressive modernization.” This was the world from which the Sex Pistols emerged. Their 1977 song, God Save the Queen,” has recently received a lot of air play:
God save the queen
The fascist regime
They made you a moron
A potential H bomb
God save the queen
She’s not a human being
and There’s no future
And England’s dreaming…
In the nearly half century since that first visit, the U.K. has undergone many changes but seen little progress, the exceptions being greater rights for queer and disabled Britons, general acceptance of non-white immigrants, and a growing understanding of the need for environmental protection. The latter has not however, led to major changes in British energy use or dependence on fossil fuels. Nor has it prevented the impoverishment of the countryside: the sharp decline of insect populations, gradual decline in bird and small mammal numbers, and general loss of biodiversity.
Great Britain today – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — is dirtier and more run down than it was a half century ago; its four nations are more divided internally and from each other; and its people are poorer, fatter and grumpier. British unions are weak, and large corporations are strong. Industries are hardly regulated, resulting in disasters such as the multiple bank failures of 2008 and the Grenfell Tower Fire in 2017. With at least 10% of the current U.K. labor force precarious (gig workers, part-timers, and zero-hour contract employees) and double that number coping with in-work poverty, the gap between rich and poor continues to rise: The modest increase in median income in recent years has all gone to the richest 1/5th, while the poorest 1/5th has seen a decline in real wages. The U.K. is among the most unequal countries in Europe.
Changes in the British capitalism since the early 1970s are in fact so profound, that some have argued that the country is in the vanguard of a new, global socio-economic order, variously called “rentierism,” or “techno-feudalism.” Britain doesn’t any longer derive its wealth from making things or even delivering services, the argument goes, but from “rents” from property holdings, patents, and information, or else from speculation in financial instruments, commodity futures, or currency exchange. The British rentier and financial elite, with multiple homes, yachts, planes, and foreign bank accounts, are like the nobles of old, aloof from the commoners, while holding over them the power of economic life and death. They are an extended Royal Family.
The magic of monarchy
I’ve been back to the U.K. dozens of times since that first trip almost a half-century ago. Recently, Harriet and I have been visiting three or four times a year to see her parents, Michael and Sally in North Norfolk, and her two grown daughters, Daisy and Molly in Brighton and Edinburgh. I enjoy these visits, and I’m comfortable in England, but there’s little likelihood I will ever feel truly at home here or be treated like a native. While I am hesitant to generalize about whole countries, I can safely venture there is a range of custom, cultural reference, and manner of speech that only the rarest of visitors will master. Oscar Wilde wrote: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” How many Americans can correctly deploy the essential interjection “oi!”, distinguish between “twit” and “twat,” or enjoy the subtle pleasure of a well-aimed “bloody hell!”
But the most incomprehensible British custom of all is the widespread – though by no means universal — reverence for the monarchy, especially the person of the just departed queen. Here in rural Norfolk, where life is unhurried, everything seemed to slow to a crawl during the state designated two-weeks of mourning in advance of the queen’s funeral. Elizabeth’s visage is everywhere, and casual conversations often involve thoughts and recollections of her majesty. In a wine shop in posh Burnham Market, the proprietor told me a story about the time he met the queen during a royal visit to the London headquarters of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters on Glass, of which his father was Master.
“I was a young man then, not like now, and I was lucky my father invited me. As the queen moved down the reception line, she talked for a moment with each person. When my turn came, she for some reason settled in for a good chat. We talked about wine – I was already in the trade – and laughed about enjoying a good tipple! And she really laughed, just like anybody – it was a real laugh! Finally, somebody whispered in her ear, and she moved on. I certainly wasn’t going to end the conversation!”
It’s a sweet story, but the contradiction at the heart of it – that the queen is at once a god come to earth, and a person like you and me – exposes the devious magic of the monarchy: to make social and class hierarchy seem natural and inevitable. Those with wealth, power and prestige deserve their status, the lesson goes, but in the end, they are just like the rest of us. Why resent them? At the same time, when they mess up, they offer us an alibi for our own fallibility. Clive Lewis, the Labor MP for South Norwich, broke with the fortnight mourning silence imposed by his leader, Keir Starmer, and stated last week: “[The monarchy] is a spectacle exalted for exemplifying virtues that should be typical in public life and public behaviour. Casting such behaviour as exceptional allows the likes of Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and the economic elites they represent to break and exploit the rules for their own benefit and that of their very narrow class interest – of which the monarchy is an integral part.” Despite its long history of complicity in imperial violence, its silence in the face of the cruel dismantling of British social welfare, its vast, ill-gotten wealth, and its extraordinary cost to the nation (a half-billion pounds per year), a majority of the working and middle classes in Britain are still unable to articulate an ideology of self and nation independent of the ruling ideas of the aristocracy and elite. When they do, they will effect a liberation from more than just the monarchy.
The funeral of the queen on T.V.
There is no question the British do state funerals well. Though the pacing was sometimes, well, funereal – the color, choreography and costumes were terrific. (It’s appalling however, that British guards still wear hats made from the fur of black bears trapped in Canada.) The cars in the funeral procession were gorgeous – a half dozen maroon Rolls Royces, black Range Rovers and a Jaguar hearse – but I didn’t see an electric vehicle among them. The flowers on top of the Queen’s coffin were a cheerful note, but disappointing in their lack of variety — roses and carnations you could have found at any Sainsbury’s. The golden orb, scepter, and crown, also on top of the coffin, remained magically stationary despite being carried on and off the gun carriage, up and down steps from the Abbey, and into and out of the Jag hearse. They must have been nailed or glued down. The parade of ex-prime ministers entering the Abbey was a depressing embodiment of mediocrity and mendacity.
I’m sure millions of Britons watching the spectacle on their tellies and along the cortege route were transfixed by the whole thing, even the slow bits. Not so much my British wife and her parents. Sally and Michael arrived at our rented cottage late for the funeral. “When is the two minutes of silence?” asked Sally as soon as she arrived. She’s a full-time poet and sometimes Quaker and enjoys the space between the lines.
“Oh, there’s Kate – she’s the pretty one.”
“No, That’s Meghan,” I corrected. “In the black hat,” I added stupidly. All the women were wearing black hats.
“And there’s Ann – she’s most ordinary-looking, isn’t she,” Sally said. “Who’s she married to? That horsey fellow, Mark something? Pity Larkin can’t write a poem about it all.” She pulled out a small notebook and began to sketch the family tree. Harriet helped.
The choir began singing the hymn, The Day Though Gavest, Lord, is ended. “Oh, I hate this tune,” Sally complained loudly, “they made us sing it at school!”
From the television, we heard the Archbishop of Canterbury intone: “We can all share the Queens’s hope…service in life…trust and faith in God. We will meet again… “
“Our papers were so mean to William – I’m glad he escaped.”
“We ask almighty god to bless King Charles and all his family, through Jesus Christ, our Lord…”
“Have you had enough? I need to strim the grass before the gardener comes tomorrow. And the windows need undercoating and painting before Winter sets in.”
“…her unstinting devotion to duty and the continued health and prosperity of this nation…Go forth in the name of Christ…
“The fritillaries will come up soon. Let’s go Michael, I have had enough.”