Letter from London: King for a Day

Photograph Source: Department for Culture, Media and Sport – PDM 1.0

Even alongside Buddy Cage’s ethereal slide guitar on ‘Meet Me in the Morning’ — the only blues song on ‘Blood on the Tracks’ — Dylan poetically works into it that proverb about the darkest hour being right before the dawn. Poets have in fact been writing about rising suns since the birth of rhyme. Last week — in London — we were presented with a basket of lavish dawns, a rare spread of shiny sunrises: actual, metaphorical, and fake. I still usually wake up in the capital at dawn, listening to the early traffic cough its way to work. This is in both directions. We are by a major road connecting London with the English Channel port of Dover. Nor am I surprised to hear Londoners worry far more about climate change than the rest of England. Since the so-called dawn of Brexit, many of the things London thinks grates with the rest of the country. Now — as we are told on a daily basis — comes the additional cockrow of a freshly coronated, albeit environment-savvy, king. There is no end to our freakishness.

I have always been interested in what my American friends have to say on the subject of monarchy — ‘kingship’ as I suppose we can now technically call it again after 70 years. I enjoy the way natural republican instincts kick in here. ‘The only people who don’t like the royals are Brits,’ said my New Yorker friend generously last week, though there was of course a kick to what he was saying, and I know he is proud of the fact ‘No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States’, as it says in an annotated Clause 8, Titles of Nobility and Foreign Emoluments, of the Constitution. His mother who is in her late 90s has been ending her phone calls from the States of late with: ‘It’s really time they got rid of their monarchy.’ She may have a point. Though ill, George III who lost the American colonies did write sentences containing up to 400 words and only eight verbs. Another very close eastern seaboard friend, having since travelled from sea to shining sea, now lives on an island off Seattle. Well, he was positively rocking last week to the tune of one British social media message warning the world not to get too carried away with the coronation of Charles III: ‘We don’t want pageantry,’ the message read, ‘we want affordable food, and rent, and bills.’ It also stated there were more food banks in Britain than branches of McDonalds: ‘If we’re asking God to save anyone, it should be the 14.4 million people living in poverty, not the king,’ it ended.

For the authorities here an amazing own goal has been the much discussed and reported arrests of peaceful demonstrators on the big day. In a rash attempt to sweep away something they have made it the most conspicuous thing on the carpet. At the latest count, 32 people were arrested for conspiracy to cause a public nuisance while another 14 were taken in for breach of the peace. Among those arrested was an independent journalist. One serious monarchist was detained for 13 hours just for standing next to protestors. Chief Executive Graham Smith of leading republican movement Republic, a man it seems with more respect for his detractors than they have for him, was detained for 16 hours in a cell after taking placards from a hired van early that morning. Furthermore, he had been in amicable enough discussions with police since February 8 about Republic’s arrangements, during which time they reportedly shared openly their plans. Protestors now vowing to continue demonstrating against King Charles and Prince William do so on a fresh wave of support, including people simply upset about the arrests. This resultant breakdown of trust between the Met police and peaceful protesters strikes many as disastrous. One surprising figure registering disappointment about what took place has been Sue Sim, the enlightened former chief constable of Northumbria police: ‘We do not want a totalitarian police state,’ she said on a leading radio news outlet. ‘Very, very worrying,’ said passionate monarchist and former Tory cabinet member Rory Stewart, on his hugely popular podcast ‘The Rest is Politics’ with Alastair Campbell. It is now believed that a still popular monarchy must be very careful indeed about its connection with antagonising the public. There were certainly one or two overcast moments last week where at least some of the rhetoric sounded very much to me like the Tories were trying, through their brand new Public Order Act which came into effect only the week before, to ‘own’ the royal family.

In addition, I have noticed that many young people today are bemused by the concept of a government with a monarch at its head. The same can be said of increasing members of the Commonwealth, with many Australians and New Zealanders for example chomping at the bit with their own brand of clenched republicanism. Jamaica last week was also seriously underwhelmed. Nor has any of this ‘noise’ around the monarchy been helped by the fact those arrested have since been informed there will no further action, because all that has done is encourage the idea, rightly or wrongly, that the arrests were simply part of a plan to kill protests deliberately, by going back for instance on the arrangements in place with Republic. This is not unlike the old ‘catch and release’ method used on the Suffragettes. ‘This has been a disgraceful episode and we will be speaking to lawyers about taking legal action,’ Graham Smith has since tweeted: ‘I also expect a full inquiry into why they repeatedly lied to us and who authorised the arrests.’ Just to show how cracked it is, Commons leader and Lord President of the Privy Council Penny Mordaunt actually boosted her chances of spearheading the Tory party by physically wielding throughout the coronation the so-called Jewelled Sword of Offering — which symbolises royal power and a presumably divine ability to decide between good and evil — thus prompting one crack Scottish observer to compare it to Michael Palin as the peasant in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ when he talks about the place of swords being the basis of democratic government. ‘On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot,’ also says King Arthur in the film: ’Tis a silly place.’

Not so far from Kensington Palace in London, my New Yorker friend continues his own personal assault on British history, presently taking a class on 1901 to 1924 and another on 1880 to 1914 — one on social issues, the other political. Unwittingly, he has got me reading parts of Noel Annan’s ‘Our Age’ again, in particular the chapters on Evelyn Waugh, in which Graham Greene is described as Catholicism’s double agent and ‘one of God’s spies’, and a chapter on those real spies, the Cambridge ones, which mentions in rare detail the story of the academically brilliant Welshman Goronwy Rees, the father of a gifted horseman I travelled into the desert with once. Understandably, most people into this band of idealistic students recruited to spy for the Soviet Union in the early 1930s tend to gravitate mostly towards Kim Philby, of whom it is still impossible not to feel repulsed by the high number of people he betrayed and sent to their early graves. This begs another question: what is it exactly that grips people so much about spies in the first place? What precisely is it about jiggery-pokery and faithless treachery that so arouses people? My New Yorker friend and I are recent fans of the dramatisation of Ben Macintyre’s pleasingly decipherable ‘A Spy Among Friends’. Is it because friendship retains such high billing that we can relate to it? Even US counterintelligence chief James Angleton’s controlling love of English language Modernist poets such as TS Eliot adds cunning to the tale. But — back to our monarchy again — was it not former Soviet spy Anthony Blunt being promised immunity because he was surveyor of the Queen’s pictures that showed just how truly ridiculous we are, even if in a league of spies Blunt would come bottom?

This even got me looking at home movies of the House of Romanov whose Russian royal blood was, as might be expected, mixed with our own. These home movies were filmed between 1906 and 1914, obviously before the 1917 February Revolution. I still haven’t read American journalist and poet John Reed’s ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’ but I have read Robert Service’s ‘Penguin History of Modern Russia’. However, it was populist film ‘Nicholas and Alexandria’ that in reality taught me as a child of the truly ghastly fate of the Romanovs. Moreover, it is one of those bittersweet ironies that royal families are all about succession, and yet those anti-royalists who replace monarchies so always fall down on this. I met up with a brother-in-law who is a professor of medicine last week, who asked me over coffee at the National Gallery if I had seen the film ‘Death of Stalin’, in which Stalin’s failure to appoint a successor — Lenin also failed on this score — turned everything into a kind of malevolent travesty. As a matter of fact, who knows the kind of ghastly right-wing dictatorship a country like ours would have right now if it got rid of its monarchy. Better the farce, some people genuinely believe, than the force. The genuinely troubling rise of nationalism here is if anything tamed slightly by the monarchy, despite its increasingly revealed links to a very dark past indeed. Talking of the process of inheriting a title, office, or property, the final series of ‘Succession’ is coming to an end. Based loosely on Australian-born republican Rupert Murdoch’s family, it gives the concept of accession or elevation an even worse reputation than it may already have, and I wonder how it really was for Charles waiting all these years in the wings.

Much was made of his lip-read moment in one of those famously uncomfortable gold-painted carriages: ‘We can never be on time,’ he is seen to be complaining. ‘Yes, I’m … this is a negative. There’s always something.’ Any kind of marriage of perceived irascibility with suppression of criticism must surely be high-risk. The nation is already irritated. No need to make it worse. Since Brexit, we have all been stuck in an old-fashioned carriage seemingly going nowhere. No one is even interested in reading our lips. A talented journalist I know remarked last week that only a few years ago a well known broadsheet had the best comment pieces in journalism but these were now full of what he called ‘nutcases & headbangers’. I agreed. It was indeed a strange development, not unlike a country locked in a room too small for itself.

By the end of the song ‘Meet Me in the Morning’, long after the little rooster has called with something on its mind, we have the sun ‘sinking like a ship’. Let’s hope the darkest hour this time isn’t right after the dawn.

Peter Bach lives in London.