From David Maughan Brown in York: An “unfussy” funeral.

All alone

April 20th

One didn’t need to be a Royalist to be moved by images of the Queen sitting on her own, bowed with age, at the funeral of a husband to whom she had been married for 73 years, or to feel that the numerous accolades for the Duke of Edinburgh’s loyalty, dedication and public service through all those years were fully merited.   The funeral service had by all accounts been meticulously planned by the Duke himself, and in terms of its relative brevity and lack of sermonising, as well as the beauty of the music, it would, one assumes, have met with his no doubt somewhat sardonic approval had he been around to watch it.   The sound of the bagpipes playing ‘The Flowers of the Forest’, fading as the lone piper slow-marched out of the chapel while the Duke’s coffin was lowered into the vault, will live long in the memory.

We listened to the funeral service in the car on the way back to York after taking advantage of a perfect Spring day to meet with my daughter’s family for a released from lock-down picnic at Nostell Priory, a National Trust property near Pontefract, and then watched the televised broadcast in the evening.   Where the music was concerned I was particularly struck by the beauty and appropriateness of the exquisitely sung ‘Russian Kontakion for the Departed’ which I hadn’t heard for the better part of sixty years, and which Prince Philip had presumably chosen in part as a nod towards his mixed European, including Russian, ancestry.   It brought back memories of my time in the ‘Special Choir’ at boarding school in Cape Town where we were each paid 2/6 for singing at weddings and funerals in the school chapel, not caring particularly whether we were taking part in a ‘matching’ or ‘dispatching’ ceremony as long as we were able to double our weekly pocket-money on the strength of a couple of hours of practice, often of the Russian Kontakion, and the sacrifice of part of a Saturday afternoon – the only times I came anywhere close to being a professional singer.

The commentators made much of the ‘ordinariness’ of the Queen’s funeral experience under lockdown:  the lonely widow, sitting by herself without the close support of her family, with attendance at the funeral restricted to the Covid regulation limit of 30, rather than the five to eight hundred who might have been expected at a funeral that hadn’t had to be ‘scaled-down.’  But this was, of course, no ‘ordinary’ funeral.   The ‘chapel’ in which it was held is large enough to be a cathedral, even if the ‘choir’ only consisted of four singers.   Ordinary funerals, ‘scaled-down’ or not, don’t feature 700 members of the armed services lined up in socially-distanced ranks awaiting the arrival of the funeral procession.   Most people, for that matter, don’t get to design their own hearse.   For somebody who, we were repeatedly told, ‘didn’t like a fuss’, there was quite a bit of fuss not to like, much of which the Duke had planned for himself – which is not to suggest that the fuss was not appropriate as a send-off for someone who had spent a life dedicated to public service of the highest order.   

To the extent that Covid-19 necessitated the foregoing of the pomp and circumstance of a funeral with over 500 assorted guests, the Duke of Edinburgh might well have been pleased to have a pandemic-affected departure.  There was certainly less fuss than there otherwise would have been.   The Queen might well also not have been too unhappy to be obliged to endure the funeral without close family beside her if the upside was that she also didn’t have to survive the sight and sound of a repugnantly self-absorbed Prime Minister using the occasion for self-display.  Of all the 14 Prime Ministers of the UK whom the Queen has seen come and go during her reign, Boris Johnson is the one whose total lack of principle or morality she is likely to have found most at odds with her own, and her husband’s, principled dedication to public service.

The funeral provided some interesting insights into the quirkiness of British ceremonial tradition.   Three struck me in particular.  The first was the way in which the decision not to allow the mourners to wear military uniform – which we were allowed to understand was to spare the blushes of Prince Harry who has been stripped of his – resulted in the rows of medals standing out much more prominently against the background of the dark suits and coats on which they were worn than they would have on uniforms.  Rows and rows of medals, most of which, one could only assume from looking at the somewhat motley array of mourners, had been awarded in recognition of the great favour those sporting them had done to the world by having granted it the favour of allowing themselves to be born into it.  The second was the Garter Principal King of Arms’s proclamation of ‘the styles and titles of HRH The Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh’, most of which the Prince had presumably acquired as a result of whom he had married, dressed in a tailored Royal Standard that made him look like the King (if not the Joker) from a pack of up-market playing cards.   Lastly, the fact that the ‘Lady-in-waiting’ who supported the Queen by accompanying her in the car to the funeral, the only one of the 67 or so million population of the UK who was with her to offer that support at that exceptionally difficult moment in her life, wasn’t even allowed the dignity of a name in the commentary – she was a mere functionary.  So, for that matter, was the Garter Principal King of Arms, but who needs a name when you can wear a fancy-dress costume like that?

The funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh also offered interesting insights into our society and culture more generally.   One was the extent of the media obsession with the detail of the lives of the royal family: which of the ‘senior’ royals, for example, had allegedly snubbed Harry at the funeral, and why their cousin Philip had been placed between the two princes in the funeral procession, but then deferentially hung back about eighteen inches behind them.  Why would anyone care?   Another was the very many thousands of pounds that had been spent helping florists out of their Covid-induced financial slump by the laying of thousands of bouquets outside royal residences, only for them to be taken into the grounds, piled up and, presumably, composted, the majority of their messages of condolence unappreciated.   Couldn’t the money have been better spent by one of the late Duke’s many charities?  Perhaps most bizarre of all, the large numbers of royalists, crowded together in their maskless lack of herd immunity behind the barriers lining the roads along which the funeral procession had never been destined to process.  Why were they there, adorned in their jingoistic accoutrements, unable to see anything whatever of what was going on, in spite of all the earnest requests from those to whom they were supposedly paying deferential homage to ‘stay away’?   Because, they said, they ‘just had to be there’, they ‘couldn’t stay away’.   The ‘herd’ bit came to mind, even if the lack of immunity only seems likely to become all too apparent in a week or two.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of flames and ashes

Belfast in flames again

April 15th

It took 30 years of violence during the euphemistically termed ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, at the cost of more than 3,500 lives, before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement enabled the more than twenty years of peace that followed.   It took all of three months from the end of the one-year Brexit transition period on December 31st for the petrol bombs to start being hurled again, and buses and cars in Northern Ireland to start being torched.  It is reported that more than ninety policemen in Belfast and elsewhere have been injured in the riots over the past couple of weeks.   A quaintly deferential pause has been called by the ‘loyalists’ to the escalation of what is rapidly becoming a deeply worrying conflict between the Protestant and Catholic sides of the great divide in recognition of the week of mourning following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, but this ‘truce’ has no more chance of lasting than the unofficial truce that broke out on the Western Front at Christmas in 1914. Boris Johnson can’t pretend he wasn’t warned.

Northern Ireland was always going to be the single intractable and ultimately irresolvable problem with Brexit.   As the legacy of slavery hangs over the United States, and to a somewhat lesser extent over us, so the legacy still endures of the ‘planting’ of Protestants in the north of Catholic Ireland that began some three hundred years ago.  As long as Northern Ireland remained one of the four component parts of the United Kingdom, and Ireland remained part of the European Union, the former’s departure from the EU was going to have to result in a border of some description between the two if the EU was going to be able to maintain the integrity of its trading standards.   It was abundantly clear that a land border of any description would inevitably, and very quickly, put the fragile peace accord of the Good Friday Agreement in serious jeopardy.   So Boris Johnson, very late in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, adopted what seemed to be the lesser of two evils and agreed to a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain down the Irish Sea.

One minor problem with this solution was that Johnson had visited Northern Ireland the previous August and assured the political and business communities, hand on heart, that access to the markets the other side of the Irish Sea would remain entirely unfettered:  ‘There will be no border down the Irish Sea, that will happen over my dead body.’   Whether this was a deliberate, bare-faced lie, like some many of his others – his conscience and any ethical sense he might ever have had were dead and buried long ago, even if his body hasn’t yet followed their example – or whether he simply hadn’t bothered to look at, or think through, the detail, is immaterial.   Trade in both directions is fettered; many businesses in Great Britain have decided it isn’t worth the hassle to continue to deliver to Northern Ireland; the supermarket shelves there are depleted; and unionists, in particular, understandably feel betrayed.

Even as the petrol bombs exploded and the police were trying to quell the rioting last week there was little indication that Downing Street gave much of a damn about what was going on.  Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, went to the verbal extreme of declaring that the injuries to the ninety-odd policemen were ‘unacceptable’. But I suspect that for all his protestations of devotion to the United Kingdom Boris Johnson himself, ensconced as King of his Little England castle, just doesn’t care about what happens to those he probably thinks of as the ‘Paddies’ and ‘Micks’ of Ireland, precious few of whom ever got to Eton.   Ireland, like France, is the other side of a stretch of water and full of people who, because they aren’t part of England, are all essentially foreigners, even if the ‘loyalists’ don’t agree,  and even if they all speak a version of the Queen’s English.   But Johnson would do well to remember that, with Biden now President of the United States, if the Good Friday Agreement goes up in flames, which seems pretty well inevitable if Johnson keeps on down the path he is taking at present, any hopes of a trade deal with the United States, supposedly the one big, fat prize of Brexit (however deluded that ambition was in the first place) will be consumed to ashes by those very same flames.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Happy Birthday

June 10th

I woke up this morning to the sound of a military band playing the national anthem and gathered that this was in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh’s 99th birthday.  How bizarre is that?  It happens every year and the same happens on the birthdays of other members of the Royal family.  The oddity of the ritual never ceases to astonish me.   I commented in an earlier blog on the eccentricity, to put it politely, of a supposedly ‘national’ anthem whose exclusive focus lies on a single individual.  Its plea to the deity to enable her ‘long to reign over us’ has clearly been met by the Queen’s 68 year reign, but carrying on earnestly praying for her to live long into the future now she is 94 seems to be pushing it where both optimism and the powers of the deity are concerned.  But leaving the anthem itself aside, heralding the Duke’s birthday by playing his wife’s tune, and thereby further erasing his individual identity, is going too far.

The Duke of Edinburgh seems to me to deserve a lot better.  He is not responsible for the supreme social inequity of inherited wealth and privilege that inclines some of us to republicanism.  He may have been prone to the odd faux pas over the years, but he has performed an exceptionally unenviable subordinate role to the Queen with great diligence for almost all of what must have seemed 68 very long years.  Whether precisely accurate as to the detail or not, the television series The Crown has, I suspect, conveyed a fairly accurate idea of some of the difficulties of his position.

The 1995 Royal Visit to Natal in 1995 coincided with a fund-raising visit Brenda had to make to the United States, so it fell on me to spend a couple of hours showing him round the Howard College campus of the University of Natal, and then to attend an evening reception on the royal yacht Britannia, where I spent some further time chatting to him.   I found him very engaging and easy to talk to, and he was clearly genuinely interested in, and asked penetrating questions about, the exhibitions we had mounted for him, for what must have been his umpteen hundredth visit to a university campus over the course of the more than forty years during which he had by then been performing the role.  He even managed to refrain from commenting on the fact that the Union Jack that had been brought out of mothballs for his visit was inadvertently being flown upside down on the University’s flag-pole in his honour. Not being practised in such matters, I hadn’t noticed; I am sure he would have.   

The last two or three years have succeeding in shredding the credibility of our version of ‘democracy’ as a political system.   It has landed us with a government that has mishandled the Covid-19 pandemic so hopelessly badly that an OECD analysis shows that our economy is on track to be the worst affected of all the world’s major economies, with a probable slump in 2020 of over 11%.  That is without taking any account of the rapidly approaching economic insanity of a probable ‘no deal’ with the EU at the end of the transition period.  Our Brexiteer cabinet couldn’t be trusted to run a Sunday school picnic without losing half the children and leaving the rest with food poisoning.  A marginally different version of democracy has landed the United States with the execrable Donald Trump.  I wouldn’t advocate it, but in a crisis like this a return to monarchy right now could only be an improvement.  Any one of our monarch’s combination of experience, wisdom and intelligence would be extremely welcome.   But if the Duke of Edinburgh makes it to his hundredth birthday, as I’m sure we all hope he will, could someone please make sure that the BBC has the decency and tact to get the military band to play a simple ‘Happy Birthday to you’ for him instead of playing his wife’s tune as she passes the congratulatory telegram to him over the cornflakes.  The Duke of Edinburgh’s very special day will surely deserve to be recognised as his day rather than hers.