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: ‘Diatribes of bilge’?

Nuclear explosion!

March 10th

Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan and Harry, aired on ITV on Monday evening, has been described as a ‘bombshell interview’ whose ‘shockwaves swept around the world’.  The Daily Mail, our representative tabloid for the day, talks about ‘a string of incendiary accusations unleashed by Harry and wife Meghan’ and tells us that Buckingham Palace has been ‘paralysed with horror and dismay as Prince Harry stands accused of blowing up his family with his bombshell interview.’  And it was apparently no ordinary bombshell: ‘palace insiders’, we are told, described a mood of ‘intense personal shock and sadness’ that the prince had pressed the ‘nuclear button on his own family … people are just reeling.’ * Paralysed people ‘reeling with shock’ after being hit by a nuclear explosion whose shockwaves have swept around the world should probably take time off to be thankful that they have enough life left in them to do their reeling.

Apart from the implication that security had been withdrawn from Harry and Meghan’s family, and that Archie had been denied a title, on racial grounds – hinted at in particular via a reported conversation with an unnamed royal who had speculated on the shade of darkness of the unborn baby Archie – the most telling ‘bombshell’ was perhaps Meghan’s revelation that she had become suicidal and sought help from Buckingham Palace, but had been refused.   Almost submerged among the more striking claims was the assertion that there exists an ‘invisible contract’ between the royals and the tabloids informally stipulating favourable press in exchange for access.**  If that is true, and there is no reason whatever to suppose that it might not be, one can only assume that, for whatever reason (and one can guess), Meghan Markle was not regarded as coming under the terms of that invisible contract.

There can be no question that the Press’s treatment of Meghan Markle has been one of the principal determining factors in this whole sorry saga.   But, with the notable exception of today’s excellent editorial in The Independent,*** even the very few inhabitants of the more enlightened wing of the Press’s unstately home seem reluctant to acknowledge this.  Sunday’s The Observer (7/3/21), for example, carried three substantial articles about the interview.  In the first, by Vanessa Thorpe (p.5), nothing whatever is said about the press; the second, by Andrew Gumbel (pp.40-1), talks about them ‘feeling’ they [Harry and Meghan] had gone to USA ‘with some assurance that they wouldn’t be hounded by the paparazzi the way they felt they were’, and thereby calls into question whether they really were hounded by the paparazzi or simply ‘felt they were’; the third, a carping article by Catherine Bennett titled ‘In the battle of Meghan versus the Firm, who do we cheer on? How about neither…’(p.49), makes very fleeting reference in passing to ‘when Meghan was herself bullied by the UK press’ but doesn’t bother to linger on that insight.

In this instance one had to look to David Olusoga, Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, on the BBC’s Today  programme yesterday to get to the nub of the issue where Harry and Meghan were concerned:  ‘‘This is the story of a black princess, a moment when Britain projected this image around the world and this was the opportunity for us to become the nation we pretend we are…. I’m interested in the fact that we didn’t.  We allowed our press to hound this woman and hound her family and it says something about us.  And the Royal Family are just another institution of this country, and in some ways these issues reflect the wider country.  It isn’t just about the royal family; it is about us as a nation’.   The BBC, seeing the Tory private sector fetishists in full cry in its rear-view mirror, intent on eviscerating it to get at its licence fee, inevitably felt it had to ‘balance’ Olusoga’s incisiveness by inviting no less an authority of Britain and the Royal Family than Meghan’s estranged father Thomas Markle to share his expertise with us: ‘I have great respect for the royals and I don’t think the British royal family are racist at all. I don’t think the British are racist.’  So that is settled then.

Olusoga’s repetition of ‘hounding’ allows the full force of the metaphor to come through:  in the ‘tally ho!’ world shared by both the tabloid press and traditional fox-hunting the quarry is regarded as vermin, ‘fair game’, onto which the hounds – whether fox-hounds or news-hounds – can be set, with the goal being to tear the quarry to shreds, either literally or metaphorically.  Harry had seen what happened to his mother who was, as nearly literally as it is possible to get, hounded to her death in an underpass in Paris – hunted down by the paparazzi.   When he saw the same thing in danger of happening to his wife he would have had to be insane not to want to find a way to protect her from the hounds.

Only one person was explicitly exonerated during the interview from complicity in ‘The Firm’s’, or ‘Buckingham Palace’s’, stiff-upper-lipped refusal to take Meghan and Harry’s plight seriously and defend them against the hounds.   That one person was the Queen herself.  It was obviously not coincidental that news of the impending Oprah Winfrey interview galvanized the rest of ‘the PaIace’, by contrast, into a very belated inquiry into allegations that Meghan had herself bullied members royal staff.    It was very clear from the interview that there was a mutual and very genuine warmth and fondness between the Queen, Meghan and her grandson, and that warmth is reflected in the Queen’s public response to the interview:   ‘The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan. The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. Whilst some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately. Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much-loved family members.’ 

With depressing predictability, Britain’s gutter-press, whose excretions just happen to be the printed media’s best sellers, seized on five words from the 60 word statement:  ‘Whilst some recollections may vary…’  This they interpret as a covert assertion that Meghan was lying through her teeth, effectively endorsing the awful Piers Morgan’s ‘Pinocchio Princess’ label for Meghan.  The Daily Mail’s online headline could not be a starker contrast to the Queen’s restraint:  ‘PIERS MORGAN: Meghan and Harry’s nauseating two-hour Oprah whine-athon was a disgraceful diatribe of cynical race-baiting propaganda designed to damage the Queen as her husband lies in hospital – and destroy the Monarchy.’ ***  Whatever else eventuates from the interview one good outcome has been Morgan’s unlamented departure from ITV’s Good Morning Britain.  

Piers Morgan was not about to go quietly and, as is the wont of the more contemptible tabloids, hid behind ‘freedom of speech’ as the catch-all weapon of his defence:  “I believe in freedom of speech, I believe in the right to be allowed to have an opinion…. If I have to fall on my sword for expressing an honestly held opinion about Meghan Markle and that diatribe of bilge that she came out with in that interview, so be it.”****  His noble act of falling on his, now rather tarnished, sword as a martyr to the cause of freedom of speech, which seems to have pre-empted his being fired by yet another employer, brings an appropriate end to this episode of his own series of diatribes of bilge. Unfortunately it won’t be the last of the series.

All of which brings me back to David Olusoga: ‘It isn’t just about the royal family; it is about us as a nation.’  Exactly so.  The likes of Piers Morgan can get away with expressing their repugnant opinions because a sufficiently large section of the nation apparently has sufficient thirst for the diatribes of bilge to keep newspapers in business that are often a shameful national embarrassment.  Their diatribes feed off and indirectly fuel an undercurrent of racism and xenophobia.   Princess Diana was hounded to her death; Harry is obviously right, that cannot be allowed to happen to Meghan, and if it takes living in California to ensure that doesn’t happen, so be it.   Rather than cleaning up the sewage by closing down the offending tabloids, to a crescendo of whines about ‘freedom of speech’, the nation should follow the excellent lead set by the population of Liverpool who have boycotted The Sun ever since its appalling coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.  If nobody buys the bilge, the offending tabloids won’t survive, and the nation will be a lot cleaner and healthier. But I’m not holding my breath.

* https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9340143/Queen-holds-crisis-talks-Harry-Meghans-bombshell-Oprah-interview.html

** https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/harry-and-meghan-interview-oprah-review-b1813834.html

*** https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/press-media-meghan-harry-diversity-b1814801.html

**** https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9338343/PIERS-MORGAN-Meghan-Harrys-nauseating-two-hour-Oprah-whine-athon-disgraceful-diatribe.html