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Majestic confusion

I went on holiday. I had a birthday. The Queen died, and the world went mad.

The holiday was geared around my intended walking progress along the seemingly never-ending South West Coast Path. In this respect, it was successful as I am now within 80 miles of the end and reckon just two more visits will suffice. A mere 22 years in the achieving! I have written about it on my holiday blog which has been sadly neglected these last 18 months.

The birthday – an insignificant one which I had decided to largely ignore – proved a more momentous day than anticipated. I had decided not to walk; the weather was not particularly pleasant and I had already made good progress along the cliffs.  My daughter sent me a congratulatory message with what I felt was an odd statement after the traditional birthday greetings – ‘Hopefully the Queen can hang in there for another day.” Of course, I resorted immediately to Twitter for an update, and there was indeed considerable speculation regarding events at Balmoral. Oh, here we go again, I thought idly. Speculation speculation… Then my son called and we had a nice birthday chat, ignoring the impending gloom in favour of recounting our latest respective exploits.

A little later the inevitable was reported and we were plunged into constitutional mourning. I confess to feeling far more upset at the news than made any sense to me, and Daughter Jillings sent a few horrified emojis and condolences to me that such a blight could have been put upon my special day – but admitting that she was sending her greetings from outside Buck House itself to which she had raced when it became clear that trade in the normally busy Covent Garden restaurant business had fallen eerily quiet for the day. I was shocked, a little proud, and weirdly envious of her being there.

Mr J and I returned to our books and steadfastly refused to put the television on until the usual late night News o’clock. I am glad we waited; from then onwards, the media mourning onslaught was truly and often horribly relentless.

My own two-penn’orth on the Queen’s demise? Well, I experienced a strange bewilderment at the passing of something vaguely comforting, something perhaps representative of my parents (themselves now long-deceased) and their generation, with all the historical experience that enfolds. As more and more news coverage droned on respectfully, and when watching the various vigil events and ultimately the funeral, I realised I have more than a superficial knowledge of the royal family which I seem to have acquired without study or seeking out. Some will inevitably have been gleaned from Hello! magazine, perused guiltily at the hairdressers’ when I was still in thrall to the fortnightly tint and before I realised that I could take my own book and read that quietly instead. But much harks back to my childhood, the general interest taken by my mother in royal news, and perhaps the fact that Princes Andrew and Edward were very much of my own age. Indeed several of my friends were quite convinced that if they could bump into Prince Andrew at our local racecourse – Cheltenham – then their royal future would be secured. Horrifying to think how that might actually have turned out. Of course, we got no closer than the other side of the course! The weddings of Anne and Mark Phillips, Charles and Diana, Andrew and Fergie were all at a time when I was probably at an impressionable age, even though I was not keen on marriage for myself at that point. These people, whatever I thought of them at the time or think of them now, were part of the backdrop to my life, and of course the Queen had always just been there.

Initially there were actual tears – completely odd. I suppose it was some sort of secondary grief for my parents. No idea really. For the rest of our holiday, the walking and the arrival of Son Jillings was unaffected by constitutional events and, aside from sporadically enduring the wall-to-wall royal coverage on all media, we carried on regardless.

Later, after returning home and when watching the funeral on television, I think it was quite understandable to weep a little. That’s funerals for you, and often music can do that on its own anyway. Mr J and I sat in complete silence in our living room for the entire service, along with a friend who was staying with us as one of the consequences of his very own annus horribilis. Like the BBC, we opted for the ‘no commentary’ rule (although we did not explain this to each other beforehand as the BBC felt compelled to do), and even more remarkably all three of us – singers all, and none of us normally reticent in humming along to a good hymn – made not a sound throughout. My Fitbit later told me that I had slept through the entire thing, so I clearly didn’t move much either. A bizarre but undoubtedly moving experience, as no doubt all of us internally recalled more personal funeral services of our own and felt the unsettling lifting of some strange weight of our collective history.

I had resisted the urge (in fairness, only a passing thought) to queue to file past the coffin in advance of the funeral, even though I have a strange fascination with the word ‘catafalque’ and it would perhaps have been cool to witness one. I did, however, trundle up to London on the day before the funeral for a walkabout. I cannot completely put my finger on why I wanted to be in the midst of this national show, but I suppose it is an “I was there…” thing. It almost makes more sense for the younger people to do this than me. When they reminisce to their grandchildren (if there continue to be grandchildren, or face-to-face contact with them, in our uncertain world’s future) this may seem a much more unusual and archaic event at which to have been present than it will be if I bang on about it to my own imaginary progeny in my own now fairly limited lifespan.

Less then 24 hours later, the procession went through this arch. B&W for nostalgic effect.

Anyhow, I went to London and I am glad I did – and not only for the vast number of Fitbit steps I accumulated. I navigated several pedestrian one-way systems in the key ceremonial areas being prepared for the funeral as the huge number of overseas dignitaries descended on the capital. Never have so many sleek (or chunky) tinted-windowed black vehicles – with or without diplomatic or unfathomably personalised registration plates – prowled or faux-majestically swept through London’s thronging streets. How many outriders could I spot in just 10 minutes? How many high-vis-jacketed crossing monitors were on duty? It seemed the 2012 Olympic volunteer brigade – now ten years older but still with their cheery smiles, perhaps a little muted for current circs – were back in force and oiling the wheels of this impending pageant.

Reality of huge number of public in the parks

Alongside the awe I felt at the scale of the preparations, and the recognition that I was witnessing history in the making (or some such cliché – but cliché or not it is annoyingly true), there was plenty of reality going on to bring me back to earth. For example, the policeman politely but firmly dressing down a smartly-attired, if slightly wobbly, gentleman who had clearly just availed himself inappropriately of a quiet shop doorway. Or later, a couple of Community Support Officers gently guiding a voluminous sleeping bag – its erstwhile itinerant occupant still loosely attached – away from the most public gazes and cameras outside the Abbey precincts.

Naked floral tributes in Green Park

I went to see the flowers in Green Park, following the signs and the crowds and the exhortations to ‘remove any plastic’. There was a fascinating entry system to the allocated flower area, depending on whether one’s flowers were au naturel or cellophane-wrapped. As I had come clutching only my old people’s railcard and my phone, I lurked awkwardly outside the enclosure, taking pictures and wondering how best to get home. Why I then decided that the best bet would be to walk to Waterloo via Soho and Covent Garden and the still-going-strong catafalque queue passing along the South Bank, I am still unsure, especially as I was wearing my once-smart boots which are good for the first 3 miles but pinch thereafter (and this was now very much thereafter). But that’s what I did, and I was rewarded by missing a train by two minutes and having to wait a further 28 for the next one, this being a Sunday.

I acknowledge that my feelings about all this royal mourning business are decidedly mixed. Yes, I was genuinely sad although about precisely what I am unsure. I think I believe that the Royal Family bring in a great deal of money to this country through tourism, and that they contribute worthily to many charitable institutions. I am not in favour of abolishing them, although a slimming down most definitely makes sense. Equally, I think I’ve had enough of the press coverage for now, thank you.

Rightly or wrongly, the Queen represented a past generation and its values, many of which are no longer tenable. It seems reasonable to mourn her death, and the consequent end of that generation, in the same way we might mourn our own grandparents even though we may have argued vociferously with them about their views on [insert whatever bigoted or misguided notions about which your granny regularly banged on]. As an institution, the monarchy may seem outdated, but I don’t see why it cannot drag itself successfully into the twenty-first century. And whilst accident of birth may seem the wrong way to select a figure-head, we really haven’t had a lot of success in choosing our elected leaders have we? 

In the interests of balance though, here’s a blog post from an acquaintance which I read on the day of the Queen’s funeral and which briefly incensed me (before I acknowledged that I completely agreed with some of his comments regarding the press-coverage – particularly of the great British catafalque queue).

Back on the fence Mrs J.

Meanwhile in other news, I have succumbed to the lure of the M&S ‘full brief’. Whilst so far just the one, purchased for wear beneath a particular outfit, I fear this may herald a lingerial slippery slope. Truly a new era begins.


One of the things I was going to write about

I’ve been putting off writing about this, which has been lurking in the background for the past month. There is something about closure, even for people only peripherally involved in trauma or sadness it seems.

I mentioned a few posts ago that a folk-singer friend was missing.

Yesterday, I attended his funeral. He was 68, and his body was found in the Thames several weeks after he left his home. There is no doubt, I believe, that no-one else was involved and that this was not an accident.

We have sung for him as a group; our Sunday evening marathon Zoom-pub session was dedicated to his memory, not only our folk-group singers but others of his friends too, and his sister and niece listened in. Clearly emotional, but no actual tears until the very final number – hats off to the friend who agreed to sing it at all (The Parting Glass).

His sister led the funeral – there was no official or religious celebrant, as he rejected his original Roman Catholicism many years ago. Although it is sad to be at a funeral at all, it is also always interesting to find out more about a person. We learned more about his love for music and an impromptu performance on the West End stage.

I don’t think I’ve been to a funeral and not learned something new (apart perhaps from my best friend’s where I delivered the eulogy and therefore had garnered all the stories beforehand). Even my parents’ funerals yielded new revelations at the wakes – in one case something so startling about someone else in my family that I will have to live until my own death with the fact that I’m not supposed to know it. 

There were two pieces of music played over the speaker system at the crematorium which featured the deceased himself – firstly Amazing Grace sung with his professional singer daughter, and secondly his own rendition of Let It Be which jerked the tears out again. His daughter: “Dad would have bloody loved the idea of singing at his own funeral”. We all had to agree. 

And, perhaps turning the unfortunate COVID restrictions on numbers in the crematorium to an advantage, miniature bottles of Irish whiskey were handed out to each member of the in-person congregation as they filed out at the end.

It was interesting that, watching from my sofa on my laptop, with no-one else present, I cried far more than I would have done in the crematorium. I suppose this is a result of the lack of self-consciousness. I was brought up not to show much emotion, but somehow find I cry incredibly easily at some things and always struggle at a funeral. Of course, when you are very close to the deceased – your parents or child etc – then it is likely that you will cry, but being in unseemly floods of tears when you barely knew them is odd (isn’t it? I don’t really know). At home, you can just let rip – all the memories of others long gone, or of those you would dread to lose just wring those tears out.

Just before I sang on Sunday night in the memorial pub session, I heard from my brother that he is in hospital with a crashing headache caused by a bleed on the brain. I haven’t told him this, but that is what killed my best friend. 

So, I have spent large parts of the last two days weeping much more than usual. Possibly as a result, I have a headache myself now which is refusing to shift. It is not often that I have to take myself back to bed of a morning, but today was one such. A beautiful sunny day to be missing!

But one small positive – I switched on the TV when I got back into bed and had one of the breakfast programmes on. And this has confirmed that I am completely right never to watch them. So that’s something, I suppose. 


Sobering times

Hard on the heels of a light-hearted post about Facebook challenges and musical memories, I just heard of the death of a friend’s wife. 

They had been married for 61 years. For the past year or two they had lived apart, after she had to move to a residential care home. Aged 90, he not only soldiered on alone at home, but launched himself into new activities – mostly musical, which is where I met him – to keep his spirits and his mind active, whilst still visiting his beloved wife each day.

The past few weeks, of course, he has been housebound due to self-isolation. He had not been able to visit his wife for at least three weeks before she died and not at the end. The funeral arrangements will be difficult – or at least dictated by current rules and much restricted. 

Such deep sadness and pain, with nowhere to go. We will sing with him on Monday in our rehearsal session. I hope that will help a little.

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