The Disenchanted Glass

I gave in, and watched Charlie’s coronation. And I was surprised.

I am republican: I believe that heads of state should be elected, and aristocracy abolished. Being Irish, I particularly despise the British monarchy, for all the centuries of horrors committed in its name. And I loathe Anglicanism’s camp fusion of church and state.

So I was going to ignore it. But rain killed my plans for the day, so I decided to amuse myself with Janey Godley’s voiceover. But this time the wonderful Janey didn’t work for me, so I switched to the BBC. Know your enemy.

I expected high pomp and pageantry, executed with precision by a vast horde of absurdly-dressed flunkeys, sonorously narrated by a sombre BBC voice. A vast production to wow the viewers, and to bolster the myth of an eternally strong and magnificent monarchy.

At first, that’s roughly what I saw. An “Enchanted Glass”, as Tom Nairn called it.

Penny’s Sword of Truth

Brit Royalty has been doing grand ceremonies for centuries, so all the men in silly clothes did their silly walks in unison, and the horses were flawlessly synchronised. Inside Westminster Abbey, everything was perfectly choreographed, and the extravagant robes were immaculate. Huw Edwards provided the reverential commentary, following the standard BBC-Royal formula of subdued voice complete with plentiful long pauses, as if he was whispering to a slow learner at a funeral. His co-presenter was a gushing woman whose two tasks seemed to be to waffle about the supposed “excitement” of the crowds and to provide forgettable potted bios of some of the personnel.

All the usual ingredients of royal pageant were there, but the more I watched, the less believable it became.

The allegedly excited crowds were actually thin and subdued. The lists of Sir This and Lord That and Captain T’Other sounded well beyond their use-by-date.

The Lords and Commons Speakers’ processions looked like failed comedy skits, as four people in silly clothes carried a stick through the rain. The queue of former Prime Ministers looked tawdry: grey man, war criminal, brooding bully, toff, robot, liar and halfwit. Minor royals wandered in, recognisable only to readers of Hello magazine. Large chunks of the music were modern compositions, and like most modern choral works they were dire: lots of notes, huge vocal range, but no discernible tune and no emotion. Even the return to stonking tunes like Handel’s Zadok couldn’t restore the broken spell.

This was a grave error. The Anglican liturgy has a massive back catalogue of greatest hits, works which have stirred emotions for generations. The coronation needed to connect with a young generation who don’t go to church and are unfamiliar with its ritual. But instead, royalty’s most important gig in seventy years had a soundtrack peppered with obscure experimental dirges which should have remained as MIDI files in university music labs. It’s hard to imagine the thought processes behind these choices, but baffling people with passionless obscurity was hubristic.

Such atonal diversions might have been tenable if the core proposition was strong. When Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, the British Empire had lost India and Ireland, but still ruled swathes of Africa, the Caribbean and Central America. The so-called “Old Commonwealth” — the white settler colonies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand — were solidly loyal to the imperial Crown, as was Britain itself. Elizabeth herself was an elegant young woman, a hugely popular celebrity with a well-managed backstory.

If Elizabeth had been crowned to the tune of Three Blind Mice, the magic would have been undimmed. That radiant young woman would have stolen any show.

But Charlie is not easy on the eye, and his backstory does him no favours. Opinion polls show little love for him, and he isn’t even hated. It’s worse than that: most Brits are apathetic.

So on his big day, Charlie needed to exceed expectations, to sparkle and exude stardom. But he didn’t. Instead, his glum face and flat voice sucked the remaining oxygen out of the proceedings. By the time he was handed the orb and sceptre, he looked miserable, and seemed to be holding back tears.

The cameras should have been showing a man filled with pride and confidence, a leader strengthened by an ancient ritual of anointment, inspiring faith in his followers. Instead they showed a broken old man who seemed to long to be anywhere else, and who was stonily unresponsive even to the ritualised kiss from his older son. I found myself thinking of The Crown’s portrayal of young Charles as a sensitive child abandoned by his mother as she toured the Commonwealth, and then consigned to misery in a macho boarding school.

Hardcore monarchists will find their faith undented. But this lavish ceremony needed to reach far beyond the faithful. Its strategic goal was to connect with the apathetic majority, and to wow them with magic. That was always a big ask, and it failed. The cameo roles for non-Anglican faiths has little meaning to Britain’s agnostic majority, and the belated inclusion of Celtic languages won’t dent the independence movements. The core production fell flat, and the Palace’s hope of ubiquitous coronation parties didn’t happen.

The Met and Pre-Crime

The Metropolitan Police’s ruthless crackdown on potential protesters went beyond heavy-handedness. Arresting peaceful protesters without giving a lawful reason was chilling, and arresting holders of rape alarms set a terrifying precedent, especially in the context of the Met’s appalling history of misogyny. But in the right-wing climate of England, concern is unlikely to extend beyond the marginalised left.

Similarly, the obscenity of the £250 million cost is unlikely to be a major controversy. No significant political or media voice objects, and in England there will be no major outrage at foodbanks losing funding while cash pours into regal ceremonies.

So the Saturday’s dramas leave no immediate fallout to trouble the Palace. But if there any wise heads remaining in the English establishment, they will recognise the coronation overreach, and choose their moment to propose scaling back future ceremonies, and the monarchy itself.

That planning should of course have happened decades ago, long before the Elizabeth’s reign began to fade. But there seems to be no political space in England to discuss this without being cancelled, so no mainstream politician will dare speak of it. The crown will continue to box beyond its weight, as Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland turn their backs

Comments (25)

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Anger is brewing beneath the surface

    1. Claire McNab says:

      I am no sure how to measure that anger. Outside of left & nationalist circles, I see only apathy, and my friends in England report only apathy — tho of course my tiny sample is highly unreliable .

      But if there is anger, there is also a dangerous lack of channels to express it. Royalist media, First-past-the post (FPTP) elections and a centrist disciplinarian Labour Party leave no way to get such voices heard in England, and the very different climate is Scotland & Cymru is largely unreported in England.

      The risk for the monarchy is that if dissent does break through all the barriers, it will come as a surprise to an unprepared establishment, creating a crisis. Personally, I’d be happy to see a tsunami of anger sweep away the whole show … but I am surprised at the sheer folly of the monarchists. Silencing dissenters is only ever a short-term option.

      1. BSA says:

        ‘Let them eat cake’ She never saw it coming.

    2. Pam Oliver says:

      Exactly we are very angry. NHS on its knees .
      Social care slashed by millions. rich getting richer and police shutting down protest on government orders . No viable opposition.

  2. Gavinochiltree says:

    God ( an Englishman), Charlie, King of England and Englands national broadcaster—the BEEB.

    All deserving of each other, and hopefully happy together.

    Scotland, grow up and leave these old dears ( in their dotage) to their last days in the setting Sun.

    We are, and always will be neighbours, so can lend them a cup of sugar, and held them with their ‘lecky, over the fence.

  3. Niemand says:

    There was no atonal music in the ceremony. You clearly have no understanding of what atonality is, nor any feel for the kind of choral and organ works featured. Contrary to what you say, the music was excellent, varied and brilliantly performed. The two longer pieces featuring the orchestra plus choir were wonderful works. Yes it also featured quite a lot of new works – and you think that wrong, giving voice to contemporary composers, including a gospel choir? This has nothing to do with what one might think of the whole shebang, but attacking it on the basis of the music played is way off the mark.

    ‘Huw Edwards provided the reverential commentary, following the standard BBC-Royal formula of subdued voice complete with plentiful long pauses, as if he was whispering to a slow learner at a funeral’ is also nonsense. He barely said anything for the first hour and handful of sentences explaining a few obscure things later. Ho spoke quietly so it did no obscure the sound of the event. It was in fact a well-judged presentation that allowed the viewer the space they needed to take it all in for themselves.

    1. norm says:

      You are commenting as if the author makes an objective judgement, but it is subjective. They are entitled to their subjective judgement of how they perceived the occasion as much as you are.

    2. Claire McNab says:

      All for the best, in the best of all possible worlds, eh?

      As I wrote, “Hardcore monarchists will find their faith undented”. Same for the rare fans of “modern classical” music. My point is that the gig needed to appeal to a much wider audience.

    3. Frank Mahann says:

      Huw talked through some of the music, her should have bidden his wheesht.

  4. norm says:

    Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland will no doubt turn their backs but they are following the lead of the Carribean realms with Oceaniac not far behind

  5. Squigglypen says:

    Very interesting to read your description of the pantomime by weird people in silly clothes posturing on a balcony with thousands of adoring halfwits screaming hysterically … finally given permission to run to the railings and push their peasant paws through in adoration. Glad you wrote it cos I didn’t see it – as NOTHING would have encouraged me to give it even a glance. But VERY difficult to avoid. I finally listened to GO radio and worked at my book. Since then it is still being thrust down my throat whether I want to see it or not. Coming from Irish forced to leave re the famine and highlanders in the clearances I have only contempt for these charlatans. The latest crap being that the beloved family have been on the throne for a thousand years.( I believe! I believe!) I listened to one slightly inebriated woman sobbing on a news program that she was just ‘bustin’ tae cry at the sight of Charlie Chimp and the ‘villain’ of the piece by his side. (Harry’s words for her)The worst aspect was that the sobbing creature was Scottish – being used no doubt to show the sassenachs that the Scots were happy .( well one drunk wee wumman anyway)
    I do hope you are right that Charlie Chimp looked miserable. This cheers me up no end. But best not to turn your back on this family and friends though. They’ll stick a dagger in it. Best to face them and snarl. You might even have to BITE to make them back off. Ask the Irish and the French. They got it right.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    Well, it was a funeral.

    I don’t mean for democracy, which dies every day in the British Empire, nor the parading of the spoils of war and empire got with much spilling of blood amounting to genocide in some cases. Nor a funeral for open dissent to royalty, which appears though to be mortally wounded.

    I mean it was a funeral for a mass of non-human animals, whose skulls would have built a towering throne indeed. Not just those which will be killed by the carbon emissions of this unjustifiable coronation event, but the animals literally killed and on display. I wonder how Paddington Bear reacted when he found out the Queen’s guard (now King’s guard) wear bearskins.
    How many animals died to furnish the robes and other equipment on display? What ancient traditions of animal slaughter for cosmetic purposes are we supposed to be celebrating?

    Roger Lovegrove, in Silent Fields: The long decline of a nation’s wildlife (2007), writes that in the Middle Ages, furs were luxury prestige items for privileged classes resulting in killing on a vast scale:
    pp23–4 “The royal household in the single year 1344–5 required 79,220 skins of trimmed miniver (particularly the white belly fur of the squirrel) sewn into fur garments, while another 32,762 were used simply to produce the trousseau of Princess Phillipa and the liveries of her escort.”

    Norman Baker, in And What Do You Do? What the Royal Family Don’t Want You to Know (2020), devoted a chapter to royal animal-murdering sport. Charles, RSPCA’s Hooligan of the Year 1978, killed his first grouse at 9, and later unconstitutionally attempted to persuade Labour government to drop its abolition of fox hunting, according to the author.

    Part of the reason the British isles are so nature-depleted is because of royalist game policy.

    I think the coronation was an expression of the monarch’s literal and symbolic powers of life and death over subjects, foreigners and non-human life. The British imperial royal is head of armed forces — hence the military display — plus courts, security and intelligence services, a church whose interest was always in stamping out sedition. Will Charles one day press the nuclear button? Perhaps his evident depression subtracts a few seconds from the Doomsday Clock as it ever approaches midnight.

  7. Meg Macleod says:

    I maintained radio and tv silence over many days .
    I saw the coronation of Elizabeth when I was a child. Black and white tv
    .I remember the books printed
    To commemorate the event.i remember
    I remember the satin gowns of the ladies in waiting..
    One coronation in a lifetime more than enough…the intentions behind it all remain the same..power and control over ordinary folk.
    I had a plastic doll in charles’likeness when he was was not my favourite
    Lacking warmth..hard exterior…consigned to a imagination brought to life my father’s shoe wrapped in a blanket
    Orange juice was bananas.
    Meat once a week.
    For the ordinary folk..home made clothes
    77 years on…the diamond encrusted crown is passed on to the replica of my plastic doll and ordinary folk cannot afford food and heating …..there is a tragedy there…….isn’t there?

  8. Fay Kennedy says:

    I too remember the other coronation as was 9 year old. The mugs with the faces of the royals and the toffees devoured by my brother and I even then though not hungry not over fed. I was a budding atheist socialist at the time and have stayed the same. There was a corny song at the time with words a queen with a ‘heart of gold ‘and my young sister sang ‘a heart of stone ‘(4year old) she was well ahead of her time.

    1. Squigglypen says:

      I was seven at the last coronation.. I asked dad why we had this royal family cos we never saw them. ( east end Glesga) He looked at me in horror. He pulled the forelock to his betters but I was a new generation and knew better. From that day I have hated this imposition on me. I suspect you and I are off the same branch. Fingers crossed folk will wake up and smell the coffee. I like the sound of your sister.
      Song at the time:
      God save our gracious queen
      Long live our gracious queen
      Half an egg atween four o’ us
      Thank god there’s nae more o’ us
      God save the queen.

    2. Cathie Lloyd says:

      People remember events they experience as children strangely. Apart from it being my first experience of telly crowded into my aunt’s living room, I remember being an angry 7 year old because I had a coronation dress with carriages and suchlike all over, while my sister had one with ducklings. That soured my experience although I was no fan of the rather tawdry dressing up.

      On anger, these things can be slow burning. The Caribbean political reactions were devastating. Expressed in measured tones to the effect that the monarchy is an impediment to our independence. I suspect that they are on their way out ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. Lets hope so, but how many 7 year olds will remember that display of – lets face it – tatt, on a rainy day, with mainly empty bellies.

    3. SleepingDog says:

      The BBC has Morning in the Streets on iPlayer, a slice of life from 1959 Liverpool which suggests that Elizabeth’s subjects were hardly basking in a new era of prosperity:
      There were two 1953-related pieces of graffiti I noticed, ‘God Save the Queen’ and ‘Save the Rosenbergs’.

      1. Niemand says:

        Now that is a great film SD.

      2. Niemand says:

        I would also recommend ‘Together’ set in the East End of London around the same time (1956). It also shows some pretty grim scenes (the film itself is a fiction and rather odd tbh but acts like a documentary given it is all filmed on location and features many local people). Directed by Lorenza Mazzetti (and helped along by Lindsay Anderson), it features the only acting role Eduardo Paolozzi ever did. It is really evocative.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Niemand, cheers, I’ll look out for it.

  9. Stephen Cowley says:

    I warmed to the Christian content, which many younger people would probably have found a novelty or informative. In fact, the AUOB marchers on the same day looked like a bunch of ageing hippies in comparison (no offence).

    Maybe we should go back to the old idea of the Triple crown to make Scotland’s case, rather than republicanism. That would neutralise the monarchy’s tendency to function as a mouthpiece of the English ruling class. At least England still has a ruling class.

    1. John says:

      Stephen – I think you will find majority of independence supporters are either anti or agnostic to monarchy. I have no doubt that many independence leaders do not tread on this subject as outright support for republicanism may antagonise some members of electorate that still need to be persuaded of case for independence. From viewing recent polling I am also pretty sure that espousing pro monarchy views as you have suggested above would antagonise more current and prospective independence supporters.
      Ultimately this is a matter for electorate of an independent Scotland to make a judgement on after independence.

  10. Wul says:

    Camila has aged a lot. She looks rough. Charlie looks past it too. Would he have had pan stick on?

    I wonder if a Queen Diana would have made this coronation a more popular event with us plebs?

    What would be left if you took away the gold, jewels, fur and money? Eff-all. No wonder Chuck is fed up with it all.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Wul, oh, it was a coronation. I wrote in:
      “Dear BBC, I was sorely disappointed by your Saturday broadcast of Royal It’s A Knockout, which was clearly fixed to let Team Charles+Camilla win.”
      Talk about embarrassing.

    2. Claire McNab says:

      Would a Queen Diana would have made this coronation a more popular event with us plebs?

      That’s an interesting what-if question, Wul.

      We last saw Diana as a youngish woman, aged only 36. She was hugely popular, celebrated as a beauty, a wronged wife, a survivor of bulimia, a warm mother in a cold family, a brave supporter of people with AIDS, and a campaigner against the horror of landmines. Leave aside our own assessments of the validity of those perceptions; what matters is that was how she was seen. Traditional royalist curmudgeons disliked her, but they were in a small minority, as were leftist critics (such as Chumbawamba, who called her a “media whore”).

      The 1980s Diana would would have stolen the show, boosting Charles. The 1990s Diana would have stolen the show, at the expense of Charles.

      But that was all a long time ago.

      2023 Diana would have been 62 years old. Maybe she would have won the hearts of another generation. But on the other hand, she might not have navigated the social media era as adeptly as she managed the old top-down media. The beauty might have faded, and in the last 26 years the media might have turned against her. She would also be an attractive target for the sort of people who rage about “wokerati”.

      All we know for sure is that this time they put the crown on a man who appeared to resent it. If they want to keep on crowning people, they need a star, not a conscript.

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