These days we resent having to wait for the next episode of a new television series instead of bingeing until our eyes fall out. Imagine how fans of Charles Dickens felt in New York in 1841, forced to wait on the wharf for the final instalment of The Old Curiosity Shop to chug across the Atlantic so they could discover the fate of the freakishly virtuous Little Nell. Reader, she didn’t make it. Even her creator was in bits. “Old wounds bleed afresh when I think of this sad story,” wrote Dickens. Oscar Wilde, on the other hand: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
Some things don’t change. Viewers once were so invested in the fate of Coronation Street’s wrongly jailed Deirdre Rachid Barlow that an only semi-ironic “Free the Weatherfield One” campaign took off. It was raised in Parliament. Crazy. But having real empathy for people that aren’t is also a tribute to that underrated quality in these judgmental times, imagination.
I thought about this when Prince Philip died. To me the royals, with their “fairy tale” weddings, the soap opera of their dysfunctional private lives, might as well be made up. Prince Charles once referred to his marriage to Diana as “a kind of Greek tragedy”. The Crown is so popular because, despite remorseless real-life reporting, people had to turn to Olivia Colman and some stunt corgis to get a sense of what the Windsors might really be like.
I confess to being moved, in some mysterious way, by the death of Prince Philip. People posted photos on social media of the dashing young man who’d had a fractured, lonely childhood, then survived a 73-year marriage walking two steps behind a constitutional construct. Others berated them for this public display of fake emotion for a representative of a hereditary system of class privilege that should long ago have been cancelled. Fair point. There were the “gaffes” which weren’t really gaffes, just unsurprising expressions of all that hereditary class privilege. Still, I felt a bit sad.
Prince Philip was born two years after my mother. My nana based her look on the Queen at Sandringham. Her generation called travel to England “going home”, even if they’d never been before. Whenever royalty made it down here, the nation went barking mad. That family has been a marker in the arc of history I’ve lived through, with plenty of wounds to bleed afresh.
Later, writing television columns on the increasingly precarious pomp and often bizarre circumstances of the royals earned me some of my most treasured hate mail: “Her Majesty’s sunshine outfit, so suitable, was referred to as a custard square!”
In some ways the death of Prince Philip was media business as usual. The BBC received a record number of complaints for carpet bombing the nation with coverage. The funeral featured the usual flannelling on: “The Duke’s carriage … extremely poignant”; “The Highlanders … gosh, they look smart”; “the current Covid restrictions …” There was disgraced Prince Andrew: “The Duke of York,” mused a commentator cautiously, “in a relatively rare public appearance …”
But the sight of the family in black, trudging along in perfect time behind the coffin, warring brothers William and Harry kept socially distanced by a discreetly deployed cousin as a dirge played, punctuated by the firing of a gun and the doleful bong of a bell … The Firm felt stripped to its mythical elements, like a scene from Game of Thrones. Inside the hauntingly vacant St George’s Chapel, a few masked royals were dotted around. There was a four-person choir. Having to yield sovereignty to human frailty in the form of a pandemic with no clear end in sight, the funeral felt like the end of something that can’t possibly go on as it has. There was “the small figure of the Queen”, suffering stoically. As she has been, really, since a crown made in 1661 was placed on her head when she was 25, she was alone.
You would possibly have to have a heart of stone to feel nothing.
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