The Death Parade
‘Some people are close to tears,’ said Mark Easton, the BBC’s home editor, from his premium spot outside the palace. ‘This is a very difficult and dangerous moment for the United Kingdom.’ Then it was the bell-ringing turn of Nicholas Witchell, who comes with a look so mournful you’d think half of humanity had just expired. ‘Everyone will have their words, as they pay their tributes,’ he said, and Charles III will be keen to ‘set the right tone’ during this ‘disorientating time’, when people need to be ‘reassured’.
It’s really quite unfair that Charles Dickens is not available at this hour, because his pen would ooze with rapid invention if confronted by the BBC’s royal correspondent. On a good day – and this, sad to say, is as good a day as Witchell’s ever going to get – he makes Uriah Heep look like Brad Pitt at his easy-going peak, the reporter’s face a gravitational field bringing his mouth into the saddest of all rictuses. He spent his long hours before the camera masticating fresh delights of toadyism. It was terrific to watch, in the same way that it’s terrific to watch a snake being fed live mice.
Then came Tony Blair, just in case the oleaginous delights weren’t yet up to snuff. He spoke of the ‘matriarch of the nation’. Blair’s always ready with these lines, and I wonder if he rehearses them in his sleep, perhaps waking up to look in the mirror, to see if he can still do the face. Meanwhile, the ‘show us you care’ merchants gathered outside the palace. The scene was set for the ripest show of journalistic knee-bending in a generation.
Huw Edwards had his black tie tightly knotted early in the day. I think he might have been first to gussy up, and the first to use the phrase ‘the Elizabethan era’, which was soon more popular than iPhones down at the scene. Edwards has the journalistic gift of saying nothing for very long periods of time, while still talking. And Witchell was close to hand. He kept speaking about a ‘period of national mourning’, as if he’d long since crossed over from being a journalist to become the Comptroller of Royal Etiquette and Emotional Expenditure. The nation was sure to ‘feel that mourning very keenly and very personally. The crown has passed invisibly and imperceptibly to Charles’ (‘glaringly’ and ‘super-obviously’ more like). ‘Bells will be rung and guns will be sounded … Flowers will be laid on a scale we have not seen since the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales.’
Before midnight, the reporters were dropping with emotional exhaustion. A new man appeared whom I’d never seen before, and to an almost shocking degree he lacked the lachrymose impetus that seemed so essential in his colleagues. This guy was historical, factual, interesting, but then … oh fuck, here comes Nicholas Witchell, in a package about the royalness of the royals that he must’ve recorded, I’m guessing, some time in the 1950s, or maybe the 1850s, in full expectation that Her Majesty would one day die and the occasion would call for words bigger than any normal human feeling. When did British reporters begin emoting for a living, broadcasting as if the words themselves were the news?
‘It’s a privilege to see how we all behave,’ Naga Munchetty said on Breakfast. What a remarkable sentence. The British love the spectacle of Britons getting emotional, and, indeed, we live in a place where it has become a privilege, now and then, to see how we all behave, the opportunity to take pride in a spot of mass belief in our own nonsense. It is self-watching as a national sport, and every other broadcast, along with every other book, could these days be called How am I today? It was a trait Elizabeth II famously detested, but it sprung up instantly on her death along with the plastic-wrapped garage flowers of England, the ones that make a glinting shrine of every disaster spot in the land.
Overnight, the newspapers got in on the act, behaving as if history were simply a concatenation of our large feelings. ‘Our Hearts Are Broken,’ the Daily Mail screams. ‘How to find the words? Our grief is a hundred different emotions, all of them hard to grasp.’ (Is shame an emotion, and is it hard to grasp?) ‘We Loved You, Ma’am,’ roars the Sun, which changed its banner from red to purple. It seems consistent with the general nullity that the papers emoting most extravagantly are the ones that made the queen suffer the most.
The Express reports on huge crowds weeping in the street. Modern journalism loves the idea that a nation has a heart and that a heart can break, as if there were a requirement to confect a sort of togetherness out of national torpor, the quivering lip having long since replaced the stiff upper one as a symbol of our essential nature. It won’t matter for very long, but today it all seems part of the workaday hysteria of British life, yet perfectly at odds with the quiet, persevering woman on the postage stamp.
Listen to James Butler and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite talk to Thomas Jones about the death of the Queen on the LRB Podcast.