These days, I very rarely drink in British bars. Monday’s state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II was the first time I had visited a British bar since the family drinks after an earlier funeral this year. I had delivered the eulogy at the local crematorium – as a friend of the family – for a lovely lady who died in old age. It seems appropriate after Brexit that drinks in a British bar are now mainly associated with occasional respect for the departed, whispering in quiet reverence over a beer.
Serena’s Bar in Finestrat was decked out in red white and blue bunting. The bar was full of British residents watching in respectful quiet, with sausage rolls and salmon sandwiches on Union Flag paper plates. We watched on the TV screen as Queen Elizabeth’s coffin was translated from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey on a gun carriage pulled by Royal Navy ratings and made sure to order another drink before the funeral service began.
As the coffin was slowly taken into the Abbey, I heard a woman sitting nearby remark, “It’s so sad. We never realised she was actually dying.” A curious remark, but often said in these past two weeks. The Queen had been dying for a long time and we were given every obvious signal of this, so only stubborn denial could explain such a remark. First we were told many months ago that she was reducing her public engagements, delegating her tasks to others, as she was physically weaker. Then she visibly lost weight and was walking with a stick, but not walking very much, which was simply described euphemistically as having “mobility issues.” Once at Balmoral castle, a place where she felt most comfortable to die, she tenaciously hung on for a little while longer in order to complete one final duty, the appointment of a final Prime Minister, not in London but in Scotland for she couldn’t travel to London. Then she died. Why did so many people say they were surprised or even shocked at the ‘suddenness’ of her death?
Palliative care doctor Kathryn Mannix points out that we all saw the Queen going through the stages of ordinary dying, “the very normal signs of dying,” as she called them. Yet people refused to see what was happening. They were shocked when the process came to its perfectly natural conclusion. I must confess – as someone who swore allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II half a century ago when I joined her armed forces as a teenager – that I gradually began to feel a sense of loss, and realised that I had also fallen into the trap of regarding the monarch as a kind of semi-deity. In an odd way, I couldn’t believe she had gone.
Alongside my own intellectual and political rejection of the concept of inherited power and privilege (as you can see in my previous blog post) there was an emotional reaction in which I had only ever known this “Elizabethan Age” in which her rule had characterised the country into which I had been born. (Actually, I was born a few months before she came to the throne, in the last days of the dying King George VI, a fact that I had never actually noticed until the history of that period of the queen’s accession in 1952 had been repeated in 24/7 blanket news coverage these past two weeks.) The other factor that seems to be important here is the wider sense of general collapse, in which her death takes place. With climate disaster, pandemic, war and economic chaos, the loss of a symbolic regal presence which represented permanence and divine governance – even if it is totally illusory – can catch you emotionally unprepared.
I live in Spain and – after Brexit, in which I feel betrayed by by country, like many other UK passport-holders – I am awaiting Spanish nationality. When the Ministry of Justice finishes processing my application I will have to swear allegiance to Felipe VI of Spain. So it is curious that I found the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and her extraordinary state funeral such a sad occasion. Reflecting on this yesterday – a full day after the state funeral – I thought maybe it is not so curious. The most famous novel of the Spanish Civil War is Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls whose title is taken from a line of John Donne (an 17th century Anglican priest of Saint Paul’s cathedral) ‘never send to know for whom the bell tolls’. The response, ‘it tolls for thee’ is fairly straightforward in its meaning. We should, as members of the human race, feel a sense of loss at every death. In the queen’s death I am reminded of my own mortality, and if the vox pop interviews of those in the great queue to see the coffin in Westminster are anything to go by, that was a very common experience.
Donne was a poet but the line about the tolling bell is not from a poem, but his prose Devotions, written while he was gravely ill, and the subject of these writings is sin and salvation. I awoke from a dream in the night after the queen’s funeral. It was a powerful dream in which I saw the world leaders who attended the queen’s funeral in Westminster Abbey queuing up after the service to seek confession from priests in gothic side chapels after the coffin had been taken away. The kings and presidents looked terrified as they knelt before the priests and poured out their souls. Among them were King Charles looking spiritually distraught, together with the old king Juan-Carlos of Spain and his son the present king, and many other rulers in their finery.
Such was the power of the dream that I got up from my bed and made a cup of tea to consider it before I went back to sleep. I read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon again. It was quite surprisingly short but it deserves revisiting. The Reverend Justin Welby looked the world’s leaders in the eyes and said: