Queen Elizabeth ruled over a kingdom of mere images


At this point, creating images is almost the only thing England are good at. The kingdom is sinking deep into its own nostalgia, so it’s no surprise they pulled out all the stops for Queen Elizabeth II’s last rites. It has not always been so.

When I sat on the sidewalk of Bloor Street with my comrades in 1951, as the beautiful young princess drove by in a convertible, it wasn’t just to ‘be there’ or take part in history or a hold comparable. Royal visits served a purpose of the empire: to entice settlers to come and sacrifice their young lives in wars that reflected British, primarily English, interests.

(Yes, the Second World War was different from the Boer War or the “Great” War, but the tours were on the same model of dazzling locals.)

When Elizabeth “ascended” the throne in 1952, and we learned to draw and color the crown she would wear, a quarter of the earth’s population still lived under that crown – and that was after India and Pakistan are gone. When he died, he had shrunk to a few islands, many of which were plotting to get out. Even by the late sixties, Rule Britannia had morphed out of necessity into Cool Britannia, humorously masking a monumental decline.

His predecessor, Queen Victoria, also had an image, but it was tied to a real empire. When the Canadians attempted to break free in 1837, they were driven back to an island in the Niagara River, from where they bombarded British forces. A cannonball severed the leg of a British soldier, who demanded the limb, lifted it up and shouted “Three cheers for Queen Victoria!” before dying. The last time Britain sent the fleet to impose its control over a colony – the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, off Argentina – if a soldier had given three cheers it would have been for Margaret Thatcher, not for Elizabeth.

In a way, imagery replaced empire: it didn’t reflect it, unlike Rudyard Kipling’s images that fed and depicted an energetic imperial reality: “Kim”, “Gunga Din”, virtually everything ‘he wrote. While images based on mere other images – like the stunning series “The Crown” – are paltry and fade, they require constant pumping. People need to be told how significant this all is and urged to come out and parade past the corpse. It is tiresome.

Like the young Canadian tourist who flew in from Ireland and told the CBC he didn’t plan it that way, but it turned out fine. Kind of the Queen to die on the London leg of her journey. The reporter laughed and said we all made history today and we’ll be back (hint, hint) at Monday’s funeral. Or the young man asked by the Financial Times why he was there: “I don’t know. She seemed to be fine. Yes yes, we came, where are we supposed to go next?

It’s understandable – every human being wants to be part of something bigger. Who wants to spend their precious and limited self in a life where nothing happens? But whipping it artificially, or artificially, has diminishing returns.

What happens next? Charles, poor putz. Her “mommy” knew enough to say and do almost nothing, thus allowing meanings to be projected onto her. Even when she missed the moment, like during the 1966 Wales mining disaster or Diana’s death, it was to keep quiet, which she easily rectified by intoning a catch-up script. Reluctance has served her well for 70 years. Charles, in three days, screwed it up by going after a leaky fountain pen, replacing the earlier image of wanting to be a royal pad that after decades he finally seemed to have lost.

Canada, for some reason, is clinging to it. Who really wants your highest authority, even a symbolic one, to live in another country? Yet we cannot break up. I think of the images painted by (my lifelong friend) Charles Pachter: His Majesty and a majestic moose, looking at each other with a kind of intimate incomprehension across an arid northern landscape.

They have no idea what connects them, but they are locked up.

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