‘Don’t You Think This Is a Bit Silly?’
Among the new king’s subjects on a soggy coronation weekend
Wednesday night, the eve of the eve of the eve, they’re already camping out on the Mall: they, the people, the hard-core and faintly crazed, the ones most at home in this event, the ones who understand it best.
Their bulblike tents are up against the metal railings, a couple hundred yards from Buckingham Palace, and they’re sitting in their collapsible chairs, under the gaze of benevolent police officers, with their flags and their bunting and their life-size cardboard cutouts of Charles and Camilla. They’re settling in. They’re getting ready. From a patch of untended ground across the road comes the mild night smell of cow parsley.
All very friendly. Chatting with an older man by his camp, I mention that the last time I was floating around the Mall like this, at night, was more than 25 years ago, after the death of Princess Diana. The whole place was carpeted with flowers and medieval with grief. “Oh!” he says, as if winded. “The psychic shock of that. We’ll never get over it, will we? And it goes through the generations, too. It gets passed down.”
What will the weather be like for the coronation of King Charles III? Ah, the weather, the upside-down English weather. A bit hit-or-miss, said the rueful forecaster. Which means, early on coronation morning, skies of sealed grayness over London. Celestial foreclosure, and a weak drizzly shine on the pavements of Soho.
Sandra and Leo, rough sleepers, true citizens of London’s West End, have established momentary residence in a doorway on Gerrard Street. Gray-haired Sandra is talkative, in nonstop motion. Hooded Leo is silent and still. What do you think of this coronation business, Sandra? “Load of bollocks, mate. Who are they to rule over us?” Any chance Charles might do it differently? “Nah, they’re all the same, aren’t they?”
King Charles I: They chopped his head off. I think about it, this distant fact of history, and it staggers me in the cells of my Englishness. I still can’t believe it happened. Talk about generational psychic shock.
Images of Charles III’s face have been everywhere. And what an interesting face it is. His mother, the Queen, of course, was not interesting. She was fascinating, but she was not interesting. She glittered with neutrality. With supernaturally condensed propriety. “How nice,” she would say, and that would be that. Her face had a kind of atomic composure.
But Charles’s face, his broad, earnest, pampered, beleaguered face, scored by sorrows, pickled in self-pity and self-discovery, full of connective longing, full of strange humors and tantrums, with even the subdued glint of wisdom in it … It’s almost improperly interesting. It’s the face of a survivor, because Charles has been through it. He’s been turned inside out. He’s been through grief, scorn, divorce, vilification, and—much more hazardous to the soul—grotesque entitlement. Only a couple of months ago we were reading all about him, all over again, in Prince Harry’s Spare. About his headstands. About his aftershave. “Flowery with a hit of something harsh, like pepper or gunpowder.”
And now here he is, getting ready to be crowned.
In rapidly filling, festively vibing Trafalgar Square, near the statue of Charles I on horseback, a pocket of dissent: protesters from the anti-monarchist group Republic are out with their SpongeBob-yellow placards. Their leaders have been arrested, but they’re not going anywhere. “NOT MY KING,” they chant, and the crowd around them goes “BOOO” and waves its flags with defiant gaiety. An agreeably ritualized exchange: no real detectable hostility.
One of the protesters hoists a homemade sign, an amazing sign, like a counter-charm to mass enthrallment. Don’t You Think This Is a Bit Silly? asks the sign. That’s it, deadlier than the executioner’s axe—that’s the real threat to the reign of Charles III: the raised English eyebrow.
Now it’s starting to come down. From Larkinesque dampness to full-on downpour. Off St. Martin’s Lane, I find a random bar—a private members’ club, as it turns out, throwing its doors open for the day—and settle in with some other strays to watch the ceremony on TV. Charles and Camilla come trundling down the Mall in their golden carriage, heavily attired, the ermine around Charles’s shoulders producing in that confined, trinkety space a slightly Muppetlike effect. Peering out he looks pale, or powdered, at any rate deprived of his usual rhubarb-y glow.
His mission, God-given, is to harmonize the realm. To promote beauty. To restore our relationship with nature, and with ourselves. His friend Kathleen Raine, the poet and Blake scholar, counseled him dramatically before her death in 2003. “Your chariot of fire between two armies is already guided by the Divine Charioteer,” she wrote in a letter. “This is the Great Battle, and where would you, our prince, rather be than in that chariot?”
Trundling toward Westminster Abbey in his golden carriage, while the drums beat and the horses around him toss their fierce heads.
There’s Harry in the third row at the abbey, looking like a civilian, looking lonely. Where’s his wife? Where’s Meghan? Back in Montecito. Too bad, too bad. She would have made a great royal, Meghan. She’s a natural for the queasy walkabout and the wave from the horse-drawn carriage. Her jargon of wellness and empowerment could have grafted itself quite effortlessly onto the standard royal waffle. But it all went wrong, didn’t it. Too bad.
Hats arrive, more hats. Nick Cave, the great Australian singer—he’s in the pews somewhere. He made headlines in the English papers a couple of days ago with his response, on one of his websites, to the question Why the fuck are you going to the King’s coronation? “I am not a monarchist,” wrote Cave, “nor am I a royalist, nor am I an ardent republican for that matter; what I am also not is so spectacularly incurious about the world and the way it works, so ideologically captured, so damn grouchy, as to refuse an invitation to what will more than likely be the most important historical event in the UK of our age.”
The ceremony begins.
“Your Majesty,” says a boy with an insolent face, in pure boyish tones. “As children of the kingdom of God, we welcome you in the name of the king of kings.” “In his name,” groans Charles, “and after his example, I come not to be served but to serve.”
Now in the bar off St. Martin’s Lane, we have become very attentive. Rather solemn. Outside it’s gone quiet too: All you can hear, intermittently, are the raptorlike cries of the street vendors and the sputterings of police radios. Filtered by the rain.
The magic glove … Receive this orb … The cakelike crown scrunched down upon the white head … Desacralized, it all becomes instantly absurd. But this bar, for now, is a sacred space. Faces appear at the window, charged and watchful. And our random company, flotsam from the rainstorm, is transformed into a miniature congregation.
Until the BBC announcer mentions “the Coronation Girdle” and somebody snorts with laughter.
Wet branches scrape the roof of the 243 bus. I’m on the top deck, heading northeast, away from the epicenter, through widening rings of indifference. Handel’s coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest”—so splendid, so trumpety—is still ringing in my ears, but fadingly. On Clerkenwell Road, people are getting haircuts. People are getting married. Dogs, as Auden put it, are going on with their doggy lives.
At a street party in Hackney there are cans of beer and cucumber sandwiches. “Did anybody watch the coronation on TV?” asks the emcee brightly, in her bright-red anorak. “NOOOO!” comes the chorus. A dog show happens—“Dogs of Middleton Road, come forward!”—and then a poetry competition. Bex Couper reads her poem off her phone:
God Save the King
Although monarchy ain’t my thing
I hope you bring peace and harmony
You could slim down patrimony
and maybe get rid of Andy …
Where do you stand on this business of kings and queens? Me, I suppose I’m your standard-issue class-based postmodern sentimental royalist. Like Harry in Spare, I went to the kind of English boarding school where matrons scraped our scalps for head lice and “everyone knew everyone’s business, down to who was circumcised and who wasn’t.” I think that Queen Elizabeth II was a remarkable entity, a container of archetypes, a discreetly shimmering energy vessel who in her compact and cardigan’d person managed and accommodated certain forces that would otherwise have broken her realm right down the middle. And still might.
And now there’s Charles, too-interesting Charles, about whom one’s feelings are complex. Such fealty as he demands seems bound to be semi-ironic. But then Charles is perhaps the first semi-ironic king: He’s meeting this moment from the other side, consciously, traveling outward from the depth of tradition toward an encounter with modernity. Divine charioteer or no divine charioteer.
We shall see.
“His views do not matter,” wrote Mark Vernon, the psychotherapist and author of Spiritual Intelligence in Seven Steps, for The Idler magazine in September last year, after the death of the Queen. “They are a distraction because there is something greater, more long-lasting at work in his soul. And if he can project this humanity and spirit, his reign will come to be valued and loved.”
On bright, woozy, somewhat-relieved Sunday morning, the day after the coronation, I talk with Vernon on Zoom. I ask him about the oscillation of meaning around the event, about the zigzag between the sacred and the profane, signaled in newspaper phrases like weirdly moving and unexpectedly powerful, that we all seem to be doing.
“Well, I think there are two kinds of cognition going on,” he tells me, “and it’s an experience shared across the body politic. One of these modes is local, and narrow, and focused, and the other is porous, uncertain, unknowing. I mean we are participating in a life that’s bigger than we can know, bigger than we can understand, and we have to learn to tolerate mystery and depth. Royalty is multifaceted. And now that its worldly power has melted away, what’s left is the spiritual presence.”
Spells and broken spells. The second Caroline Age begins.
I’ve got “Zadok the Priest” in my head again, and I’m thinking about a man I overheard on his cellphone, last week, on the train down to London. He was planning his coronation-day celebration. Trees and sunny fields nipped by outside, and dollopy ice-cream clouds hung happily overhead.
“There will be cashew nuts,” the man assured his interlocutor. “No expense has been spared.”
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