John Hall Monarchy Political Philosophy Privilege Republicanism Ungagged Writing

What is a normal reaction to the death of the Head of State?

The death of Queen Elizabeth II at 96 has dominated the news headlines since she passed away last week. But the more I sift through social media and the news coverage, the more I’ve been finding the online reaction to be totally out of touch with my day to day experience. I thought, for my first article for Ungagged, that I would try and bridge this gap a little, and note down what it has actually felt like for people going through this historic occasion in the city of Edinburgh.

And it is historic. Regardless of your views on monarchy or republicanism, Elizabeth Windsor was the head of state of the United Kingdom for 70 long years and her death marks the end of an era. None of us can deny that.

But to feel actual grief? To be overcome with emotion? To cry and feel it’s appropriate to close our shops, our schools, our services over the death of an old woman who lived a long and remarkable life? I can’t help but feel that nearly everyone involved is playing along in some kind of performative exercise that has nothing to do with well… the real world.

So what is going on? What are people genuinely feeling? How can we inject some sense into the pantomime-like stage show that has been our media landscape this week?

The first strong emotion that I felt after the announcement of the Queen’s death struck me as I scrolled through an article on Operation ‘London Bridge’, trying to figure out what was going to happen. I stumbled across a brief mention of Operation Unicorn, a special plan for if the Queen died in Scotland rather than anywhere else in the world. And it suddenly hit me that Edinburgh was going to get shut down for the better part of a week. Edinburgh residents spend half their lives dreading the summer tourist season and the Fringe when the soul of the city is temporarily replaced with a makeshift Disneyland.

False fronts and skew-whiff stages sell approximations of our culture to an influx of tourists and semi-famous comedians. While it’s not impossible to enjoy the Fringe, it leaves a certain ugly mark on the city. And so the strongest emotion I remember feeling was a mixture of upset and exhaustion that is best summed up as ‘Here we go again’. We’d barely got our city back, and now it was going to be overtaken by another circus.

And it’s that false, inauthentic feel that seems to surround every part of the parade and pomp that has characterised these ceremonies. It just feels like another tourist trap. Onlookers lining the streets aren’t crying solemnly, overtaken by a deep abiding love and respect; they are raising their iPhones high into the air to capture the moment, to post online.

When I talk with colleagues, I’m not hearing grief or angst in their words. Instead, the most common discussion is how difficult the event has made everyday activities: Friends trade tips to get around the city when it’s all shut off; Colleagues compare how long their commutes are, telling stories of getting caught for hours in pointless closures. Even amongst those who did engage with it all, there’s not much sign of grief or deep emotion.

A friend sheepishly admitted they went to see the coffin not because they wanted to pay their respects, but simply because they saw it as a slice of history, a story they wanted to tell their grandchildren. They told tales of a queue full of sightseers, jovial and laughing. This isn’t a nation overcome with grief. It’s overcome with a bit of free street theatre.

On Wednesday, the capital breathed a sigh of relief as the Queen departed for the very last time and we were able to return to our regular lives. But it wasn’t long before we realised we were to be interrupted once more. As we all scramble to understand what will and will not be open on the day of the funeral, the main thought going through people’s heads can be summed up simply as: “Will I get paid, what will I do with the kids, will the shops be open, will my hospital appointment go ahead?”

Haven’t we had enough interruptions to our lives these last few years? While most of our media engage in a well practised charade, there are real people here whose lives are being disrupted in a time when they’re not even sure they’ll be able to afford to keep the heating on this winter.

What is an appropriate response to the death of the Head of State? I’m not entirely sure. What I do know is that on Tuesday 20th September, many Edinburgh residents will wake up feeling glad to finally have their city back and for this ugly, inauthentic, state enforced mourning period to be over.

By John Hall

 

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