The motheaten shroud

Sitting on the floor in front of the gas fire in the small living room behind my parents’ grocery shop in Sussex, I wondered whether I was sad. It was February 1952 and Britain’s wartime king George VI had just died. I like this memory and the thought of the pensive six-year-old. The interpretation of the event may have become embroidered over the years, but it still pleases me.

I remember Christmas 1953 with its unsatisfactory soon discarded wobbly plastic model of coronation coaches and books of pictures of various exotically garbed members of what was then referred to as the Commonwealth but was not yet independent. Even then I had a feeling of emptiness, that it was hard to relate to all this and the drummed in suggestions of Charles and Anne’s familiarity with my very different family.

And later in school, before I politically matured, looking at the photo of QE2 on the canteen wall and wondering why exactly I was supposed to feel veneration and gratitude.

Since then, I have become a republican and would like to see the end of the Windsor dynasty.

I am not a platonic republican, like some members of the Labour Party, mumbling about being a republican but respecting QE2’s work and life. I do not either think that the monarchy is irrelevant but that it plays its role as a feudal vestige in spreading confusion, one among many feudal vestiges that the British people need to clear away to see the road ahead more clearly.

I cannot see that I should be grateful for someone who has, largely mutely presided over a country where industrial closures have led to skilled workers falling into the insecurity of the gig economy, where there is still vast inequality in the education system, where the free public health system is under threat, where housing can be both dire and expensive, where the British state has spread misery around the world without QE2 at any time tendering her resignation.

The monarchy plays its part in spreading the false notion that we are fundamentally one family in the nation, in encouraging people to regard themselves as subjects and not citizens, ready to be led astray by a few paternalistic crumbs from smooth-speaking Etonians, whose actual agenda differs vastly from most people’s real needs.

The feudal baggage, the idea that some people are intrinsically superior goes beyond the monarch and snobbishness still permeates British society. We need a Britain where people are proud of their parents and grandparents who struggled to bring them up, regardless of them referring to lunch as dinner and not having elegant accents. And the moth-eaten monarchical shroud doesn’t help this process.

So the mass wail about the death of QE2 has oppressed me. Had I been in the UK, I would have joined the demonstration that some brave souls organised in south London, a much more effective form of protest than the lonely voice in the crowd shouting its disapproval and being clobbered by the nebulous paragraphs of public order legislation.

Here in Sweden, this whiff of oxygen is not available to me but I did have a chance to make a small dent in the wailing wall. Sitting on a bus, a woman approached me. I didn’t immediately understand that she wanted to console me for the loss of QE2. It was an occasion where I could have helped her realise that not all English people are monarchists, that there are those of us who don’t admire QE2 and do not feel sad at her passing (rather the opposite as the new incumbent may well better fan the flames of republicanism).  But, to my shame, I muffed it, telling her that I didn’t know QE2 personally, knowing that she wouldn’t understand the response, which was in fact a put down without any pedagogic value.

Now it’s more or less over for the time being until the coronation, leaving me with another resolution on my personal improvement list for DK version 77 and 2023 that I must be better at saying what I think and not cruise around in u-boat mode, shaking my head at the inanities of the world but not responding to them (which is also a “feudal” reaction as it rests on a pessimistic assumption that people can’t change). I hope that this will not be as “green” as some of my other intended personal improvements that get piously recycled once a year….

I have anyway developed quite an affection for leaky biros that I never really liked before…

Indo-saracenic palace and a ghat in Brighton

Opposite the cottage where I lived in my teenage village, there was the Captain’s place, full of items from India. It was only ten years after the empire scuttled away from its starvation and bloody shambles and India was present in England in a different way than now. It is exotic but not unknown for me.

On Sunday mornings, my father and I used to take the ancient electric train to Brighton, past the red and white trolley buses downhill to the beach, ride on Volks even more ancient electric railway along the coast to Rottingdean, go to the aquarium and at the right time of year, watch the De Dion Boutons roll down the esplanade in triumph at the end of the Old Crocks veteran car run from London.

India was (and is) very present in Brighton in the shape of the Royal Pavilion, George IV’s summer palace at then fashionable Brighton built in the Indo-Saracenic style (and later sold by Victoria who preferred to keep her loyal subjects at somewhat greater distance at discreet Osborne in the Isle of Wight).

During the First World War, the Pavilion was used as a military hospital for wounded Indian soldiers among others. Some, of course, died and up on the Southdowns near the village of Patcham, there was a ghat where they were cremated (still a somewhat exotic practice in the Britain of this time). There is a chattri (memorial) up there. I have never been there but I will visit it. For a while after the First World War, the British were respectful of the Indians who had died for a cause very foreign to their own needs (sending Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII, who abdicated) to inaugurate the chattri). Grateful memory was rather short-lived, however. Very little was done for the destitute widows of the dead in India and the chattri apparently became quite dilapidated in the inter-war years but has at least now been restored.

Even more curious is the story of Sake Dean Mahomed, born in Patna in 1759 to a Bengali Muslim family (and died in 1851). After the early death of his father, who served in the East India Company’s Bengal army and died in battle, he was looked after by a Captain Godfrey Baker, an Anglo-Irish protestant officer. He came back to Ireland with the Captain, then later opened England’s first Indian restaurant in 1810, the Hindostanee Coffee House near Portland Square in London. He later moved to Brighton and opened “The Indian Medicated Vapour Bath” and introduced the English to the delights of shampooing (hence the somewhat alien word Shampoo). When I was in Brighton, I found his grave at St Nicholas church, unfortunately barricaded in by restoration in process. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to clamber over the wall of the graveyard and get to the grave but teetering around perilously on tombs is not really compatible with my silver elegant demeanour…(Background info on Dean Mahomed mined from Wiki).

I also found a small model in Brighton museum of Tipu’s tiger, showing a tiger savaging a soldier of the East India Company; there is a large one in the Victoria and Albert museum in London. I must try and find out how it came to be in the Brighton museum. I believe it was called Tipu’s tiger as the large piece was looted from Tipu, the ruler of Mysore’s palace when the British led by Warren Hastings defeated Tipu (after Tipu had defeated the British in an earlier Anglo-Mysore war). I had always thought that the image of the solder being mauled by a tiger was symbolic for the British being defeated by the Indians, especially as Tipu was known as the Tiger of Mysore. But on the net, there is the story of the sixteen-year-old East India cadet Hector Munro who died after being savaged by a tiger, which sprang on him and dragged him off to the bushes, which was supposed to have inspired the gruesome ceramic piece. I’m not convinced by this unpretty prettyifying…

I haven’t been to Bengal since before the Covid trudge but am beginning to hope for the not so distant future.