The Death Parade

Andrew O’Hagan

‘Some people are close to tears,’ said Mark Easton, the BBC’s home editor, from his premium spot outside the palace. ‘This is a very difficult and dangerous moment for the United Kingdom.’ Then it was the bell-ringing turn of Nicholas Witchell, who comes with a look so mournful you’d think half of humanity had just expired. ‘Everyone will have their words, as they pay their tributes,’ he said, and Charles III will be keen to ‘set the right tone’ during this ‘disorientating time’, when people need to be ‘reassured’.

It’s really quite unfair that Charles Dickens is not available at this hour, because his pen would ooze with rapid invention if confronted by the BBC’s royal correspondent. On a good day – and this, sad to say, is as good a day as Witchell’s ever going to get – he makes Uriah Heep look like Brad Pitt at his easy-going peak, the reporter’s face a gravitational field bringing his mouth into the saddest of all rictuses. He spent his long hours before the camera masticating fresh delights of toadyism. It was terrific to watch, in the same way that it’s terrific to watch a snake being fed live mice.

Then came Tony Blair, just in case the oleaginous delights weren’t yet up to snuff. He spoke of the ‘matriarch of the nation’. Blair’s always ready with these lines, and I wonder if he rehearses them in his sleep, perhaps waking up to look in the mirror, to see if he can still do the face. Meanwhile, the ‘show us you care’ merchants gathered outside the palace. The scene was set for the ripest show of journalistic knee-bending in a generation.

Huw Edwards had his black tie tightly knotted early in the day. I think he might have been first to gussy up, and the first to use the phrase ‘the Elizabethan era’, which was soon more popular than iPhones down at the scene. Edwards has the journalistic gift of saying nothing for very long periods of time, while still talking. And Witchell was close to hand. He kept speaking about a ‘period of national mourning’, as if he’d long since crossed over from being a journalist to become the Comptroller of Royal Etiquette and Emotional Expenditure. The nation was sure to ‘feel that mourning very keenly and very personally. The crown has passed invisibly and imperceptibly to Charles’ (‘glaringly’ and ‘super-obviously’ more like). ‘Bells will be rung and guns will be sounded … Flowers will be laid on a scale we have not seen since the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales.’

Before midnight, the reporters were dropping with emotional exhaustion. A new man appeared whom I’d never seen before, and to an almost shocking degree he lacked the lachrymose impetus that seemed so essential in his colleagues. This guy was historical, factual, interesting, but then … oh fuck, here comes Nicholas Witchell, in a package about the royalness of the royals that he must’ve recorded, I’m guessing, some time in the 1950s, or maybe the 1850s, in full expectation that Her Majesty would one day die and the occasion would call for words bigger than any normal human feeling. When did British reporters begin emoting for a living, broadcasting as if the words themselves were the news?

‘It’s a privilege to see how we all behave,’ Naga Munchetty said on Breakfast. What a remarkable sentence. The British love the spectacle of Britons getting emotional, and, indeed, we live in a place where it has become a privilege, now and then, to see how we all behave, the opportunity to take pride in a spot of mass belief in our own nonsense. It is self-watching as a national sport, and every other broadcast, along with every other book, could these days be called How am I today? It was a trait Elizabeth II famously detested, but it sprung up instantly on her death along with the plastic-wrapped garage flowers of England, the ones that make a glinting shrine of every disaster spot in the land.

Overnight, the newspapers got in on the act, behaving as if history were simply a concatenation of our large feelings. ‘Our Hearts Are Broken,’ the Daily Mail screams. ‘How to find the words? Our grief is a hundred different emotions, all of them hard to grasp.’ (Is shame an emotion, and is it hard to grasp?) ‘We Loved You, Ma’am,’ roars the Sun, which changed its banner from red to purple. It seems consistent with the general nullity that the papers emoting most extravagantly are the ones that made the queen suffer the most.

The Express reports on huge crowds weeping in the street. Modern journalism loves the idea that a nation has a heart and that a heart can break, as if there were a requirement to confect a sort of togetherness out of national torpor, the quivering lip having long since replaced the stiff upper one as a symbol of our essential nature. It won’t matter for very long, but today it all seems part of the workaday hysteria of British life, yet perfectly at odds with the quiet, persevering woman on the postage stamp.

Listen to James Butler and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite talk to Thomas Jones about the death of the Queen on the LRB Podcast.


  • 9 September 2022 at 8:10pm
    Andrew Pearmain says:
    There is fluffy authoritarianism at work here, first mobilised in its contemporary form over Diana, which insists we all feel the same about the death of a stranger. Is there any space in this "national mourning" for the utter indifference I (and surely millions of others) feel?

    • 12 September 2022 at 1:40pm
      Peterwithey says: @ Andrew Pearmain
      "fluffy authoritarianism": what a wonderful expression! I shall use it next time I have to explain why I don't like in-yer-face poppy-wearing and conversely, the implication that not donning one is a kind of unpatriotic gesture tantamount to treason.

    • 14 September 2022 at 8:52pm
      Margaret Weston says: @ Peterwithey
      It was Ian Hislop, I think, who described the same phenomenon at the time of Diana Spencer's death as 'floral fascism'.

    • 16 September 2022 at 7:41am
      nlowhim says: @ Andrew Pearmain
      I really like that term. Heard Yanis talk about a man who was arrested for holding up a piece of paper that said “not my king”. Doesn’t surprise me, tbf.

  • 9 September 2022 at 8:31pm
    steve kay says:
    I am so wracked with emotion that all I can say is thank fuck for Andrew O’Hagan and the LRB. Like many an ancient sandal wearing Grauniad reader I can recall decades ago when it was, if not republican, at least less than wholly royalist. But not today. Ah well, at least the opportunity for Olympic piss taking. Putting the coffin on the Royal Train at Haymarket, schools being closed on the route the procession, if it includes Prince Andrew, will pass along, the incandescent rage from Alexander de Piffle for not being PM in this times of national pompous posing and dressing up on a scale that Zeffirelli would have approved of.

  • 10 September 2022 at 2:55am
    William Conferee says:
    First Truss, now King Charles III. God save your small island.

    • 10 September 2022 at 7:41am
      MattG says: @ William Conferee
      Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad

  • 10 September 2022 at 6:31am
    Barbara Spitzer says:
    The Australian cabinet, sworn in on 31 May, has a Minister for the Republic. Excellent foresight from our PM.

  • 10 September 2022 at 12:59pm
    woll says:
    many thanks for this article, the first in the national press I have read about the queen death to show any critical perspective. the blanket coverage and endless grovelling are shameful and disturbing.

    • 16 September 2022 at 7:43am
      nlowhim says: @ woll
      It’s been much the same here in the States. Appears most people think the wrong side lost in 1776

    • 18 September 2022 at 5:10pm
      OldScrounger says: @ nlowhim
      They wouldn't think that if they had. Where they are now affords them the luxury of just adoring our antiquated fixtures and fittings, because they don't have to live with them.

  • 10 September 2022 at 1:58pm
    J p Streeter says:
    Thank you for the update from the front in this War of Imbecility, Andrew. Brave of you to suffer all that nonsense on our behalf. Like many, I'm now on an extended news blackout. Please let let us know when the blathering subsides.

  • 10 September 2022 at 5:14pm
    mosquera says:
    Witchell has his slot, and the LRB equally predictably has its, both part of the tapestry ... But the despised flowers should surely be "filling-station flowers". Nobody gets them at garages.

    • 12 September 2022 at 4:16pm
      bikethru says: @ mosquera
      Petrol station, I think. And a petrol station is a garage. Pronounced "garridge", as in Nigel Farridge.

  • 10 September 2022 at 5:37pm
    Eddie says:
    Thank you for saying this. Much needed.

  • 10 September 2022 at 5:45pm
    S Nevers says:
    Both this entry and what it critiques are completely predictable.

    Let us sneer at the media supporting the emotion of others. Let this outlet wink praise of contrarian superiority.

    Let time pass and most fevers pass. Why not observe and be amused or perhaps humanely engaged by others?

    After all, you could be in America.

    • 11 September 2022 at 8:09am
      steve kay says: @ S Nevers
      I could be in America, but write from South Wales.
      Despite Truss saying that Elizabeth is one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known, here she is remembered for saying and doing nothing about Aberfan for over a week. The investiture of Charles, however, was seen as a gift to Plaid and the Welsh Language Society. The next PoW may or may not be the star of a show in Caernarfon. Might be the very thing for Andrew Lloyd Webber, but Valentin Schwarz may well be available as director of ceremonies as I doubt that German or French opera houses are troubling his agent very much.
      Distinguished LRB contributors O'Hagan and Toibin probably went to comprehensive schools in Hampstead or Norwich, freeing them from cultural baggage. . I was sent to be educated by Jesuits. This had the fortunate effect of making me an intellectually snobbish atheist from about the age of eleven. Being free of religion lasted until I lived and worked in the West of Scotland, where I rapidly became aware of the frequency, and significance, of the questions, how do you spell your name, and what was the name of your school? If Charles sits upon the throne for as long as his mama, Scotland will probably be independent, and Ireland united. If he does not last that long, the lack of cultural sensitivity or political awareness of the House of Windsor will see the possibility of there being a new King Billy. Oh the bonfires of joy in certain streets of Derry and Belfast, and outside Ibrox, not to mention Larkhall and Kilwinning. Responses elsewhere, however, may be very different.

    • 14 September 2022 at 8:52am
      prangman says: @ steve kay
      Er I think Colm Toibin was probably also educated by Jesuits (or Christian brothers). I doubt many Irish people of his age are unencumbered with the cultural baggage of which you speak

    • 14 September 2022 at 12:26pm
      Tom MacColl says: @ steve kay
      Andrew O’Hagan is from the west of Scotland and seems to be very well versed in its religious and cultural tensions. If Charles sits upon the throne for as long as his mama, he will be 143 years old.

    • 14 September 2022 at 3:10pm
      Rory Allen says: @ S Nevers
      Well, if it comes to that, your own contribution sounds pretty sneery to me. I think what the article is criticising is not the media 'supporting' the emotion of others, it is the media exploiting these genuine emotions, just as they attempt to exploit or manipulate public emotion at other times. It is worth regularly reading the Daily Mail online version to see examples of this every day.

    • 16 September 2022 at 12:48am
      Colm Tóibín says: @ prangman
      The Jesuits! I was probably educated by the Jesuits? You must be joking!

    • 17 September 2022 at 7:19am
      steve kay says: @ Colm Tóibín
      Differing orders, Colm. That’s why you are a famous and acclaimed author, and I am but a retired museum curator.

    • 19 September 2022 at 9:46pm
      prangman says: @ Colm Tóibín
      Haha okay but a religious catholic school in Ireland rather than a comp in Norwich surely?

  • 11 September 2022 at 8:26am
    woll says:
    the reaction to the queen’s death in various former colonies, and the links between the royal family and colonialism, have been pretty much ignored by the UK press. there has however been extensive coverage in the european press, including long artickes in le monde, die zeit and tagespiegel. here is the link to the le monde piece:

    • 14 September 2022 at 5:44pm
      Stuart says: @ woll
      Thanks for the link--an interesting read.
      It's amazing how often we British congratulate ourselves for being so British about things, by which we mean not making a spectacle of ourselves

  • 11 September 2022 at 5:06pm
    Subramanian R Paramasivan says:
    An absolute delight to read; am sure her late majesty would've chuckled approvingly!

  • 12 September 2022 at 9:11am
    Nicholas david Emmel says:
    Thank God for Andrew O'Hagan!

  • 12 September 2022 at 10:13am
    Ruth Dyson says:
    “..he makes Uriah Heep look like Brad Pitt at his easy-going peak” - worth reading for that phrase alone.
    The death of Elizabeth II is an interesting and significant event but you’d never know it from UK coverage.
    It’s just endless descriptions of the pomp and ceremonies and tearful crowds.

  • 12 September 2022 at 4:28pm
    Mark Callan says:
    Thank you for articulating so forcefully how revolting all this guff has been. And for pointing out how unlike the late Queen’s own behaviour it has been.

  • 13 September 2022 at 5:01am
    Anthony Lorenzo says:
    This enforced prostrating 'grief' is becoming embarrassing. Well, to be more specific, it is already excruciatingly humiliating.

    It makes a mockery of the word 'grief' if that feeling- go on, think about it for a moment- you got that never left when your parent, or best friend, grandparent, child, died, can be applied to a woman you never met and who had no tangible effect on your life other than to have entrenched the class system deep enough you could never be socially mobile.

    A litany of the Queen's personality traits have been thrust upon us, despite the fact she was prized by these same sycophants in life for never saying anything and being above it all. Most egregious is the attempt to have us all believe she was funny and witty. Any banal quip that left her lips would have been met with guffaws for obvious reasons...she's the friggin queen.

    The papers telling us how to feel as well as how we actually are feeling is to out it simply, bizarre, like they can leave no room for error, and don't trust that we'd all feel suitably bereft. More irksome are the citizens-sorry, subjects,- who are policing how we are to behave and insisting now is not the time to discuss abolishing the charade or to criticise her reign, which is the same excuse as when she was alive. Too disrespectful then, too disrespectful now. Presumably any republican discussion to come will be squashed lest we hurt Charles' feelings. The throne passes to the next before you can blink, in an instant, because they know even ten seconds of contemplation would have is wake up to the sheer batshit craziness of it all.

    Charles should decalre himself the last King, which would have need resonance after the constitutional crises his namesakes etched into history. Very tidy. And it would rescue his own son from having to carry on with it in a time which should surely, for the love of God, make this all seem ludicrous.

    I gave up on the papers when I read a headline informing us that the rainbow that had formed 'over' Buckingham palace was a sign from her that she'd 'always be with us'. Presumably nothing to do with the fact it had been raining all day.

    Sure, it's sad. Sure, she did a great job. Not doing a great job when that job is to cut ribbons, read someone's short script, and the feign interest in the lives of the saddos who come to you for absolution you can't provide, would be incrediblt difficult. I'd wager it would be more hard work to screw it up than it would be to get it done satisfactorily.

    The royals are turned into stange hybrid... earthly deities, perhaps.

    The reason people are mistaking sadness for grief is because the sense of loss is really a gut-wrenching reminder of our own mortality. If even the deity queen can die, we surely will too. She was old my entire life (34 years) and so her constant 'thereness' did in fact make her seem immortal. Her perceived deathlessness was reassuring. Her death makes our own seem more likely.

    • 13 September 2022 at 2:48pm
      Delaide says: @ Anthony Lorenzo
      Fantastic! Thanks.

  • 13 September 2022 at 5:00pm
    David Ascher says:
    My "beloved father" died this past March a few months after his 99th birthday. He was fond of telling me "Everybody dies", the last line, he claimed, from the end of a long forgotten film, "Body and Soul" starring John Garfield. Who could possibly be surprised or shocked by (even) Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II dying at 96? I could imagine Charles being a little shocked that he actually managed to outlive his mother and finally inherit the Crown for which he'd been waiting for a few decades. So shocked that he apparently forgot to change his name to something other than the inauspicious "Charles III" rather than use one of his other names, Philip, Arthur, or George, instead.

  • 13 September 2022 at 10:02pm
    David Ascher says:
    "If Charles sits upon the throne for as long as his mama, "
    It would be grotesque to keep his presumably taxidermied remains on the throne for 70 years! He's already 75. If he lives to 100 (which is unlikely), your talking about another 45 years of his lifeless body sitting on the throne. Of course, it might be difficult for the royalty worshippers to detect whether he's still alive or not - and it may not matter much to them, except for missing the outpouring of national grief at his death.

  • 13 September 2022 at 10:06pm
    larrykoen says:
    From the US, where I was in college in the early '70's and became friends with a Kenyan of South Asian ancestry. He told me that after independence, Kenya had renamed a major throughfare, Elizabeth Boulevard (or Avenue or whatever), to something local. "Bugger the queen," I said enthusiastically. "You understand!" he responded, in pleased surprise.

  • 13 September 2022 at 10:22pm
    David Ings says:
    Tonight BBC1 presented nearly 2 hours of "The Eve of the Procession to Lying-in-State". Presumably on Thursday we'll have the Highlights and Analysis of the Procession.... Or perhaps the start of the eagerly awaited build-up to the Big Day itself. Over to you, Huw.

  • 14 September 2022 at 6:22am
    Fred McElwaine says:
    Thank you for this, but judging by recent events, your next piece will be written from a custody cell.

  • 14 September 2022 at 8:52am
    Daniel Hadley says:
    Thanks so much for writing this. It's the most British thing I've read all week.

  • 14 September 2022 at 11:00am
    Jeffrey Frankel says:
    Where is John Snagge when we need him?

  • 14 September 2022 at 11:06am
    Jeffrey Frankel says:
    I realise people who read the LRB are intellectuals and don't have emotions, but the jokes you make can be used against you. I am a mere emotional non-intellectual and cry when I hear somebody I met has died. Most of the problems of the world are due to politicians like Boris Johnson, who are only interested in their control over others. The Queen had very little power over the politicians, even if they do say she influenced them by offering an alternative.

    • 14 September 2022 at 5:13pm
      steve kay says: @ Jeffrey Frankel
      Quire right. Tears should be shed for the owner of a £17 billion estate upon which no inheritance tax will be paid, owner of our seabeds, and a caring mother who gave an undisclosed number of millions of dollars to one of her children to pass on to the lawyers of someone he had never met. One of her children was so upset that he sacked half the staff at Clarence House whilst wearing a kilt beside her coffin.

    • 16 September 2022 at 7:51am
      nlowhim says: @ steve kay
      Well said, I’m finding the grief of strangers for yet another rich person hard to fathom. That she stands in for the class system makes it odder still. Probably preps us all for our neo feudal future.

  • 16 September 2022 at 7:52am
    nlowhim says:
    Brilliant: “as if he’d long since crossed over from being a journalist to become the Comptroller of Royal Etiquette and Emotional Expenditure. ”

  • 17 September 2022 at 1:10am
    David Thompson says:
    Is anyone selling memorabilia? Surely all this purgatorial affect, whether it’s factitious, whether it’s whatever the counterpart of ‘factitious’ now may be, can’t just be pouring into the news cycle. Surely there are more direct ways of monetising big feelings.

  • 18 September 2022 at 2:23am
    Deirdre O'Sullivan says:
    I think that brilliantly funny novelist, the late Sue Townsend, said it best in her chortle-making book, 'The Queen and I.' She wrote that the British found it impossible to think of the Queen as an ordinary person, because they'd been licking the back of her head for so many years!

  • 19 September 2022 at 12:40am
    Harriet says:
    Where is Ken Russell when we need him most?

  • 19 September 2022 at 2:27am
    V Pingle says:
    As an American who adores Shakespeare, I can’t get over the inability of most current Britons to use words other than ‘extraordinary’ to describe anything surrounding the waves of banality taking over their Kingdom.

    Maybe it’s the great anxiety they appear to be feeling as they face the challenge of figuring out the ‘new words’ that will be appearing in their national anthem that is leaving them at a loss for words.

  • 21 September 2022 at 2:47pm
    Delaide says:
    I belatedly thank everyone for there contributions to this thread which is the best I can recall on the Blog It’s been chuckle after chuckle. And a special call-out to Bikethru for explaining that ‘garage’ is “Pronounced ‘garridge’, as in Nigel Farridge.” I read it at breakfast and me porridge went everywhere.

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