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In England's dreaming
Lizards and black magic: a republican case for Charles
About midway through his coronation ceremony, King Charles III was lightly greased with olive oil from Jerusalem, deployed via a special spoon. Nobody knows the actual origin of this special spoon. It was made some time in the twelfth century, for a purpose that is still not entirely clear; by 1349 it had made its way, by unknown means, into the possession of the royal household. We don’t know what they used it for either. But three hundred years later, England briefly experimented with the idea of publicly disassembling its kings along the neck, and all the royal regalia was sold off and melted down—all except this spoon, which was bought by one Kynnersley, formerly Yeoman of the King’s Wardrobe, for twelve shillings. On the Restoration, it was decided that to be crowned King of England, a man must first be daubed with oil from this particular spoon. Every monarch since has undergone the ritual. It is a deeply significant piece of cutlery.
After his anointing, Charles was robed in the Supertunica, a kind of ceremonial dressing-gown made from cloth of gold. He sat in a wooden throne built to contain the Stone of Destiny. Because the event was broadcast in HD, we could see the centuries of graffiti cut into that throne. P Abbott slept in this chair 5-6 July 1800. The vesting was followed by a complicated procedure involving several swords, one of them covered in diamonds, which were passed back and forth between the King, the Archbishop, and various clergymen, military officers, and government ministers, and at one point exchanged for a bag of 50p coins. (This is apparently an ancient tradition, even though the sword itself only dates to 1821.) Charles was then presented with the Bracelets of Sincerity and Wisdom. He struggled to fit his swollen fingers into a special glove made for his grandfather, George VI. In his right hand, he took the Royal Sceptre; in his left hand, the Rod of Equity and Mercy. He sat there with both of them, looking like a cartoon character called Chuckie Two-Sticks. Finally, he was crowned.
Outside it rained. The British people lined the streets, loyal yeomen in their plastic Union Jack bucket hats, under their plastic Union Jack umbrellas, with tiny shards of red white and blue microplastics clogging up their arteries and leaching into their brains. We are not a solemn or a dignified people. We are a nation of beetroot-red men who live in poky new-build houses as orange as a newborn baby’s turds. One of our most popular TV shows is a reality programme in which you watch other people watching TV. Our idea of Chinese food is chips smothered in curry sauce. Our main export is James Corden. A magnificent eight-minute military flypast, featuring sixty aircraft including a squadron of Second World War Spitfires, was cancelled due to the weather. Ten days previously, the Bank of England’s chief economist had publicly encouraged the country to accept that it’s now poorer and grubbier than it was a few years ago, and to stop striking for better pay. Our schools can no longer reliably teach children to read and write. Our hospitals can no longer reliably treat the sick. Prince William wore the ceremonial dress uniform of the Welsh Guards, in doeskin and gold thread, under a velvet mantle. Penny Mordaunt wore a £2,000 dress.
I watched it all from my living room in a council estate in London, where I could hear my neighbours arguing in Arabic through the crumbling cement walls. I made the Coronation Quiche. Ate it with my hands on the sofa, cramming wet eggy chunks into my mouth. I didn’t hate it.
I can tell you exactly when I stopped hating the British monarchy. It was on the 5th of June last year; Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee. Another grey day. A constant fine drizzle: not the kind of rain that floods the gutters, but just enough to make the whole country seem limp, damp, and wretched. Elsewhere, people were bravely holding street parties, eating their fleshy pink pork pies under white plastic canopies. Lin-Manuel Miranda performed outside the Palace. I spent most of the afternoon walking to Wing Yip, an enormous Chinese supermarket in an industrial tract on the outskirts of London. They weren’t holding any street parties in Cricklewood. For a while I wondered why everything was so quiet: the entire city seemed to be barricaded inside, as if there were terrorists on the loose, or another plague nobody had bothered to tell me about. Then I’d see the flags dangling from a few of the windows and remember. In one house, the residents had clearly wanted to show their appreciation for Her Majesty, but they couldn’t be bothered to buy an actual flag, so they’d hung out a sort of patriotically decorated shower curtain instead. Little beads of rain ran together into big globs and dripped steadily off its edge. The whole display was faintly miserable. And as I trudged through the suburbs, I realised, to my horror, that I felt absolutely nothing. No hatred. Not even disdain. All my wells of spite had run dry.
Horror, because I have always hated the monarchy. I am a socialist, and toppling the crowned heads of Europe is a fairly integral part of the whole project—but for me that hatred felt personal. Whenever the news was suddenly taken over by the latest royal sprog, or the tabloids started fussing about the state of some princely marriage, or the government decided to waste millions on a piece of useless infrastructure while slapping a Saxe-Coburg’s name on it by way of excuse, I would have delirious visions of a guillotine erected in St James’ Park. That whole family being cleanly dispatched, one by one. All their clamouring, their petty feuds, their TV interviews, their boring scandals—one clean swish of the blade, and then silence. I hated the humiliating theatre of our national cult. The kneel, the bow, the servile lickspittle cringe that descends on us whenever we’re reminded of this brood of half-pickled grotesques. I hated the look of the whole thing. Have you ever actually seen the Crown Jewels? The Imperial State Crown—which is the monarch’s ordinary day-to-day crown, as opposed to the more formal St Edward’s Crown worn for special occasions—contains nearly three thousand diamonds, 270 pearls, seventeen sapphires, and a ruby the size of a small egg. It is the gaudiest, most tasteless thing on the planet: so pointlessly expensive it’s ended up looking cheap, like a plastic toy you could buy from some Chinese dropshippers. At the same time, I hated the banality. Engels once wrote that in addition to the standard-issue bourgeoisie, the English have managed to create a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well. What he forgot to mention was our bourgeois royalty. They own a bunch of shopping centres and keep marrying Americans They speak in the same medium-posh accent as any other west Londoners, including me. Most of all, I hated that we’d never asked to be ruled by these creatures. There’s only one country on the planet that actually voted for the British royal family, and it’s Australia. Send them there, like the rest of our criminal underclass. Let them reign from a condo in Melbourne if they want. But not here.
But it’s strangely hard to write that fury now. I’m just not feeling it any more, not really feeling anything, and I’m not alone. British people are not, in fact, embarrassingly devoted to their royals: for the most part, we simply don’t care. The day before Charles’s coronation, one poll revealed that 62% of the country wasn’t particularly bothered about it either way. Surveys usually find that support for the monarchy is highest among old people and much lower among the young, but for adults under 25 the most common position isn’t republicanism, it’s a shrug: don’t know. The monarchy is not worth hating, because there’s nothing there to hate. A soap opera for foreigners, a few dutiful shower curtains, some nice choral music, and a line in chintzy ceremonial plates. That’s all. It barely even exists.
But I went further. I started to get deeply annoyed by the way some people would jeer at our stupid pageantry. Americans, mostly, desperate to point at a political system more larpy and lunatic than their own. Look at the Brits, still ruled by hereditary aristocrats—isn’t it pathetic? Like some fantasy kingdom. Like Game of Thrones. Isn’t it out of date? The Nairn-Anderson thesis repeated as a playground insult: you guys are lame. Well, what would you prefer? Should we have some crap president in a suit and tie, notionally elected but basically appointed by the IMF? Should we become another boring republic in a continent full of boring republics? Should we sell off Buckingham Palace to some grasping property developers, so it can be turned into luxury apartments, auctioned off in Singapore? Should we break down that hideous hat, so its three thousand diamonds can adorn a Saudi oil billionaire’s hubcaps instead? Would that be democratic? Would that be more normal? Would that radically change our political situation, or would it make things even more the same than they already are?
The monarchy does serve one very useful function: it reminds us that politics is not rational. In Britain, we are ruled by the descendants of an illiterate Viking warlord who came to this island one thousand years ago to massacre its people. When William I had his coronation at Westminster Abbey in 1066, his soldiers mistook the acclamation for a riot, and immediately set about burning and looting half the city. We can’t delude ourselves that the state exists for our benefit; it exists to serve a cabal of weird, leathery perverts, and so do we. We know that sovereignty is made of lizards and black magic. (Charles knows this too, by the way; he wrote an entire book about it. The only difference is that he likes Jung and Guénon and thinks this is all actually good.) The royals might not actually govern our lives any more—that role has been passed on to the international bond markets, just like everywhere else—but they let us see power as it really is: arbitrary, meaningless, and absurd. They remind us that all our dry fiddling around with interest rates sits at the end of a very long chain, stretching back to the first man who smashed another man’s head in with a rock.
It’s the people in republics who live in a fantasy-world. You’re still acting out some eighteenth-century vision of democracy. You still imagine that you’re governed by consent, and not simply ruled. You still pretend—how quaint—to be modern.
The only problem with my new stoical attitude to the monarchy is that it instantly evaporates on contact with the BBC.
The worst of it, obviously, came after the Queen’s death last year. Across the country, anyone who shouted the wrong words or held up the wrong kind of sign was liable to be suddenly hustled into a van by a squadron of mushroom-nosed bobbies in dayglo jackets. The nation was in mourning, we were told; some limits to free speech were necessary, so a few fringe anti-monarchists wouldn’t ruin things for the rest of us. It was strange, though: I didn’t see a nation in mourning. I spent the Friday and Saturday nights after the Queen’s death in Soho. All the adverts in the bus stops had been replaced by sombre black and white photos of the late Elizabeth, but everything else was exactly the same. It was the last warm weekend before autumn, and people were sitting outside at restaurants, eating and talking and laughing: they hadn’t cancelled their reservations to have a quiet weep at home. Pubs and bars were overflowing. Drunk people shouted at each other in alleyways. In Piccadilly Circus, the giant screens were still hawking Coca-Cola and Balenciaga, and the square was still full of kids playing drill out their phones. The British people didn’t care.
So something else had to do their caring for them. Every major institution seemed to be suddenly competing to make ordinary people’s lives as hard as possible. One train station replaced its live departures boards with a blank black screen: very solemn and dignified, if slightly inimical to a train station’s main role of being a train station. Hospitals shut. Food banks shut. Football off the telly. We will make you care about this, they were saying, and if the only way to do it is to make you suffer, then so be it. In some societies, when the tribal chieftain dies, they ceremonially burn down the entire village. Britain is one of them.
God, but the BBC was in a class of its own. Because I hate myself and love to groan, I watched the live footage of the Queen’s coffin being carried to Windsor. Hundreds of men in deeply silly outfits marched slowly, incredibly slowly, down a totally unremarkable country road. The soldiers at the rear of the procession had to walk through piles of horseshit. They played their trumpets and banged their drums, but there were no crowds to hear: the whole spectacle was being performed for the odd bypasser and a few scattered TV cameras. Every moment was self-evidently ridiculous, but the BBC announcer kept muttering in reverential tones about the magnificence of it all, and how we as a nation were were expressing our grief and starting to heal. It felt like drowning in warm custard. Once, just once, I wanted to hear from one of the republicans I could no longer be bothered to agree with. One dissenting voice. One breath of clean cold air. And in a way, we got one. There was one person within the British establishment who actually represented the national mood, and it was Charles.
Because throughout the period of mourning, Charles was clearly pissed off. In every public appearance he was bitter, tetchy, and unlikeable; every televised event was a glimpse of a man who was clearly not having a good time. The famous pen incident, of course. At one point, duty demanded that he sign the visitor’s book at a castle near Belfast, but his pen started leaking. ‘Oh God,’ he muttered, in full view of the cameras. ‘I hate this! I can’t bear this bloody thing! What they do, every stinking time!’ In its reportage, the Guardian helpfully explained things. ‘Oh God I hate this (pen)!’ But that’s not what he said. Did they really think he was only talking about the pen? He hated it all! In our choreographed national orgy of forced fake emotion, Charles was the only person in public life clearly disenchanted with the entire spectacle. He didn’t care about the Queen, he cared about his mother, and all the ritual only made him more miserable. This is a man who plainly resents his own status. The most high-profile republican in Britain right now might be its King.
You have to wonder what Liz and Phil were thinking when they gave their son and heir the name Charles. The first British monarch called Charles was defeated twice in two wars against his own parliament, put on trial, and publicly beheaded. The second was a feckless playboy who never produced an heir, squabbled constantly with his government, spent public funds on his mistresses, and whose entire family was overthrown a few years after his death. There was even another person in history who called himself King Charles III, although he’s better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie: an eighteenth-century Stuart pretender who pointlessly spent the lives of thousands of his followers in a brief, failed uprising before slinking off back to Europe. This is not an auspicious name.
Charles is simply not like the other royals: not like his parents, not like his siblings, not like his sons. A shy, quiet, bookish boy in a family whose literary pretensions don’t extend much further than Horse & Hound. The royals do not, as a rule, read; they are barbarian warlords: illiterates. When Prince William Henry was presented with the second volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he replied: ‘Another damned thick square book, eh, Mr Gibbon? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr Gibbon?’ But Charles knows how to read, even if his chosen materials leave something to be desired. He was the first person in his family to go to university. He cares about architecture. He cares about organic farming. He cares about the perennial esoteric wisdom concealed beneath all world religions. What usually happens if you drop a nerd like that in the middle of a gang of rugger-playing toffs?
Monarchy has never brought Charles anything but grief. Money and palaces, sure, but that is not a life. At Gordonstoun, his boarding school in the punishment zones of western Scotland, the other boys would make sucky-sucky noises at anyone who tried to be nice to him. His parents, who couldn’t possibly hope to understand their son, treated him with alternating coldness and distance. (Everyone knows that the Queen’s favourite child was always Andrew, the gormless (allegedly) childfucking nonentity. Knowing the family, it makes sense.) Being a royal meant that his sole purpose in life was waiting for his mother to die. It meant that he couldn’t even be with the woman he loved; instead, he was forced into a sham marriage with some basically standard-issue young aristo who couldn’t understand him either—and when it all inevitably fell apart he became a national hate figure. For some reason, people are still fixed on the idea that it was Diana who chafed at the institution of the monarchy, and that she was the sole victim of that whole affair. Maybe we can’t think about her life without the looming shadow of her death. Films show her fleeing the cold formality of Sandringham to eat KFC. But this was the woman the royals chose, and there are other ways of telling this story. Charles and Camilla, forced to be apart but desperate to be together, against all custom and authority, helplessly in love.
For a very long time, the British public did not like Charles. I’d talk to people who loved the monarchy, but insisted that when Elizabeth died the succession would skip Charles entirely and pass on straight to his son. They didn’t seem to get what hereditary rule actually means. Even last year, 42% of the population thought he should stand aside. The problem with Charles is that he is a human being. Maybe not a particularly great human being, but a human being all the same. He couldn’t play the game, the great royal game of turning yourself into a mediated object for public consumption. His mother knew how. She was popular because she’d totally erased any human personality she might have had: never really Elizabeth, but simply the Queen, a face and some corgis, a totally empty space on which the public could project whatever it wanted. There was a minor scandal in 2014 when David Cameron was recorded saying that she’d ‘purred’ on hearing the results of the Scottish independence referendum—not because of the slightly creepy tone in which he’d described his sovereign, but because the Queen was not supposed to have any opinions on anything at all.
Charles’ sons are the same. What is Prince William like? What does he think? Probably nothing, but we’ll never know. Prince Harry, meanwhile, took a different route to the same destination. He writes tell-all memoirs in which he describes the exact condition of his dick and balls, and it looks like opening up, like some kind of veil being lifted. But really, constantly talking about yourself is just a more American way of blanking yourself out. Harry adopts all the right vague progressive poses and performs all the approved rituals, laying his soul bare just like every other minor Hollywood celebrity. He talks about trauma. He talks about mental health. But this is not a person you’re looking at; it’s a brand. And he’s not really broken from his family at all: he still assumes that everyone needs to know and adore him, simply because of who he is. He tells ridiculous lies on TV, just like his uncle. He’s starting a podcast.
Charles, though—Charles simply doesn’t know how to do it. He’s bad at living in bad faith. Flashes of his splenetic humanity keep showing through. The pen incident. That time he was recorded muttering at the press during a mandatory photo op. ‘I hate doing this. Bloody people. I can’t bear that man anyway. He’s so awful, he really is. I hate these people.’ His notorious dislike for chocolate, modern architecture, and Terry Eagleton. His peccadillos. His opinions. Incapable of smoothing them out, hiding his grimaces, being less weird. His Majesty King Charles III is a terrible fit for the job, and he knows it.
This, I think, is where all the Guénon stuff comes from, his pseudy, esoteric, lightly reactionary wibbling with perennialism and reenchantment and Islam and the sacred shamanic role of the king. No, Charles is not a fascist. But nobody else in his family ever had to justify the institution of the monarchy to themselves: they had been divinely appointed to spend their lives shooting animals and wearing gaudy hats, and that was it. Only Charles would have felt the need to make it make sense, to find a coherent theory that might explain why he should take on a role that plainly shouldn’t exist and for which he’s so obviously unsuited. And when you need to justify the unjustifiable, this sort of piddle is the result.
Maybe it even worked for a while, but not any more. All you have to do is look at what’s in front of you. King Charles did not enjoy his coronation. Maybe he would have been happier had the ceremony involved a naked druid placing a ring of thistles on his head under a moss-fringed waterfall. But probably not. As it was, he spent the entire ceremony wearing the weak, intermittent smile of a man trying not to worry his family even though the doctor says it’s inoperable. An entire life waiting for this moment, and when it came he discovered that he didn’t really want it at all. Ditto his wife: when they put the crown on Camilla she flinched like a bee was flying too close to her face. The only time either of them seemed remotely happy was when a few helicopters flew over Buckingham Palace. Charles likes helicopters. It might be the only thing he has in common with his family: they’re all helicopter pilots. Rescue pilots, military pilots. It’s chivalry again. The armoured knights of the atomic age.
During his lifetime, the last King Charles personally touched ninety thousand sufferers of mycobacterial cervical lymphadenitis: scrofula, the king’s evil. Only a few days after returning to England, he laid his hands on six hundred of the scrofulous in a single sitting. The idea that only a king’s touch could cure scrofula is not that ancient: it was first attested under Edward the Confessor, but the ritual was only really formalised by Henry VII, and didn’t reach its peak until much later. It is, like most of our mystic rites, a distinctly modern phenomenon. Still, this was a central piece of royalist propaganda during the Interregnum: Charles Stuart’s miraculous power to heal. But cause and cure are not so easy to distinguish. Once, diseases were named for the saints whose intercession the sufferer was supposed to seek—but if St Quentin can rid you of dropsy, he might have also been the one who, for your iniquities, put the swelling in your limbs.
As it happens, Charles has dropsy. Today, we call it edema, or fluid retention; it’s why he has those big sausage fingers. But scrofula is the disease that belongs to him now. His sovereign plague.
I like Charles. I’m fond of the stranger creatures of the world. I don’t think he’d like me much, but I like him anyway. He’ll make a good king; a good king to go out on. The monarchy might not be finished, but Britain is: the door-knocking demon that came for the Assyrians and the Elamites is here now, right outside your orange new-build in the commuter belt, leaning against your highly leveraged Vauxhaull Corsa, beckoning you across the threshold into irreversible civilisational decline. The best we can hope for, in this situation, is a monarch who’s as numb to the whole thing as we are, grumpy and useless, basically homogenous with the national disease. A royal plaguebearer. In the end, we’re very lucky to have him. God save the King.
Touch my sores, lord