…however determined the late afternoon”.
This is the first stunning line of the poem ‘Floral Tribute’ written by Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate, to mark the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
And the Queen’s ‘late afternoon’ was pretty ‘determined’ as she hosted guests at Balmoral on that last weekend and asked the new prime minister to form a government. So much so that news of her death will have taken us by surprise even as it was expected. Many of us in the UK will have lived with a degree of confusion over the last couple of weeks. It was a confusion shared by the mayor of the Cornish town where we were spending our holiday. He read the formal proclamation of Charles III as king and finished off with a rousing ‘God save the Queen’! And was understandably covered with confusion and embarrassment. The onlookers were very ready to correct and forgive.
It has been a strange mixture of funeral and festival, fanfare and finale. The crowds who filed past the coffin in Westminster Hall and those who lined the funeral route did not seem able to articulate very clearly why they were there. And that is not intended in any way to be a criticism. They came to ‘pay their respects’, to be ‘part of history’, ‘to say thank you for being there all their lives’. Some were perhaps nearer the mark when they said that they had come because they had not been able to say proper farewells to members of their own families during the pandemic.
Those who attended the vigil reported the awe they felt as they entered Westminster Hall. All the camaraderie of ‘The Queue’ evaporated. The extraordinary military precision of those funereal events was in the sharpest contrast with the ragged, raw emotions on display, even sometimes among seasoned media presenters. The elaborate dress from a different epoch worn by some of the principal participants jostled with the very modern high-tech security arrangements.
There were points where confusion passed into mystery. The leaping vaults of the ancient buildings. The seas and oceans of flowers. Baroness Scotland’s extraordinary reading from the letter to the Corinthians: ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death’. The silence immaculately kept. Thomas Tallis’s exquisite setting of ‘If you love me…’
It will take us time to register all of this. For maybe we were weeping for ourselves too. Our mortal selves. If we were moved, perhaps moved to tears, what was it that prompted that response? We can only answer that question individually and perhaps privately and certainly with difficulty. But I wonder whether the Queen’s death held a mirror to our own fragility. It gave us the most open of invitations to recognize two things. That we each are the merest specks in the vast stream of history. And yet we each have the most tender, precious places within us which we rarely visit and where we now somehow had permission to go. And it is in the confluence of those two things that mystery lies. Perhaps the period of mourning and the funeral provided us with a vehicle for bearing that heavy emotional weight, even if only briefly.
Evening will come’. It is for us to settle how ‘determined’ is our ‘late afternoon’.