It’s mid-January. The faux comforts of Christmas are a fading memory. The weather is awful: not too cold but stubbornly dreich, determinedly grim. Pathetic fallacy, apparently, for the news, as usual, is mostly bleak, occasionally irritating and thoroughly depressing. Today? Well, today’s unpalatable treats include:
- nearly a million people set to default on mortgage payments;
- inflation-hit pensioners forced to go back to work;
- people dying for lack of ambulance crews; expectant mothers ‘abandoned’ by the NHS;
- a cyber-attack crippling the Royal Mail’s overseas service; and (just for good measure)
- new Partygate revelations.
Ex-PM Boris Johnson is alleged to have joked at Lee Cain’s leaving-do that “it’s the most unsocially distanced party in the UK right now” and, possibly worse, Johnson aides are reported to have had sex in No 10 on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral as the Queen grieved alone.
Fresh reminders of past disrespect for the Royal Family are especially unwelcome, of course, as the last couple of weeks have seen blanket coverage of reaction to Prince Harry’s ‘incendiary’ memoir, Spare, a ghost-written account of his ‘troubled’ life as a royal.
Newspaper front pages have been frothy with royal revelations: drug use, Taliban-killing, fraternal fisticuffs, aristocratic racism, inconsolable grief, a Friends addiction and a wicked stepmother – it’s almost as if Kathryn Bigelow were guest-directing Eastenders. One imagines one or other of the feuding princes’ wives shrieking ‘Leave it aht! ‘Ee’s not worth it!’ as the two scions tussle on the Axminster in a violent altercation brought about by sibling rivalry, perceived slights and too much luncheon porter.
Predictably enough, the Mail, Express, Times, Telegraph and Sun have stuck doggedly to their anti-Sussex, pro-monarchy stances. Editorial hands have been wrung in sadness and dismay at Prince Harry’s manifold ‘betrayals’ of his family – and, indeed, of the nation – whilst accidentally covering this disloyalty in such detail that the cynical might think they wanted to boost flagging circulation.
The Mail and Express, especially, have used the ongoing Harry debacle as an opportunity to put finishing touches to their hagiography of Kate, Princess of Wales, Duchess of Cambridge, and Queen-in-Waiting. This week, with royal commentators fuming over Harry Sussex’s scorched earth policy, and close friends of Nicholas Witchell fearing for his sanity and mourning his coherence, the Express has captured a couple of photos of the suddenly camera-shy Waleses.
Keep Calm and Carry On
They should get rid of Dieu et Mon Droit – if Brexit means anything, surely it means the chance to remove all that garlicky French from everywhere – and put ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ on the Royal crest. We could translate it into Latin, of course, if English still lacks the necessary gravitas. Perfer et obdura. It’s got a nice ring to it.
It was everywhere you looked for a while. Emblazoned on kitchen walls, t-shirts, carrier bags, lapel badges; even tattooed across stout English hearts. Keep Calm and Carry On. It seems that the harder we Brexited, and the wider the societal cracks grew, the more desperate we were to perpetuate a sustaining myth of the National Character, craftily filtered through the ironic lens of some Hoxton creative’s hungover visions of the Spirit of Dunkirk, the Blitz, John Mills and Vera Lynn.
Keep Calm and Carry On was everywhere, soon to be joined by variations such as Keep Calm and Drink More Gin. Our cherished self-stereotype of the stiff upper lip, the Myth of British Unflappability, however self-mockingly intended, was doing a great job of cheering us all up. Other wartime slogans – Dig for Victory, say, or Careless Talk Costs Lives – were all very well for their time, but Keep Calm and Carry On spoke to something infinitely cherishable at the heart of our self-idea. Just last autumn, after all, wasn’t it this spirit of indomitability in the face of great difficulty, this dogged, imperturbable notion of duty, which was lauded as one of our late queen’s most admirable qualities?
Keep calm is a national myth
As we all know, however, and as events such as the Great Toilet Roll Hysteria of 2020 amply demonstrated, the Keep Calm and Carry On craze was never much more than a tat shop owner’s fantasy. When it comes to it, when the chips are down, all the chirpy slogans in the world are not enough to save us from ourselves.
Not that long ago, if you recall, about five minutes after the government advised everyone that there was no need to stock up on fuel, we were mobbing every petrol station in the land, creating three-mile tailbacks and punching each other. More recently, young people have been brawling in shops and garages due to a shortage of a tinned energy drink called Prime. Never mind the Blitz. Sod Dunkirk. I’ll be the first of the few, thanks very much. Not much calm but a right carry-on.
We’ve sold ourselves a self-reflection of gritty, selfless resolve, cheerful implacability and stoical good humour that is an even bigger lie than the ones that got us to vote Brexit. Imagining ourselves as Noël Coward, calmly sipping cocoa with his crew as they wait for all hell to break loose, or Googie Withers, picking herself up, dusting herself down and putting a brave face on, we find that that wasn’t us at all. That was someone else. No, we’re moustachioed spiv George Cole, selling dodgy watches and snide nylons from an outsized camel overcoat, or his sponge-brained, wobble-lipped, idiot customers, terrified of running out of time, more than willing to punch each other in the nose.
We’re not In Which We Serve. We’re not even Brief Encounter. I used to think ‘we’, the British, were summed up in Passport to Pimlico, but we can’t even live up to an Ealing comedy these days, though perhaps I’m All Right, Jack comes closest to the mark.
House of Windsor propaganda war
Still, for the Express and the Mail, at least, this warm, fuzzy myth of the national character – plucky cheerful gumption – is a useful weapon to deploy in the relentless propaganda war between the bitterly divided factions of the House of Windsor. Kate and Wills, tellingly, keep calm and carry on. Wills, like a gurning character by Sam Beckett, says ‘I’ll keep going’. It warms the cockles, so it does.
And it flings the considerable heft of our sentimental view of ourselves onto the side of the beleaguered incumbents who, no doubt advised to do so by busy young media graduates and optics experts, stay relatively tight-lipped while the Californian Exile, venting like a Janovian primal therapy patient, indulges in screamingly loud, embarrassingly self-obsessed New Age psychobabble on every platform available to our digital age.
The Express will no doubt continue to trade in the shabby, counterfeit coinage of a self-deluding national mythology. Its readers will, despite their own signal lack of any such qualities, applaud the bogus ‘dignity’ of the Waleses and tell each other, perhaps over wine, ‘Ah, there’s the spirit! There’s the good old English stuff!’, forgetting, the while, or never even noticing, or simply applauding, the heir presumptive’s racial faux-pas, his wife’s devious hauteur, their greasy assumption of privilege, the despairing cries of their impoverished subjects.
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