13 June 1953: There's nothing like a Coronation to test one's scepticism, one's innate Republicanism

The novelist and short story writer Angus Wilson writing in the New Statesman on the Coronation festivities in Essex in 1953: "As our car came down the hill, we could see the jolly jack tar hats and ribbons that mark the merry morris, and there indeed it

"Throughout the country," the faintly contemptuous, ascetic voice of the B.B.C. news reader has told us to often in the last week, people have been doing this or that— "hoping against hope that the weather," "accompanying the Queen in their thoughts," rejoicing, and then, somewhat solemnly "taking their well-earned rest," or "going once more about their daily business," or, somewhat facetiously, "nursing the inevitable headache." The phrases are so stale that they probably evoke no image. Or, if they do, it is at the most a fleeting, slightly uncomfortable remembrance of that vast, disquieting body of people who do not live in London and whose actions, therefore, are at once "so important a social factor" and so improbable. A quick succession of visual images — provincial town balls, streets with trams, market crosses, slag heaps and seaside piers — may pass across one's mind like the horrible intimations of a thousand private lives outside our own that make an express train's progress through the London suburbs so disquieting an experience.

The whole thing is not a private London dream, sweet or nightmarish according to taste, not just yours and mine, but of all those familiar figures of "Housewives' Choice" and "Family Favourites." This time, indeed, I did not try to preserve the comfortable, little Londoner's view of England's rejoicings. Urged perhaps by some innate Republicanism, but far more probably by my foolish failure to secure a seat on the Procession route, I spent Coronation day in the most beautiful of Essex towns, and, undeterred by the rain that had swept the market square so carefully prepared for Olde Tyme Dancing and had dripped from the thatched roofs of a hundred stockbrokers', journalists' and publishers' country cottages, I returned there again last weekend to see the celebrations that closed this week of festivity.

The Trust hotel had been careful to provide television, so that Coronation day passed for us as it did for most others. Perhaps if I had viewed the ceremony in my home, I should have been able to preserve my scepticism, my innate Republicanism. Soothed by the familiarity of my own surroundings, the comments of my own small world, I should have sunk easily into my comfortable prejudices. As it was, I sat in a draught, surrounded by the uneasy comments of the saloon bar gang. Never have I seen Good-Scoutery less at ease; they had come with that Rotarian, have-the-next-one-on-me-old-boy jollity that they had found so infallible at a thousand business dinners, Legion reunions and family gatherings. It was a big, British occasion, and no people, of course, were more British than they. It was fascinating to see them fight the strange beauty, the formal Byzantinism of the ceremony that appeared upon the screen. They were prepared, of course, for an occasional catch in the throat, a moment of lowered head, but the elaborate grace before them demanded less perfunctory reverence. There is no English milieu less sympathetic than that of the Frothblowers' Anthem; it was nice to see the "gang" so put out when they least expected it.

It was a people, then, dazed with ritual that poured out at the afternoon's end into the Essex countryside, itself lush and sodden with rain, but lit with those strange grey and lemon lights that are a peculiar East Anglian beauty. We were promised dancing (modern) on the town square and dancing (Olde Tyme) in the Exchange. The same ubiquity of police, so peculiar in face of the much advertised inadequacy of the Force, reigned here as in London. The policemen, who forbade the few cars that ventured out to park in the space reserved for dancing, would have served to protect a minor Tito or Akihito. As it was, they helped to move the piano indoors, when it was finally decided to abandon outdoor dancing. It is usually said that youth today likes its pleasures machine-processed, ready made. I suspect that this means that they take pleasure for granted, which seems to me excellent; at any rate, it worked very well on a wet Coronation evening. They just went indoors and danced to an extremely good pair of dance bands, neither the typical B.B.C. genteel "sweet" band, nor its phoney idea of "hot" but first-rate rhythm, which to my delight was amplified so that I could hear "Bye, Bye Blues" in my bedroom well after midnight. It was Mum and Dad who were lost, not the young. For the older 1914 generation, of course, fun on such occasions has to be spontaneous, which means the old stereotyped singing of "A Long, Long Trail" and "Knees-up, Mother Brown." A few sad matrons and their British Legion men tried to keep up the tradition, but even their hearts of oak were eventually daunted by the drizzle. As they departed, dejected, the strains of "Pat Him on the Boko " could be heard triumphant from the dance hall. The moral of which is that old English fun may be all very well, but the Palais de Dance lasts forever.

The only peculiar feature of these Coronation celebrations occurred during the firework display. I was busy dissociating myself from the children, who in face of all police prohibitions were determined to get in the line of fire, when I turned to see a line of dwarfs drawn up black and threatening on the edge of the common against the skyline. Who could they be? Martians, no doubt. What better time and place for an interplanetary invasion? But no, I was informed that this was a nearby private school come to observe the pyrotechnics, drawn up at a safe distance from the town's possible infection. It cannot be said that the townspeople objected. They were used no doubt to the private school headmaster's medieval belief that they were infected with bubonic.

In short, the Coronation celebrations, though pleasant, were quiet. The real festivities, we were told, would come at the weekend. And so Saturday morning found us speeding beneath an Essex sky less impressionistically impressive but more promising. At Dunmow, the usual collection of commuting gentry in careful tweeds and yellow waistcoats were saying "Here's how," while their wives discussed Princess Margaret's dress over double gins. They had all "had seats.” But as we passed through the villages, stands and marquees gave promise of the day's entertainment.

We prepared for the festivities by lunch at Long Melford, where some of the best food in England may be eaten. (This is not an advertisement, for there are two hotels in the village.) We then set off for the pageant at Castle Hedingham. On a green sward before the Norman Keep — curiously unreal and like a Victorian stage set — Queen Elizabeth received addresses from Will Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser and Lord Burghley dressed — God knows why! — as a clergyman. If the Keep was Victorian, so indeed were the actors, dressed in Elizabethan costume of that curious frumpy kind that recalls photographs of Ellen Terry as Viola and Beerbohm Tree as Wolsey. The high note, perhaps, was reached when Thomas Morley introduced Her Majesty — always and entirely like Joyce Grenfell — to the madrigal singers, who proceeded to give us that sort of Elizabethan part-singing that belongs irrevocably to Edward German's Merrie England. However, the Pageant was certainly the big draw for the gentry, mostly the commuting barristers and stockbrokers in their shooting brakes and land-rovers. There were, however, one or two of that fabulous species — the really rich — busy with field glasses on the steps of their Rolls. I was particularly pleased with an elderly lady who showed her high Nancy Mitford station by a flashing array of diamonds worn with a tweed suit. She had carefully enamelled, inches thick, that disappointed, sulky face which only the very wealthy former beauties wear. For myself, I was happier in the lovely village of Finchingfield where sports were in progress run by the villagers for the villagers. But England is a class-conscious country and, after watching the under-tens bob for apples and the over-sixteens joust over a stream, we suddenly felt intruders and left for Thaxted, the Mecca of all intellectuals.

Already, as our car came down the hill, we could see the jolly jack tar hats and ribbons that mark the merry morris, and there indeed it was, the annual festival, with more than fifty schoolmasters sitting cross-legged in coloured braces, some earnest and hearty, others like Sir Stafford Cripps. A large crowd contained a sprinkling of first-rate Osbert Lancaster intellectuals, including an old lady with grey earphones, purple ribbons round her hair and throat, a purple cloak, and a flatly benign expression that smiled at once upon a Co-operative Guild future and a Maypole past. In a very short time, however, the charm both of the music and steps banished my sense of patronage. The truth was that I thoroughly enjoyed the morris. Indeed, so much so, that the pageant at Toppesfield was almost over when we reached there, too far gone, at any rate, to do more than register the look on all faces that means "the afternoon has been a success." Afterwards at supper at a nearby house I was told that the hostess had been a great success as Roxana; another guest told me he had been playing Wamba the Jester, while a lady who arrived late explained how exhausted she was what with the rehearsal of Benjie's opera and playing Katharine Howard." Roxana, Wamba and Katharine Howard, a combination that nicely expresses the eclectic, faintly mysterious note of our English countryside festivities. 

The newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II on the road in 1953. Photograph: Getty Images.
KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism