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.
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Why can't we stop for death?

The Black Mirror and The Worm at the Core reveal the human obsession with, and denial of, our mortality.

When he was entering what he knew would be the final stage of his terminal illness, Bob Monkhouse used to joke that the terrible thing about dying was how stiff it left you feeling the next day. There is something pleasantly cavalier in the comedian’s quip. Why make a tragedy of something that will happen to us all? Perhaps we’d be wiser if we didn’t think of death at all, but instead – as the philosopher Spinoza recommended – only of life. But that kind of wisdom seems to be beyond our capacity. The human preoccupation with death is pervasive and universal, and every society offers remedies for the anxiety that the fact of mortality evokes.

Religions have their afterlives, while secular faiths offer continuity with some larger entity – nations, political projects, the human species, a process of cosmic evolution – to stave off the painful certainty of oblivion. In their own lives, human beings struggle to create an image of themselves that they can project into the world. Careers and families prolong the sense of self beyond the grave. Acts of exceptional heroism and death-defying extreme sports serve a similar impulse. By leaving a mark, we can feel we are not just fleeting individuals who will soon be dead and then forgotten.

Against this background, it might seem that the whole of human culture is an exercise in death denial. This is the message of Stephen Cave’s thoughtful and beautifully clear Immortality: the Quest to Live For Ever and How It Drives Civilisation (2012). A more vividly personal but no less compelling study of our denial of death is presented in Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium (2015), in which the author uses her experience of working at a Californian funeral parlour to show how contemporary mortuary practice – removing the corpse as quickly as possible, then prettifying it so that it almost seems alive – serves to expel the fact of death from our lives.

Both books cite the work of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. In The Denial of Death (1973) Becker, whose work is now undergoing something of a revival, suggested that flight from death is the driving force of civilisation. Many of humanity’s greatest achievements, as well as its worst crimes, can be understood as attempts to ward off mortality.

Becker’s work is the avowed inspiration of the latest book in this growing canon, The Worm at the Core, co-authored by three American social psychologists. They begin with a story:

On a rainy, grey day in December 1973, philosopher Sam Keen, writing for Psychology Today, trundled down the halls of a hospital in Burnaby, British

Columbia, to interview a terminally ill cancer patient who doctors said had just days to live. When Keen entered the room, the dying man told him, with a touch of mortal irony: “You are catching me in extremis. This is a test of everything I’ve written about death. And I’ve got a chance to show how one dies . . .”

The dying man was Ernest Becker. Talking to Keen, he summarised the theory that others are now taking up and developing: “We build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of our underlying helplessness and the terror of our inevitable death.”

Becker’s career had not been easy. Born in 1924, he joined the army at the age of 18 and served in an infantry battalion that liberated a Nazi death camp. After a period working at the American embassy in Paris he decided to become an anthropologist and entered academic life. Drifting from one university to another, he was popular with students (who at one point offered to pay his salary when his contract was terminated) but failed to make much of an impression on his colleagues. In another irony, his book The Denial of Death was awarded the Pulitzer Prize two months after he died in 1974.

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski chanced upon Becker’s writings in the early 1980s. “Like the Rosetta Stone, they were to us a revelation . . . Becker explained how the fear of death guided human behaviour.” Filled with enthusiasm, the three young psychologists tried to share his ideas at the 1984 meeting of the Society for Experimental Psychology. But the audience started drifting away when they mentioned that their work was influenced by psychoanalysis and existential philosophy; when they went on to cite the ideas of Marx, Kierkegaard and Freud, “renowned psychologists were storming the conference room exits”. The authors then submitted a paper to a flagship academic journal. Some months later, they received a one-line review: “I have no doubt that this paper would be of no interest to any psychologist, living or dead.” ­Somehow, one suspects that Becker would not have been surprised by this response.

Undaunted, the authors then did 25 years of research to test their ideas. Melding existential thinking with the findings of empirical social science, they argue that terror of death infuses a wide range of human behaviours – from obsessive-compulsive disorders and the anxious pursuit of sex through to the search for self-esteem and the use of violence to harm those who challenge our beliefs. The Worm at the Core is the most comprehensive and well-evidenced account to date of the idea that fending off the awareness of death is the prime mover of the human condition. It’s a considerable achievement, showing up the bigotry and timidity of the initial academic reaction to the authors’ ideas.

At the same time, like other such accounts – including Becker’s – The Worm at the Core suffers from neglecting the conflicting impulses that have shaped the human response to death. They are right to suggest that it is awareness of death, more than anything else, which differentiates human beings from other animals. They are also right to argue that denial of death is one of the most powerful forces in human life. Where they go astray is in passing over how, on the contrary, many human beings have welcomed their mortality.

To start with, religions aren’t always immortality cults. A preoccupation with death may be universally human, and attempts to escape from it are found in many cultures and traditions – including, as the authors show, Chinese alchemy. But a longing for everlasting life has been at its strongest in societies and individuals whose values are shaped by monotheism, more particularly by Christianity. (Belief in an afterlife hasn’t been central in most currents of Judaism.) In ancient Greek polytheism, it was believed that the gods envied people their mortality; everlasting life might be a curse – an eternity of boredom. In many of their forms, Hinduism and Buddhism express a search for mortality, the project of releasing human beings from the unending life that comes with the cycle of transmigration and rebirth.

For the poets and philosophers of pre-Christian Europe, death was by no means always an evil. The Roman Stoic Seneca had no compunction in writing to a young disciple that he should not be afraid to consider suicide if he had already tasted most of life’s pleasures. Even more boldly, the Greek poet Theognis, writing some time in the 6th century BC, declared: “Best for all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all” – a line that Nietzsche used in his analysis of ancient Greek culture. In his poem “Tess’s Lament”, Thomas Hardy has the heroine of Tess of the D’Urbervilles give voice to a similar sentiment: “I cannot bear my life as writ,/I’d have my life unbe;/Would turn my memory to a blot/. . . And gone all trace of me!” What Tess wants is not just to cease to exist, but to “unbe” – never to have been born. Hardy’s character illustrates the power of Freud’s insight that human beings can be moved as much by a longing for complete extinction as by the urge to live.

In The Black Mirror Raymond Tallis, trained as a doctor and for much of his life an expert in geriatric medicine, writes as a philosopher. He writes in his overture to this strange, bold, and courageous book, “If to be a philosopher is to be an onlooker, the vantage point of death is the ultra ne plus of the philosophical viewpoint: you look upon your life from the virtual position of one who has outlived it.” As he observes, his book is an implicit rejoinder to Spinoza’s injunction that a free human being should think only of life: “The free man (and woman) who is preparing for life may think more deeply and, indeed, more freely by thinking about death. In order to live like a philosopher, it is necessary to die like one – that is, to die in thought and in imagination before you die in body.”

It’s an observation that encapsulates the central paradox of the book. It may be necessary, if you want to live as a philosopher, to think of yourself as already dead, but it is also impossible given that, as Tallis admits, what comes when life ends is inconceivable to us. How can we envision non-existence? If we are tormented by the thought of death, one reason is that we can’t imagine what it means to be dead. It is hard to see how philosophy can help us here.

In The Black Mirror, Tallis explores the life that will be lost when he is gone. Although he discusses bereavement – for many people, a loss worse than the prospect of their own death – it is not a large part of the book. It is his own loss that chiefly concerns him. He refers to himself throughout in the third person:

 

Visitors paying their last respects will direct them to the capital of RT’s body, to the head with which they had been tête-à-tête for so long. It was here, more than any other part of his frame, that revealed his changing take on a changing world. Little of its meaning-packed anterior surface had been excused the duty to communicate: mouth, eyes, nose, forehead, cheeks, all had their say.

 

This third-person perspective is more than a stylistic device. It’s an attempt to achieve a point of view on one’s life that is outside oneself and yet not that of another living being. But unless you believe in some kind of divine mind, there is no such point of view. Tallis is a convinced atheist – not the all-too-familiar kind, typified by Dawkins, which rants on incessantly about the evils of religion, but the rarer, more intelligent variety that finds the very idea of God empty and incoherent. If the idea of God is devoid of meaning, however, so, too, is the idea that the world can be seen from the standpoint of someone who has died. After all, who – or what – is looking?

Tallis tries to adopt this standpoint because he wants to “live philosophically”. Having been imaginatively dead, he hopes to come back with his love of life re-energised. The Black Mirror, he tells us, “is, ultimately, a work of praise and gratitude”. It is true that the book contains many invocations of beauty and joy: “ploughlands bordered with bare hawthorn hedges scribbled on low dark and grey skies rifted with brilliance”; the simple pleasure in existing on a dull Wednesday afternoon. Overall, though, the mood is melancholy, heavy with regret for how much of the life that is gone was left unlived. Pursuing “some dream of changing the world (and of course his prospects in it) for the better”, the author “allowed himself to be indifferent to an April evening, glistening with dew and birdsong, that could have become itself in his consciousness”. Now it is getting late: “With age he had lost some of his singularity and become ‘Old Man’ or ‘Elderly Gentleman’ in the eyes of strangers – a sign of the de-differentiations to come.” Seeing life from the standpoint of death – “the philosophical viewpoint” – does not seem to have produced the hoped-for reinvigoration. By playing the corpse, dying “in thought and in imagination”, you may end up a fretful ghost.

If this remarkable book fails to deliver the uplift it aims to provide, the fault lies with the hopes the author has invested in philosophy. Like rationalists the world over, Tallis wants to believe that discordant impulses can be reconciled through a process of reflection. But the human response to mortality is intrinsically contradictory. We fear the  prospect of death and build up elaborate defences against it, yet at the same time yearn for the inconceivable transformation that death will bring.

It is unreasonable to look to philosophy for remedies for this quintessentially human self-division. Better take up a religion, or else accept and enjoy the short, uncertain life we are given. In the end, feeling stiff the next day is no big deal.

The Worm at the Core: on the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski is published by Allen Lane
The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life by Raymond Tallis is published by Atlantic Books

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism