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.
© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Show Hide image

How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit