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14 September 2022

Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s Diary: Life without a smartphone, the Queen’s Scouse accent, and our need for etiquette

In Ireland, if someone dies you say: “Sorry for your loss.” Here it seems people are not sure how to act.

By Frank Cottrell-Boyce

I got my actual diary out to help me write this. It shows with tracking clarity that the first half of the week happened in a different historical era. I was visiting my kids in London and the really big news was that we saw Ed Miliband getting out of the Hampstead men’s pond in his Speedos. It says here “unexpectedly ripped”. That’s his body I think, not the Speedos. My son hosted Sunday lunch in his lovely, spacious kitchen. The day we told my mum she only had a few days to live – we were answering her question “Am I toast?” – her first response was, “Does this mean I’m not going to see the new kitchen?” I never step into it without her making me laugh from beyond the grave.

A hapless app

On the Tuesday (6 September) I set out to attend the funeral of Patti Lomax, wife of Eric Lomax, author of the classic war memoir The Railway Man. Eric was a railway enthusiast. The first time I went to visit him I mentioned that I’d had to start my journey in Burscough in rural Lancashire. Without a blink he recited the list of connections I’d had to make to get to his home in Berwick-upon-Tweed. “So… Salford Crescent, Manchester Piccadilly and York.”

Of course nowadays you can just look at the app. Although when I did that on Tuesday all I found was a series of yellow disruption warning triangles and the return times greyscaled because the timetable had yet to be agreed. This is the moment I decided to ditch my smartphone and get an old-fashioned version – a brick. From now on if a train was delayed I would read a book and not spend anxious ages poking about online to discover what was happening. Quite the week to have chosen to step off the rolling news.

[See also: Joanna Hardy-Susskind’s Diary: Wigs on the picket line and my fight to fix the justice system]

The wisdom of Terry Pratchett

The book I was reading was Rob Wilkins’ biography of Terry Pratchett. It contains the revelation that when GK Chesterton was late with writing his copy for the newspaper he would have the commuter train wait at Beaconsfield station until his last paradox was perfectly balanced. One of the things I love most about Pratchett’s work was the way he saw the dialectic between reason and faith. The nomes in Truckers are supposed to believe the Thing – an inert black box – will bring them home to the stars. None of them really believes it. Until it happens. I find myself remembering this when thinking about the monarchy. Is its very absurdity its strength? It allows us to not really believe in it until we have to. I’m a big believer in the virtue of doubt and uncertainty. The digital age that claimed it was going to connect us appears – at least when it comes to politics – only to have hardened division.

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My mystery callers

I really had ditched the smartphone by the time the news came. This was supposed to help me free up more time but I could have carved a memorial in the hours it took me to type out the words “Have you heard?” on my brick. The world had already moved on to memories and memes by the time I pressed send on my text to the kids. There was no way to copy over my contacts, so every number was an unknown one. Answering the phone without knowing whose voice you’re going to hear was unexpectedly nerve-wracking. I’ve thus ended up in conversations with a range of media outlets about how I was partly responsible for making the Queen jump out of a helicopter at the 2012 London Olympics. And I hope never again to have to explain that we didn’t ask her. She volunteered through the medium of her dresser, Angela Kelly. How lost must Kelly be feeling today, I wonder? That seemed to be a genuine, warm friendship. Kelly is from Liverpool and apparently taught Her Majesty a magnificent Scouse accent. I like to imagine the two of them greeting each other with “Alright girl” during the grand levee.

My dad used to answer the phone by reciting our phone number and then asking: “Who is it please?” But I let callers keep talking until they give themselves away. The world of phone etiquette has perished and now there’s only anxious uncertainty.

The great debate

The good thing about etiquette is that it tells you what to say when you don’t know what to say. In Ireland, if someone dies you say: “Sorry for your loss.” Here it seems people are not sure how to act. Which is why you end up with a photo of the Queen posed in the Ann Summers shop surrounded by sullen, provocatively-clad models. And why you end up with Boris Johnson hysterically calling her Elizabeth the Great. The last monarch we called “the Great” literally chased Danes across the Somerset Levels and founded a nation and a navy. Elizabeth II was the Queen. She did her strange, arcane but somehow crucial job until the very end. That’ll do.  

Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a screenwriter and novelist

[See also: Tsitsi Dangarembga: “People started pointing fingers at me, saying ‘She’s a Western puppet!’”]

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This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession