I could easily have been mistaken for the poet William Blake last week, wandering through the chartered streets of London marking in every face I met, marks of weakness, marks of woe. In truth, a less exalted song than Blake’s was going through my head as I dodged the mourners and melancholics, the royal tyre-kickers, the flower-layers and my own feelings: Burl Ives sorrowfully admitting that “A little bitty tear let me down/Spoiled my act as a clown”.
Why was I so perilously close to shedding a little bitty tear myself? Yes, my mother died recently at pretty much the same age as the Queen. But that wasn’t it: I know the difference between the Queen and my mother. The contagion of crowds could have played a part. Tears are catching, especially when that old devil patriotism worms its way into them. You go out walking, hear a bell toll, read a soppy message on a bunch of roses and the next thing you’re crying because everybody else is. “Oceanic” Freud called it.
But that would have accounted for only half a bitty tear. Something else had to explain the peculiarly personal poignancy felt in the days following the Queen’s surcease. Other than the sense of dread and solemnity on the streets; other than the warning death was giving that no one was beyond its reach; other than lacrimae rerum – the tears waiting at the heart of things – what was it?
Last night in Soho
Meanwhile Soho is coming back to life after the closures caused by the pandemic. The latest addition is an ice cream shop that is illuminated like a nightclub. Come at it in the dark, a little the worse for wear, and you think you’ve stumbled on Xanadu at last, the pleasure dome that will fulfil all your wildest desires, as indeed it will if all your wildest desires come in cones. Two doors down, a patisserie specialising in eclairs the colours of the Ukrainian flag and super-wet Bratislavan-looking dulce de leche has reopened at twice the size it was. Opposite is a baby-pink fairy bower for taking tea and selfies in.
No, this is not the authentic Soho, where old men wandered the streets jiggling their coin trays and looking up through rheumy eyes at windows lit by a single naked red bulb. But at least it’s open again. Mortal sin changes, I suppose that’s all one can say. One age chooses to die venereally, another with bad teeth.
Should parliament ever open again, will someone please pass legislation to criminalise the word “incredibly” when used to mean “very”? Or even, as when employed by Liz Truss, to mean “not much at all”? I, for one, will be gargantuanly grateful.
At a house-leaving party thrown by my one-time publisher and his wife who want to spend more time on the coast. What can you say to people who think like that? I’ll still meet him for incredibly commiserative writerly lunches in old Soho but it’s sad to say goodbye to a house where several books of mine were launched. Not that book launches are what they were. Publishers no longer splash out on cheese and crackers unless you’re a fantasy writer or Prince Harry, and even his coming memoir won’t justify a spread if he keeps up this family reconciliation malarkey. Who wants to read a book about brothers getting on?
The curtain falls
Off to the lovely Queen’s Park Book Festival – one of the few that can draw audiences in London – and always a pleasure because it feels like a garden party with people who read. While there, I run into an actor friend who did an incredibly good Macbeth in the back room of an incredible pub in Islington.
“The Queen, my Lord, is dead,” I say to him. “Life’s but a walking shadow,” he replies. “A poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more.” We hug in the pale autumnal sunshine and then I realise he has explained my little bitty tear. Art can be sadder than life because it compresses the tragedy of existence, from start to finish, into five short acts or one short tale. Thus the Queen – a little girl playing with her sister in Sandringham, a young woman bowing her head in Westminster Abbey, a widow weeping for her husband, and now – puff! –the curtain falls and she is gone. A life over almost before it started, while we sit in the dress circle and watch. Walking shadows are all any of us are. I remain hugging my actor friend and let the tears flow.
Howard Jacobson’s memoir “Mother’s Boy: A Writer’s Beginnings” is published by Jonathan Cape
[See also: The Queue wasn’t just about grief, but our deep need to be part of something bigger]
This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke