Queen Elizabeth II was such a private person that she eschewed all public display of affection with Prince Philip for the entirety of their 70-year marriage. She was once filmed reuniting with a three-year-old Prince Charles after a tour abroad by shaking the toddler’s hand. If there’s one thing that unites the endless – endless! – tributes that have been published since the late monarch’s death last Thursday it’s reverence for her stoicism, her quintessentially British stiff upper lip. While Charles’s romantic life has been regularly reported on by tabloid newspapers, the Queen was admired for her ability to maintain an air of mystery, to be “serene, controlled“. Her supposedly self-deprecating humour was revealed only to her private secretaries and her corgis. In public, she was reserved. She had to be.
You have to wonder then, what the Queen would make of the increasingly bizarre tributes that have emerged over the past few days. At first it was understandable, albeit inconvenient: train announcements and departure gates were overtaken by black facades paying tribute to Her Majesty (hard to plan your journey, but you could manage). Heritage businesses followed suit, and again it was reasonable. Yes, Selfridges probably would close on Friday. Of course the British Fashion Council would scale back the planned festivities for London Fashion Week. But as the days went on and a culture of nervousness settled, the tributes became weirder, more performative. Domino’s turned its logo black and displayed a tribute in the windows of every branch. Boohoo, a fast-fashion company that in 2020 was found to pay some of its workers in Pakistan as little as 29p an hour, described her as “an unforgettable female force”. In Ibiza, Wayne Lineker organised a “touching tribute” that included dressing women up as sexy beefeaters and parading them through crowds of topless clubbers before playing God Save the Queen as they saluted on stage.
Historically speaking, the UK is a state that doesn’t really understand how to mourn. After Diana died, some of the thousands-strong crowds that gathered to weep outside Buckingham Palace told reporters that they were more upset about the death of the Princess of Wales than their own family members. The same stoicism that the country admires in its royals makes en-masse public displays of affection hard to navigate. Nonetheless, Britain is supposed to know how to mourn its monarch. There have been plans in place for this for years. There are protocols. But they were protocols drawn up before the era of brand safety, before the 24-7 news cycle became the 25-8 Twitter cycle. Before social media managers and scheduled Instagram posts about flash sales and the spectre of the Karen, waiting in the wings to ruin the reputation of your business and never shop with you again because you, Dr Oetker Ristorante Pizza, didn’t post your black square in recognition of the loss of the Queen in a timely enough fashion.
Even the most ardent royalists among us could surely see that these surreal posts, about being “united in our loss” from Shrek’s Adventure and the Met Office’s decision to literally stop broadcasting the weather as often, are more motivated by a confused fear of offence rather than any actual deference. As a result they’ve become incredibly crass. If the British are collectively grieving, then that collective grief should not become a competition to out-respect one another. At some point it stops being a memorial and becomes a meme. Who cares if ScrewFix and Peperami are marking the occasion of the Queen’s passing? Does that make anyone feel better about it, even if you really loved the Queen? Even if you really loved Peperami? Another phrase that has become so ubiquitous in the past few days that it’s become a meme is: “It’s what she would have wanted.” But looking at an image of Elizabeth displayed directly above a hot pink sex toy on the Ann Summers website, you have to wonder, is it?