Of Funerals and Families

For most people living in the United Kingdom, the 10 days between the 8th and 19th of September passed in a blur. On the evening of Thursday 8th of September it was announced that the Queen had died. There was a well-prepared plan for this eventuality known as Operation London Bridge, covering everything from the announcement of her death, through the mourning period to the state funeral. It was developed in the 1960s and frequently revisited. There are similar plans for other royals.

The phrase “London Bridge is down” was used to communicate the death of the Queen to the Prime Minister and key personnel and set the wheels in motion. The groups involved in preparing and carrying out the plan included government departments, the Church of England, the Metropolitan Police Service, the Armed Forces, the media, the Royal Parks, London boroughs, the Greater London Authority and Transport for London. Reporting on the preparations, The Guardian described them as “planned to the minute” with “arcane and highly specific” details. But they really worked well!

The death of the Queen came as a surprise to many. Two days before she died she had audiences with Boris Johnson, the outgoing Prime Minister, accepting his resignation and shortly after with Liz Truss, inviting her to form a government. Given the political upheaval I don’t think many people had focussed on the Queen and her health. The funeral, held on Monday 19th, was an outstanding show of pageantry and pomp. It was attended by 2,000 people, including many heads of state. As an aside Joe Biden was the only one allowed to use his own transport!

The coffin was taken from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey for the service. It was then drawn on a gun carriage by 142 sailors through the streets of London to Wellington Arch. Here it was put in a hearse for the journey to Windsor, where there was more ceremony, and the Queen was laid to rest inside St George’s Chapel. The procession was amazing, huge numbers of military, bands, and music, as well as representatives of civil society, all led by a contingent of Canadian Mounties. The television was on for most of the day, and it was compulsive viewing. Global media attention was focussed on the events in London, it seemed there was no other news. No one does pageantry quite like the British and the immaculate uniforms and precision marching were indeed spectacular. When we went into Norwich in the afternoon the streets were deserted, and nearly every shop was closed. It was as though the strictest Covid restrictions had returned.

Parliamentary politics in the UK had been wracked by dissention, infighting and, well, politicking. Boris Johnson was forced from office by the Conservative MPs. The ostensible reason was the allegations of sexual misconduct by the former Conservative Party Deputy Chief Whip, Chris Pincher. Johnson denied knowledge of complaints about Pincher but then had to admit he had not told the truth. This coming, as it did, after a series of scandals and several disastrous by-elections, resulted in an unheard of 62 of the 179 ministers, and other government staff resigning between the 5th and 7th July. Johnson announced he would resign but remain in office until his successor had been chosen.

The system was MPs whittled the candidates down from eight to two through five ballots. The field, four of whom were women and four were not white was reduced to a choice between Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary. There were several weeks of increasingly bad tempered campaigning. The new party leader, and automatically Prime Minister, was elected only by the 172,437 members of the Conservative party. They are mostly elderly, middle class and white. Truss was elected as leader and Prime Minister.

The Queen’s last duties were to accept the resignation of Boris Johnson. A few hours later Liz Truss was in Balmoral to get the Queen’s blessing to form a new government. The political upheaval and the Royal Funeral dominated and resulted in a hiatus in decision making that went beyond the UK.

On a different and more personal note, we had a family gathering in a leafy south London suburb a couple of weeks ago. It was hosted by my niece, Kate, the daughter of my half-sister Pat. The excuse for the gathering was to see Pat and her husband David, who are 91 (with a mere six months between them). They are remarkably fit and show few signs of age. Kate works in media and is based in Moscow with her Russian husband. Kate and Olga, their daughter, did a magnificent job of catering, provided an excellent lunch, and put up with us until about 6pm. Everyone not only got on, but as we moved around people were able to talk to family members they hardly knew. The 19 people were all there because of my father, Walter Jack Whiteside (1899 to 1989), also father to Pat, Derek and Gill and Jean Mary. Every individual was either directly related, children or grandchildren or married/engaged or involved with the said descendants. It was quite an amazing thought.

We managed to get through the weekend without spreading Covid. Unfortunately, it hit the household soon after with both Douglas and Ailsa testing positive and having to isolate. I had had it about six weeks before, I believe I got it while travelling from Cape Town to Norwich. I did not infect Douglas or Ailsa to our surprise, they got it elsewhere. Covid is a nasty disease, thank heavens we have all been vaccinated, who knows what would have happened otherwise.

Back in Norwich we were in the grip of drought, it had not rained properly for months. The garden was surviving, but only just! Bathwater was being carried down and poured on the most precious plants. Fortunately, we had decent rain in September. Climate change is real. Of course, we know what is going on here, but much of Europe is facing similar problems. Shipping on the Rhine is having to carry lighter loads or else they cannot navigate the shallower waters. In Norway the dry spell means hydro-electric plants cannot operate. That affects all of Europe since they are part of the continent-wide grid. In addition, it has been unseasonably warm.

Not all is bleak though. At the end of the garden there is a cluster of, at least, nine large trees: one apple, four firs, one holly, and two silver birches plus a great deal of undergrowth. It is a haven for wildlife and the squirrels have a dray there. It has been a pleasure watching the younger ones playing in the garden, chasing each other up and down trees. The heat meant that I worked with the shed windows and door open. I was sitting reading a few afternoons ago, vaguely aware of the squirrels scampering about on the roof. I am not sure what happened, but there was suddenly a loud thump and there in the doorway was a surprised looking squirrel. It really gave me a fright. A few minutes later it happened again. Wikipedia tells me there are flying squirrels in North America and Central America, genus Glaucomys (sabrinus, volans and oregonensis), while the Siberian flying squirrel (Pteromys volans) is found in northern Europe: Russia, Finland and Estonia. I claim to be the first person to identify the Norfolk plummeting squirrel which I suggest be named Petromys stagneum (or perpendiculum depending on the translation software).

Some small town news. In Norwich I recently discovered a small yard right opposite the Guildhall. It has the delightful name of Labour in Vain Yard. This is from Psalm 127 verse 1: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain.” Apparently, there was a pub by that name in the yard, and the sign was painted by well-known Norwich School painter John Croome over 200 years ago. We had occasion to go up to Yorkshire and decided to go out for supper with family. There is little open on a Sunday, but I identified an Italian restaurant called ‘Florena’s’ in Howden. I was managing expectations, but it turned out to be one of the best Italian meals I have eaten in a long time. The husband and wife, in their 80s, who started the restaurant were eating there and greeted us as they left. It is still a family business and well worth visiting.

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