Remind me, who does the bell toll for?
I wrote this piece during the ten days of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II in September, but that was not the time to publish it. The huge majority of people who were saying anything publicly, including the entire British, and some foreign media, were very sad that she had passed away.
Now over a month has passed since the queen was buried people have got our shambolic elected politicians and war and inflation in food and heating prices on their minds again. But I do not want to waste what I wrote. It came from my heart because like my mother before me, I am a republican. Not the 'off with their heads' kind, nor the 'it all costs too much' kind. The simple egalitarian 'I bow to no one and no one bows to me kind'. So, I looked at my fellow subjects (in Britain we are not citizens, we are subjects of the monarch) as an alien might. That is the device I used to write Hausa Blue, aliens look at a different version of us with some bemusement, so the story can examine, and send up, the British monarchy, as well as other British traditions. Writing stories requires taking a certain amount of distance and I enjoyed it. But actually living through the death, mourning and burial of Queen Elizabeth II of the not so united kingdom and the Commonwealth made me very sad and even quite angry.
Now that we have a king, and this king in particular, I am a little hopeful. In my other story, Changing the Subject, I had intended to write a pastiche of a speech by the then Prince Charles. I went to his website and read a great many of his speeches to get a flavour of the way that he speaks. There was no need to write a pastiche and I simply cut and pasted what he has actually said. In the end, I only put snippets of our new king’s actual words into the book, but the harmonious whole can be read on my website ( he has a thing for the Harmonia of the Cosmos does the Leader of the Church of England). Our new king is just shy of bonkers and if he fails to keep his strange mouth shut then my dream of a British republic will be a lot closer to reality.
Anyway, here is what I wrote on the 18th of September:
British Tradition has it that when a monarch dies, the church bells ring. In the days when there was no TV, radio and social media to keep us up to date constantly and in almost real time, it was the only way of spreading the sad, and more often than not, scary news. In the past, the death of the head of state could lead to instability, even to war. Nowadays, when Parliament can manage to do instability and war all by itself, it is simply a tradition, a way to give us a link to the past, a sense of continuity. ‘The queen is dead, long live the king’.
The elderly woman who embodied that tradition, subjugated her whole self to what my TV, radio and phone tells me over and over again, service, stability and nationhood, not just here in the UK, but in the 13 other nations where she was Head of State, has died. And the bells rang out in lamentation. Although I could not hear them from my home in Hackney.
Her life of service upholding and strengthening British tradition ( which ones are not specified) and British statehood (not much is said about that either) meant that she was not just the Head of State in 16 countries, but respected throughout the world. We are told over and over and in many different ways that we will not see her like again.
THE queen, as she was known around the world. hid her personal opinions and her feelings from the public and simply served. She served the British state in the name of the people. And now, the last act of service from the state, in the name of its people, will be to mourn and bury her in traditional style.
As tradition specifies, a notice was put on the railings of one of her homes to say that she had died peacefully in one of her beds. She was attended by her doctors and her large family and did not linger. It was a good way to go, as go we must all must.
Only the facile and the cruel have rejoiced. I have not seen what the facile and cruel have actually said, but I know this has happened because I have seen other people entreating the facile and cruel to show some respect. Everyone with an ounce of feeling feels sorry when another person dies. Only a handful of people are happy, and millions of people are sad. They loved the queen.
The news on the TV and radio has more or less suspended to discuss the queen’s life of service to us, her subjects, via her traditional diplomatic, parliamentary and military duties. She met with the democratically elected prime minister every week to offer them advice ( there is a rumour that when Boris Johnson resigned he asked her to dissolve parliament so that there could be a general election, but she refused), she signed every law, she sent her soldiers (the British Army swears its allegiance not to us, or parliament, but to the monarch) out to every war and she grew the Commonwealth from 6 to 16 nations. She wined and dined and ‘charmed’ the Heads of other states and bestowed honours on the favourites of our state. She was working at maintaining and strengthening and extending the power and influence of the British state until two days before she died.
In return, our elected body, Parliament, which had only just got back to governing while we waited to find out who was prime minister (I am not a member of the Tory Party and so I have a say in who wins X-Factor but not in who runs the country), has stopped, again. All our elected representatives ceased working mid-way through an already belated parliamentary debate on the fact that thousands of Charles III subjects will be choosing between heating or eating this winter. It is tradition.
Hundreds, if not thousands of people have dusted off all sorts of traditional decorated sticks, balls, swords, pikes, tassles, feathers, ruffles, furs, hats, helmets and costumes and the colour scheme is; all of them, Actual 21st century people, with jobs and ever-increasing bills to pay are, as I write, here, now in 2022, processing, bowing and curtsying, around the corpse of someone they did not know, some with tears in their eyes.
Such is their respect for the old queen that the rail and Royal Mail (LTD) workers have postponed their strikes for or defending their ability to pay for food and warmth. And we are in the traditional 10-day period of mourning for the head of the British state.
But life does actually go on, and last night was a Saturday. It was warm and hadn’t rained for a good few hours so me and my partner went to the pictures. It was a good film, funny.
We were in a good mood on the way home when we saw an elderly woman had fallen down in the street. An ambulance was just pulling up and the paramedic asked us to wait with her because she was on her way to someone who had stopped breathing. As she drove off the medic shouted out that she had called for another ambulance as a high priority. Luckily, the hospital is only a ten-minute walk from where the lady fell.
I wasn't worried, the lady was speaking coherently and although I have seen that there is a problem with ambulance delays in other parts of the UK, we are in the capitol of the 5th richest economy in the world, the hospital is a ten-minute walk from where the lady fell and it was well before chucking out time when the pubs close and drunk people have accidents. I have only ever called an ambulance three times, and each time one arrived in a few minutes.
The lady was sitting on a step built into the pavement, she had tripped on it and banged her head, hurt her back and leg, her hand was cut and she was cold. My partner put his jacket around her shoulders and I cleaned and dressed her hand (I have carried a little first-aid kit with me since my lively kids were small).
We kept the lady talking about this and that, she has seen the area gentrify a great deal over the last couple of decades but why build a pavement with steps in it? We shared a cigarette and chatted some more. After 15 minutes, I called for an update, she was still a high priority. We watched ambulances pass in both directions, all with other priorities. The lady had another cigarette.
After another 15 minutes, the lady was getting drowsy and the bump on her head was large enough for me worry about concussion. I called 999 again. For the first time in my life the recorded, ‘we are experiencing a high volume of calls...’ message I have only ever heard from far-from-an-emergency services came through. I stayed on hold for five more minutes, the Uber came in three.
The Uber driver, Mohamed, risked the £80.00 fine and the points on his license and pulled up on a double red line. The lady was in a lot of pain and the speed bumps made it worse, but we got to the hospital and the lady managed to get into the Emergency Department.
There was a queue, I helped the lady to a plastic seat and joined it. The nurse at the front desk, with a name tag labeled Flo, registered and assessed an elderly man in some distress, a boy with a punch-pocket full of ice on his head, a lady moaning with kidney pain and the lady who had fallen in under 10 minutes. There's a statistic Flo's namesake, Florence Nightingale (the inventor of professional nursing and the pie chart) could be proud of. Having made much of the lady’s drowsiness, I walked home. I do not know how long she had to wait before she was cared for properly.
So, this Sunday morning. in this time of national mourning with the radio off, I cannot help but think of the other elderly ladies, and men, who died on the same day as our queen. I do not know their names. I was not taught their parent's names in school. or to sing a prayer to save them. What work did they do?
I do not know how those others died. I know from the news before it stopped to talk about the queen, and king, that there were probably more than the usual number of deaths on the 8th of September, and more than can be explained by Covid. They call them ‘surplus deaths’. There have been thousands of surplus deaths over the last few years. There are no notices on railings, they are too many to name. Instead, their deaths are recorded as a jagged line plotted on a graph.
I do not know where they died. Was it at home in their beds or in the street waiting for an ambulance that did not come? Was it in an ambulance outside the hospital that was full? Was it in a corridor in an Emergency Department that had no room? Or were they lucky enough to die in a hospital bed, their last breath ‘freeing up a bed’, their last service to Queen and country to reduce the burden on the state? I don’t know who will bury them or who will mourn.
The bells will ring again when the old queen is buried and in Britain, we will get the day off. My family will not watch the state's convoluted funeral, we have our own traditions to carry out on that day because it is my mother’s birthday. Some of us will spend the time prettifying her grave and pour a little wine on the ground like the Athenians did. We will all raise a toast to our mum and restate the traditional values she instilled in us, democracy, fraternity, liberty and equality.
Then the bells will still and the winter will creep on and the ermine mantle representing a structure that extends beyond 14 states will be altered to fit the king’s shoulders. No one will envy the shoes he has to fill, or his energy bills for all those palaces. And people whose names we do not know will heat or eat or die.