The Daily Telegraph

Don’t cancel things: keep calm and carry on

The elite assumes it’s the ‘right thing’ to do, but even in 1952 the British public weren’t so keen


By chance, I was in church when the news of Elizabeth II’S death emerged – the perfect place to be. The priest interrupte­d, at a natural break, to make the announceme­nt, people gasped (yes, they gasped) and then we continued with the order of service. I have no doubt whatsoever that’s what the late Queen would have wanted.

But now we’re hit with a mania of cancellati­ons: football matches, the Proms, the Great North Run, betting, bin collection­s, strikes, even the Lib Dem conference. I punched the air when I heard the last one, but the rest – is it appropriat­e? Is it for the right reasons? Or is that no one wants to be the only person to keep their event going, lest someone ask “why didn’t you cancel?”

I applaud the desire to “do the right thing”, but I don’t think we should assume it’s always what’s done.

Plenty of things were cancelled in 1952, when George VI died, including the rugby (though footer went ahead). Cinemas and theatres closed on the day; most, however, reopened. Many pubs never stopped service (well, you need a pint when you get news that bad). According to David Kynaston’s splendid history of the 1950s, Family Britain, the most obvious change in the daily routine was that the BBC fell silent, but for news, weather and dreary music.

“My husband was so fidgety,” recorded the diarist Nella Last, “he counted up the days till he could expect the wireless programmes he likes” – noting that it made little sense to pull comedies off the air when the late King was known to be a fan of them.

You’d imagine that 1950s Britain would embrace such deprivatio­n with cold-bath stoicism. It did not. One survey found 59 per cent of Britons disapprove­d of the BBC’S coverage.

This had consequenc­es. The Tory Party swung in favour of ending the corporatio­n’s monopoly, permitting the creation of commercial TV. Labour MP Richard Crossman blamed this on its “high-handed performanc­e during the King’s funeral… if there had been a rival, the BBC couldn’t have closed the service down.”

Middle-class do-gooders argued that the BBC existed precisely to uphold sober standards; workingcla­ss viewers demanded more game shows; the Tories were sick of the bias. “For 11 years [the BBC] kept me off the air,” claimed Churchill. “Their behaviour has been tyrannical. They are honeycombe­d with socialists – probably communists.”

See, even the culture war is nothing new. Kynaston’s point is that after the King’s death, the establishm­ent automatica­lly followed a protocol that probably seemed appropriat­e on paper but was increasing­ly out of step with how many people ordered their own lives, a tension that is more avoidable nowadays because if you’ve had enough of monarchy on your oldfashion­ed TV, you can always switch over to Netflix or Amazon.

Back in the 1950s, society might have seemed more cohesive because technology imposed cultural coherence upon it. There was no escape. Not that I’m implying the feeling of loss wasn’t general, real and powerful. In ’52, two young men refused to take part in the two-minute silence and were almost lynched.

The novelist Mollie Panter-downes wrote that the widespread grief “proved beyond doubt the impossibil­ity of Britain’s ever entering into any European federation, since Britons are already federated into a family that loyalties and traditions bred in its bones”. Hear, hear!

When someone dies, you pause. 

You should; you need to. But a critical part of handling death is carrying on, and it’s notable how swiftly the monarchy does this. At the end of the church service I attended, the priest said, “The Queen is dead. God save the King!” There was hardly a breath between sentences.

Funeral traditions direct grief; they give us space to vent, they give us words to express our feelings. Monarchy adds to this a purposeful overwhelme­nt, such that the theatre of ceremony directs emotion away from death to rebirth, endings to new beginnings – emphasisin­g a cycle of change and renewal that feels out of space, out of time.

Seeing the bearskin hats, the little red soldiers marching and the kilts and bagpipes blaring, I wondered if we were in 2022 or 1952 or 1936? It leaves one breathless, no pausing to notice how anachronis­tic it is, or its claims entirely undemocrat­ic – and custom cleverly compromise­s those involved, so that by the time Charles had signed documents affirming the Protestant faith, all that speculatio­n about him redefining his role for a multicultu­ral tomorrow is forgotten.

And did you notice how excited Sir Keir Starmer seemed to be – a republican in his youth, but who described his knighthood as the proudest day of his parents’ lives? This is how we avoided revolution: by having a divinely approved monarchy that flatters even socialists.

Charles will be a good King. We will surmount our problems. Britain is always in crisis, always mucking things up and making silly changes we later regret, yet we remain the same people by stubbornly carrying on, by refusing to be swept away by history.

That’s the enigma of a country where every upheaval is met with, “well, I think I’ll put the kettle on”.

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