AT A ROMAN CATHOLIC funeral mass, held in the evening in a modern church on the bend of a busy road in North London, I tried to disguise my lack of familiarity with the rituals slowly unfolding around me – the order of service, the responses to the priest, and so forth. The woman sitting next to me, who has been married to my boyfriend’s brother for nearly thirty years, is not a Catholic either, but the decades have produced something calmly automatic in her and she did helpful things, like nudging me when it was time to kneel.
I needn’t really have been worried; no one was looking at me, and no one would have minded either; they were pleased, I think, that so many people beyond immediate family were present. The man whose coffin had been placed at the head of the church was my boyfriend’s uncle, a man who had not been born in this country and who would not eventually lie here, either. The Monday evening mass, which I had heard a few days previously simply described as some prayers, was the beginning of a three-day journey from London to the Irish countryside; a journey of repatriation.
Once, I’d sat in a wooden bar in that bit of Ireland and got caught up in an impromptu pub quiz; it was a couple of Euros to join in and we wrote our answers on the backs of betting slips. I was confident (and, probably, drunk); as it turned out, I was over-confident. The master of ceremonies appeared to be devising many of the questions simply by dint of looking in the local newspaper, which meant that many of the answers required knowledge of local sports results. A couple of times, though, he felt he ought to throw something a little less topical our way. Two questions stand out in the memory: first, how much did a plot in the local graveyard cost and, second, which graveyard was the closer, Ballymurphy, or Glynn? By road, shouted out one wag, or as the crow flies?
They take graveyards seriously in Ireland, and they take seriously the idea that a man who had lived and worked in England for fifty years or so would nonetheless return home to lie in his family grave. In this case – as, I am sure, in others – they also took seriously the mechanics of that final journey. Parties of people – those who live in England, those who once did but have now returned to Ireland, those who never left – criss-crossed the Irish Sea to attend ceremonies and escort the coffin from Dublin airport to South-East Ireland. There were boats, and planes, and long car-rides. What there wasn’t so much of, I don’t think, was underground train travel; not so very much hurtling through the tunnels that the man had helped to build.
I never had a conversation with my boyfriend’s uncle about the Queen, so I don’t know what he would have felt about the fact that, the day after Mass, we went to take tea at Buckingham Palace. I’m not sure quite why I was invited, although months ago I did an extremely modest favour for a literary charity, who then asked me if I’d like to go to one of the annual tea parties were I to be asked. Here you have a minor issue for Republicans: whatever your feelings about the monarchy, if the Queen invites you to tea, you say yes.
And you bring your boyfriend, because for the most part people seem to be invited in pairs. Two observations about this: when I thought that family duties might make his week intensely complicated, I told him not to worry, I could go on my own. It didn’t really occur to me that this was in any way weird. It is 2012. People go to parties on their own all the time, don’t they? I’m glad it didn’t happen. I might have been pretty much the only uncoupled person there (although I will point out, in fairness to Her Majesty’s ability to recognise the social changes that have taken place during her reign, she does not limit her invitations to heterosexual couples), and I don’t feel it would have been the right place to try out new pick-up lines. My second observation is that if one is part of a heterosexual couple and one happens to fall into polite conversation with people in the tea tent, one notices that they usually address the question, “Why have you been invited?” to the chap. Just saying.
In any case, we had a good time. We met a very nice man who likes American football and his Lithuanian wife; and a very interesting clarinettist and his wife, who is a potter. We ate some cucumber sandwiches and some little cakes that – honestly – had a small crown stencilled on top of them in icing. I dropped a sandwich and picked it up and ate it, which I’m sure breaks all sorts of etiquette but chimes very well with austerity of the zeitgeist, in my view. We listened to a brass band playing a medley of Beatles songs. We saw Cliff Richard. We looked at a lot of extraordinary hats, and I felt glad that I had remembered that you might need one and bought one for twenty dollars on the way. My dress was a little more expensive, and so I was both gratified and mildly appalled when I saw a woman wearing exactly the same one. I hissed at my boyfriend to walk quickly in the opposite direction. “I don’t know why you’re worried,” he said. “I’ve seen a hundred men wearing a grey suit just like mine.”
When we’d been walking through the Mall on our way, we had seen Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, his wife, swishing past in a car. When we arrived in the Palace gardens, we had caught a glimpse of the Queen and Prince Philip. For the rest of the afternoon, they appeared to be ensconced in the Royal Tea Tent, around which there was, naturally, a small cordon. Many, many people stood at the cordon, watching royal personages sip Earl Grey and eat scones. Call me a weirdo, but I think that’s an impertinence too far. Let them eat cake in peace.
On the day of the flotilla itself – the day the Queen stood in the royal barge and watched boats mass around her on the Thames – I went to a tiny festival and saw a man talk about being born below sea level. Outside, the rain did not stop raining just because the road was closed for a street party and someone was trying to judge a dog show (according to which one looked most like a royal. I am serious).
Inside, though, it was warm and dry, and Wilko Johnson, the best guitarist this country has ever produced and one-time member of pre-punk pub rock band Dr Feelgood, was explaining how he was born – in the same year that India gained independence, that LSD was synthesized and that the AK-47 came into existence – on Canvey Island, a small tranche of land reclaimed by Dutch engineers in the middle of the Thames Estuary. In 1953, the same year as the Queen’s Coronation took place, Canvey flooded and 58 people – many of whom had been living or staying in bungalows – died. It was the kind of place that needed some rhythm and blues.
Wilko didn’t stay in Canvey forever, although he now lives back in Southend, right opposite Canvey. At various points, though, he lived in London, once in a flat in West Hampstead, a rather pleasant suburb of north-west London. He remembered that on more than one occasion young punk musicians slept on the floor: “You’d get up in the morning and you’d be tripping over Billy Idol. But they were very nicely brought up boys.”