Late Life Crisis - September 2022

At the end of August's effort I said that I would take a break on these until the New Year. It only took a few representations about continuing, to make me change my mind. Fickleness in the extreme.

Entries strictly following the passage of the month:

Postcard from the Wye Valley and then Somerset

On the way down, a stop at Old Sodbury, just off the M4. I was fascinated to see if this is the place to which I should properly retire.

As if to validate my suspicion, across the road from the pub, two older men in lederhosen-style gear, sitting on a bench and eating their sandwiches. One had a furled Union Jack protruding from the top of his rucksack. Also furled was a sign that I assume they intended to carry around. I thought it might say "Get Brexit Finally Done'. On the ground in front of them was a stretcher with a dummy on it, the latter covered in a blanket. Could it be a reference to the untimely political death of Boris Johnson? 

When they stood up it was clear that they were promoting some form of Armed Forces charity. A denouement.

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I reflected on what I enjoy in a solid country walk. There are three factors: (1) the achievement (2) the exercise and (3) what there is to be seen. Possibly through my being non-visual, the ranking is as above. I would prefer (3) to come first, and when something interesting is pointed out, I clock it, but there it is.

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At the end of the walk, the village pub, still open at 3.30pm. Only just open, with the landlady about to lock up for a couple of hours. She took pity and served us drinks, although we had to go and sit outside at the front. Ten minutes later she came out, locked up without encouraging us to drink up, and drove off.

Drinks finished, and we wondered what to do with our glasses. In London they would be nicked within minutes. My pint glass had the brewery name delicately traced on it. It would make a lovely memento. But as I say to the trainee solicitors I teach, integrity means doing the right thing, even when no one else is looking. Anyway, the pub had my debit card details.

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Overheard in the hotel restaurant: 'I slept well, although I had had a lot to think about'. A good first line for a novel.

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The ruins of Tintern Abbey. I was last there decades ago. These days I have no religious faith, but there is something about the place. I do not have the words to express more.

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Boys' toys. In two locations I witnessed the parading of classic cars. In each case the vehicles were studiously parked in front of the entrance to the establishment. I can recognise a Morgan and a Jag, but not much else, so will comment only on the people.

For the audience, there is the dilemma of whether to go up and nose round respectfully, or to goggle from a distance. I assume that the owners would prefer the latter, as long as there was no unwanted touching.

The incumbents. On arrival, would 'she' in the passenger seat (as of course 'he' drives) turn out to be a thirty years-younger popsy? Not from my empirical study, although the women scrubbed up very well. On the driver's side, the exit took time. An explanation might be the wish to seize the dramatic moment, but the prosaic answer is that it is some way up to standing position and it takes one a bit of early retirement effort to lever oneself out of the cockpit. This assessment is validated by the physique of the pilot, who I saw typically carrying some ballast around the midships (a polite euphemism for 'fat') - sorry for mixed metaphors. The other notable feature was the attire, a Portilloesque penchant for clashing pastel colours of shirt, trousers and pullover, the latter conventionally worn with sleeves tied around the neck, al stilo Italiano.

And earwigging over breakfast, one noted that they mostly talked about...their cars.

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The sign on the pavement said:'Welcome. Cool Church'. Oh my God. Chipping Norton had arrived. The explanation was from another sign inside. In the excruciating temperatures of this summer, here was a place where stressed locals and visitors could come for respite. And note that it was open in the middle of a weekday with no one around and no sign of CCTV. Yet again I thought that this sort of thing ain't what would happen in London.

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A counter-intuitive theory: a shorter walk is more likely to go wrong than a longer one. This was intended to be a 30 minute stroll on a circular route from the hotel. Nice set of instructions, with map. Rain due in between one and two hours, so no need to bother with an umbrella. 

About 25 minutes in we took a wrong turn. And it started to rain. Heavily. The hotel was in sight in the distance, but there was no direct way to it. We paused in the rain to consider options. Not practicable to turn round and retrace steps. Google Maps came to the rescue. If we followed a farm access road a short distance we would get back to the main road and within five minutes we would be at the entrance to the hotel grounds.

Down we went to reach the gate to the road. A big, metal, locked gate. Hop over the fence to one side? Not unless you fancied a fight with some barbed wire. Lateral thinking was required, of course not coming from me. Courtesy only of having a longer arm, I reached through the bars and pushed a random button on the other side. Almost immediately a woman's voice, presumably from the farmhouse, kicked in. We explained our dilemma. She immediately opened the gate. We gratefully escaped. 

Back at the hotel a receptionist perceptively observed that we were wet.

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Back home

Trigger warning: what follows is not obsequious.

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Initial mainstream TV coverage: I found the relative lightness of touch from  ITV preferable to the surfeit of gravitas on BBC. Their man Nicholas Witchell looked as though he had been preparing all his life for this moment, and Huw Edwards self-consciously played himself. On ITV, Royal correspondent Chris Ship had all the facts at his fingertips, but when he got muddled between Queen and King it only enhanced the humanity.

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There is shock in response to the death. A couple of days earlier she was on her feet, ushering the buffoon out and his replacement in. HM was much diminished in stature (even allowing for heels and camera angles, Truss is 5ft 3ins), but the smile looked unforced. Perhaps it was a supreme example of keeping up appearances. If the deterioration in health had been more transparent, we might have internalised it in the way that we have internalised the Ukraine conflict. But transparency on health is not how the Palace does things.

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Without intending to appear cold, the Queen's demise has been priced in, to use the markets term. Eyes are already turning to how Charles III will govern. And within a few days of media coverage there will be ennui in certain quarters (it happened with Philip) and a demand to return to other pressing issues of the day - surely there must be some.

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In the meantime, what is the moment at which any mild levity can be interleaved with the solemnity? The ceremonial parts are interesting, but the fillers on the Queen's life are starting to feel like the fillers they are. So how about:

'Our Life with The Queen - The Corgis in their Own Words'.

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But one jests too much. It is essential that we roll out tributes from Lady Daphne Picklington-Pocklington, who used to take out the Queen's curlers, and from Sir Reginald Anstruther-Pluminmouth, who had some honorary role in the Royal Household, the details of which he can't quite remember now. The insights are mind-blowing. 

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Will we have King Grumpy Wumps? One has to recognise the strain of ceremonialising, and as well as 'Pengate' I thought I spotted a pretty abrupt handing back behind him of the Order of Ceremony when it got in the way of one's signing efforts. But certainly once he gets going there will be comparisons - how would She have handled such and such event?

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We are now on to when the Queen talked to a man about potatoes. Oh dear.

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It's official - according to a cultural commentator speaking on the BBC, the late Queen's lying in state is akin to an art installation. I think that might have got a Royal snort.

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I have written previously that Mark Drakeford missed his vocation as an undertaker. Most certainly there is a man for a funeral.

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And what an event it was. Of course there were contrarian moments: Australian broadcasters not recognising Liz Truss and thinking she might be a minor Royal; the man hanging out a sign from his first floor flat on the processional route to Windsor, offering toilet facilities at £3 a go (Jacob Rees-Mogg would have been proud of the enterprise). Etc.

Once again I preferred ITV coverage. The silences were powerful. The BBC appeared to think we needed a running commentary. Less is more.

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I am trying to form concluding thoughts on these ten days in September. Here they are. There are just two:

- The media coverage was excessive, resulting in the fetishising of the mourning experience. I am not criticising the programme put on by the Palace: it gave the nation a chance to reflect on the Queen's life and achievements, as much or as little as any individual wanted to reflect, in some cases not at all. The key events and passages deserved blanket coverage, but there was an awful lot of stodge in between. 

- There should have a greater articulation of celebration of the Queen's life, rather than the desperate sense of mourning grief. We know that as a nation we have a love for a grief fest: the death of Diana Princess of Wales taught us that.

My stodge word was deliberate. I feel like I have over-eaten of rich food. I shall be glad of a leaner diet.

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Helen Glass has written a memoir of her 30 year teaching career, 'An Accidental Headship". As reported by the Ham & High, it includes recollections of her seven years as Head of Fortismere Comprehensive School in Muswell Hill. She recalls of the parents: 'Many were fabulous and supportive', but in contrast a 'vociferous minority used their professional connections and influence to push their own agenda'.

The agenda was radical liberal. The Ham & High report tells us about the time of the education cuts in 2010. Parents lobbied Glass to allow pupils to attend protests. When she refused, she received emails expressing grave disappointment at her failure to understand the school's proud political nature. That evening she saw on the TV a Fortismere pupil kicking in a window during violent clashes. She insisted that the parent hand in his son, or else she would do it.

You get the picture. The book is published by SilverWood Books at cover price £12.99. I may put it on my ever growing list.

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There are important things concerning the economic future of the country on which one ought to be saying something. But the excitement of that will have to wait until next month. The writer A N Wilson has observed that the British are essentially unserious, which is the best I can manage as an excuse for Royal coverage above and for the last item. Mea culpa.

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'God save our gracious King,

I did an awful thing,

Sang 'Queen' not 'King".

Now we extend the curse,

It goes from bad to worse,

Don't know the second verse,

God save the King.'

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The author is a writer, speaker, historian, occasional tour guide, and former Managing Partner of a City law firm.