UK Coronation Day - Pomp, Plumes & Processions
Modernity Will Take More Than Tweaking Tradition
I find my King Charles puppy Poppy and King Charles, the newly crowned king of Britain, have something in common. They have almost the same expression. That sad, knowing gaze, surrounded by slightly wispy, out of control hair.
With family visiting, we duly watched the coronation ceremony, on a cold and rainy London Saturday. It seemed a bit of a sombre affair. I don’t know if it was the weather, tetchily living up to the UK’s global reputation for wet drizzle. Or the fact that I caught a cold last week in Paris from my two flu-riddled elderly hosts (who were sneezing away like there was no tomorrow while generously taking me out to dinner - proving that inter-generational transfers are alive and well). But aside from the radiant Kate, who seems to smile as naturally as she breathes, the mood, the (beautiful) music and the faces leaned seriously solemn.
The BBC commentator spoke of a ‘joyous’ ceremony. If that’s what the Brits consider jolly, I’m beginning to understand the depths of their famous reserve. The newly crowned King and Queen mostly looked terrified of tripping over their trains or of letting their crowns crash unceremoniously to Westminster’s hallowed ground.
Like many of you, I’m sure, I read some of the coverage about this once-in-a-70-year ascension (it also rained on the previous two monarchs’ big day). We will, I’m sure, read much more about it in the coming days. How it was more diverse than any before. How it was shorter and more modern. How they included inter-faith leaders of all the great faiths (no Humanists, though). How they promenaded only a mile about town instead of the five of yore.
But to my foreigner’s eyes, the question I was asking was does this show accomplish the kings’ goals? What leadership is he offering - and to whom? Did this performance push the King and monarchy closer to his peeps - or further from them? One British friend described it as “altogether gloriously memorable.” For the Economist, “it involves far too many men in tights.” I recognise a touch of (thoroughly hypocritical) ageism in myself in sceptically watching a lot of old men peddling some pretty barmy traditions.
Like the born and bred Canadian/ French mix that I am, I don’t really buy the monarchy concept. But I understand its utility in a time of flux. There was some comfort, I could see, in the past few disastrous Brexiting/ Johnson/ Truss years, to have a leader like Queen Elisabeth offering a shell-shocked and divided people a semblance of grown-up continuity.
Good leadership in our turbulent times should be devoted to unifying people across our glorious, myriad and often divisive differences. This Coronation certainly tried to deliver. They opened the curtain to a representative sampling of diversity - of faith, race and gender. They celebrated the colours and countries of the Commonwealth, all 15 ‘realms,’ including Tuvalu. But it felt like so many of my clients trying to ‘do diversity.’ Well-meaning tweaks that don’t redesign the whole. A nod to the new, rather than a necessary re-invention. The narrative remains rooted in a past that’s fast disappearing.
How long will this Queen-pulled-together-Commonwealth survive her demise? Former Australian Prime Minister Matthew Turnbull, wrote in this week’s Economist that Charles is a good guy, “but being a good bloke isn’t enough. Australia’s head of state should be one of us.”
The real challenge is the frame. How do you modernise an institution that sits on the twin pillars of Church and state in a country where a 55% majority of Brits don’t adhere to any religion? And where the belief in the importance of the monarchy has fallen from 65% in 1983 to 29% today?
This Coronation of the country’s oldest-ever monarch was, more than anything else, a religious and historical ritual. This gives it gravitas and street-cred for those who believe in a deity - and the King’s god-given role. But for most of us, including the two Millennials I was watching with, the painfully slow ceremony going through incomprehensible motions (orb, glove, sword, etc. read all about it here), was hardly an inspiring invitation to celebrate a new era. The gloomy weather didn’t help. It truly rained on Charles’ parade.
Nor did the scenes of golden pumpkin carriages and plume-coiffed soldiers (check out this astonishing supplier of all the UK’s military feathers) traipsing by in their thousands (some 16,000 were involved) in the context of a cost-of-living-crisis affecting the whole of this currently unfairy-tale kingdom. Or the powerful female ghosts in the system - all the women who were not there, each with a different message overlaying their absence: Elizabeth, Diana, Meghan.
Charles’ personal popularity has been falling this past year, and time will tell if the Coronation helped burnish his brand or burn it. Personally, I look forward to Charles’ reign. I think he’s an activist kinda guy with a deep, lifelong passion for the environment. There’s no doubt or debate about his conviction and commitment to the cause. Right now, that is the most important issue facing us all. No matter what the locals think. Having the UK’s king as a soft-power pusher of climate action in this, the defining decade for our planet, is surely something to celebrate.
He may not know how to smile, but he’s eminently ready to serve. Long live King Charles!
On Another Sombre Note
As proof that the unsmiling can be transformative leaders, do read a quite extraordinary editorial in this week’s New York Times. It’s written by the US Surgeon General, Vivek Murphy. He gives us a glimpse of what Charles may have felt like this weekend - because it’s lonely at the top.
It’s a courageous and very unusual admission of vulnerability from America’s health leader. He shares the depression and shame he felt during his first term as Surgeon General and the mental health struggles that resulted from the isolation of his position. He under-invested in family and friend relationships and lost his way. Not many men in leadership are ready to admit - publicly or privately - that they may have done the same.
His writing invites others to put the unsaid on the table. One of two Americans complain of loneliness. Social disconnection and alienation are huge human challenges as our kids become more able to converse via their phones than in person. Devices have become appendages. Relationships are the basic human building block of happiness. But they require skills we may be losing in a pandemic-ravaged and tech-enabled time. Murphy writes:
“During one of my lowest lows, the people in my life patched me up with their acts of love and connection. It is still a work in progress, but years later, in my second tenure in public service, I am making a much bigger effort to build and maintain my relationships. I am a better father, husband, friend and surgeon general as a result.”
King Charles and Vivek Murphy both face the same challenge. How do you build community and connection in modernity? The answer may not come from the heavens, but from our hearts - and the arts.
In a strange day of contrasts, we went from the staid splendour of the Coronation to the immersive talents of the British theatre. Guys and Dolls, an old Frank Loesser musical from 1950 Broadway, has been given new life by the Bridge Theatre’s magic. Director/ designer wonder duo Nicolas Hytner/ Bunny Christie build a truly astonishing, immersive experience that had the entire audience enlivened, involved and boogeying down on stage. The people became part of the play.
Ingenious stage craft, stellar acting, and innovative ways of having the audience be part of the show itself are all part of one of Britain’s greatest gifts to humanity: the theatre. Boy, do they know how to put on a show, grip your heart and get your adrenalin coursing. If only the Coronation had just a tiny sprinkling of this fairy dust. Writes Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out:
“After decades of treating the great musicals of the twentieth century as museum pieces, there’s a growing recognition in Western theatre that these classics will fall behind if not subject to some reinvention.”
That lesson applies to so many other traditions, including the monarchy. If the Bridge can transform old American fables into modern-day magic, you’d think the king would be able to harness these skills for his higher purpose.
The old separation of the rich and the powerful using spectacle to impress and distance doesn’t work so well in our uber-connected chat-enabled day. Who wasn’t texting their friends while watching? I couldn’t help contrasting the two events’ conclusions: the Royal family (sans Harry) dumbly waving from their distant balcony - and the Bridge actors singing and dancing with the audience in shared, exuberant joy.
If community and relationships will save us from our climate and tech armageddons, the arts have a huge role to play in our future. London teams with talent. It’s time to harness these skills to invent leadership and engagement in tune with our times.
Guys and Dolls is all about how women will save men from themselves (listen to the hilarious song Marry The Man Today/ Change HIs Ways Tomorrow). I couldn’t help thinking that the thriving vitality of the arts scene (rather than the declining, male-dominated ritualism of the religious one) could save the king - and his country - from anachronistic irrelevance.
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