Home Featured The coronation was an act of magic for a country scared the spell might break
The coronation was an act of magic for a country scared the spell might break

The coronation was an act of magic for a country scared the spell might break

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Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

A coronation creates a god out of a man: It is magic. This is odd, which is why the world’s eyes were upon us — few nations practice magic publicly these days. But it remains our default security in a modern age.

Of course, we cannot discuss this openly, because it is absurd, and because we are only dimly aware of it, which is another kind of self-protection: denial serving denial. Monarchy appeals to the unconscious, to children afraid of the night. (Whatever we feared, Elizabeth II was in her palace, never changing, like the queen in “The BFG” who battled flesh-eating giants.)

Monarchy is a fairy tale, it is true: the darker parts. And so, the commentary at the coronation had an odd dissonance, as if we were speaking around something, because the core of it was something we were afraid to say out loud. If you say you don’t believe in Tinkerbell, she dies.

That lack of confidence in the magic spell was obvious at breakfast time. As the congregation spooled into Westminster Abbey, with actors at the front — kings tend to like actors, as they have the same job — the head of the anti-monarchist pressure group Republic, Graham Smith, was arrested near Trafalgar Square with five other republican leaders. The peaceful protest, he told me last week, was organized with the approval of the Metropolitan Police. They arrested him anyway, confiscated the placards, and blamed the string which tied the placards together for breaking the rules. (Apparently they might have used it to “lock” onto buildings.) A few hours later the king swore to serve us, which means serving our democracy. So he has already failed.

The protest went on in Trafalgar Square, but the BBC cut away as the cavalcade passed. Screens were erected in front of the protest, as if our eyes — and the king’s — were too delicate to be allowed to see it. We were told the police operation passed off without incident. The Duke of York was booed as he left Buckingham Palace, but that too was not reported on. The BBC was in the hagiography business at this coronation, and it was fervent and vapid. This is possibly tactical — they fear what an unpopular nativist government will do to their funding model — but it also indicates a nation afraid of itself. A deputy chairman of the Conservative Party suggested all republicans emigrate. They were all afraid the spell might break.

Then came the pomp: the fantastical costumes, the militarism, the uneasy horses, one of which panicked and backed into the crowd. Another marched sideways. It was lovely to look at, but it is the fumes of Empire, which of course is why the Mall was full. A man in a bowler hat said “tradition” when asked why he was here: He was communing with his ancestors. The women at the front were dressed as flags, and held more flags for emphasis. Empire is gone, but the costume remains, and from time to time we try it on, looking to summon what we have lost.

Sky News played the sort of inspirational music you hear on adverts for life insurance. Their reporter confused Lionel Ritchie with Michael Gove, who nodded at the camera as if it were a friend, and a former ambassador to the U.S. with Lord Rothschild. Gordon Brown’s face was thunderous, but then he at least is conscious of reality. Tony Blair, whose 70th birthday it was, looked like nothing could ever reach him again. Boris Johnson didn’t bow to the king as he passed, but he was never going to. He thought it should be him.

The costumes were magnificent, and needed to be, because they help to will the spell into being. The Princess of Wales and Penny Mordaunt were dressed as medieval queens. Another guest was dressed as a tulip; another as a ghost. Most were dressed for a garden party in rain, though Princess Anne had come prepared for some Napoleonic-era confrontation with an enemy only she could see. I mourned for the senior duke who had asked to come in his carriage with a page, but was denied. A quasi-democratic flourish for the masses.

The king looked both scared and thrilled: an ageing debutante about to become a god. Unlike Elizabeth II, you can never untangle Charles from his vulnerability, and so the spell is hard to cast. It likes a blank canvas, and he isn’t one: The media exposed him 30 years ago. Once you are known, you cannot be unknown.

Still, they tried. He was poked and prodded, dressed and undressed, and sacred objects were placed on and near him by a succession of holy men who looked like they would fight to the death for the opportunity to play what someone on Twitter described as Buckaroo. He looked best in his nightshirt, because it indicated the humility he doesn’t have. The Coronation Chair is covered with graffiti: an ancient republican protest which went unpunished — you can’t arrest ghosts.

Penny Mordaunt, holding the sword of state and walking ahead of King Charles III in Westminster Abbey | Yui Mok/WPA Pool via Getty Images

Camilla looked fearful and wretched: I was reminded that on her wedding day she wouldn’t get up until her sister threatened to marry Charles in her place. “Best friends and soulmates,” said the ballroom dancer Anton du Beke on the BBC news, adding that he “welled-up” at the spectacle. Then they started talking about costume again, and India Hicks, a bridesmaid at Charles’ first wedding, mentioned Diana by mistake. This was the end of their personal journey. When the crown was placed on Camilla’s head it looked like a punishment: this, then, is yours.

Millions of people looked on, and as with all magic mirrors, saw what they wanted to see. Some saw a tepid version of an imagined past, which they clung to. Others saw a victory for the visibility of older women, as if we did not recently bury a 96-year-old queen, and happiness at last. Others saw a victory for diversity, as people of color and non-Christian faiths, and women, were allowed to perform homage — and near the front, too, close to the god. I saw a protective spell summoned in an abbey, far older than Christianity. It’s certainly dramatic. I give it that.

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