Herself alone: The image of the tiny 94-year-old widow, frail, bowed, solitary in socially distanced grief, is one of the most powerfully moving of her reign. It is desperately sad. The empty places surrounding her looked as though they had been left by her father, who died too young; her mother, her sister – and, now, her husband.
The Queen did look very alone and vulnerable, but the symbolism went further. For those of us who have had to deal with loss in this lonely year, and all those affected, it was almost a gesture of solidarity. She did not bend the rules just because she is the sovereign. Again, a small example to those in public life who sometimes forget that we are all supposed to be in this pandemic together.
Funerals, even Covid-era ones, can be beautiful affairs, and the one designed – that seems to be an appropriate word for it – by Prince Philip was a deeply moving and poignant event: far more so, indeed, than anyone could have expected. The man himself was responsible for the order of service and its organisation, and he gave himself an excellent send-off, and the coronavirus restrictions took nothing away.
The family in morning suits, the tiny choir of four, the lone piper... there was less pomp and more purity of purpose. The service didn’t suffer from the absence of superannuated politicians and ranks of diplomats, or the great and the good who normally pack out St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey for these grand occasions. I did not miss Boris Johnson’s oration, nor Sir Keir Starmer’s reading from the bible. The Dean and the Archbishop did fine.
Philip’s order of service, infused with spirituality, with its display of fine musical taste, belied his reputation as a practical, no-nonsense man of action. He had a hinterland, though its contours were seldom explored publicly. The custom Land Rover hearse, an almost boyish indulgence we’d heard so much about, along with the sounding of the royal navy “action stations” signal as the coffin was lowered into the royal vault, reminded us of his wit, sense of mischief, and limited patience for dull protocol. The duke was responsible for every detail of the proceedings – possibly including, as someone humorously observed on Twitter, the topless protester arrested outside, shouting “Save the planet!” as she tried to clamber up a statue of Queen Victoria. It would surely have amused him.
The monarchy is supposed to reflect the nation it serves. On this occasion, it was a mirror held up to a generation now passing from us – what the Americans call “the greatest generation”. They were the ones, like Philip, who served in and won the war against fascism, but also built post-war Britain: a tolerant, decent, free and prosperous nation, with – despite its flaws – much to be proud of.
In ten years or so there will be very few, if any, veterans of the 1939-45 show still around. Philip did his bit in the war, and in peace, too; and now he may rest.