Voices: Pomp, pageantry and waiting around: The weirdness of witnessing history

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On Saturday morning – perhaps because I drew a short straw – I had to go and witness history. I was the Independent reporter dispatched to St James’s Palace to hear the proclamation of Charles III.

For three or four hours, we stood – thousands of us – in Friary Court waiting for a man titled the “Garter King of Arms” (or Dave to his friends) to walk out onto the balcony and confirm the new King was indeed the new King. When he did so, heralded by the sounding of state trumpeters, it was all done in 10 minutes, no more.

He read out his proclamation, called for three cheers from the bearskin-hatted guard below, and then he was pretty much gone. “Was that it?” I heard a child asking, and I confess I wondered the same.

Epoch-defining events can be a rum do and, as the first Charles may have attested, not always entirely enjoyable.

For a journalist, they are a mixed bag. On the one hand, there you are in the cauldron of the era, a privileged spectator to moments that will be whispered about for generations to come, an onlooker, or – dare I be so bold? – a chronicler of the age. If you’re especially lucky, you might even see Clive Myrie.

On the other hand: gosh, the crowds and the standing about! The parallels may be limited but, when I’m asked about being at such places, I often think of the actor asked about life in the trenches of the First World War: “Oh, the people! And oh, the noise!”

The last few days have, by any measure, been especially surreal: all pomp and pageantry and the demand that, after 70 years, God should pivot to saving the King.

On Saturday, in particular, I found myself thinking it a good job that we, the British public, had been often told in advance that all the trumpets and the tabards and the Ruritanian ritual were a key pillar of our constitutional security; otherwise, one may have been forgiven for mistaking the whole thing for a bunch of middle-aged men cosplaying some sort of (eye-wateringly expensive) medieval re-enactment scene.

One may – if one was especially uneducated – have begun to wonder if it wasn’t all a little… unnecessary? I mean, it’s just one man gaining a promotion. It probably doesn’t need a horn section to announce it.

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In my mind-wandering fancy, I half wondered what would happen if my own father – roughly the same age as the new King – announced a new job in the same style in the Yorkshire village where he lives. Him getting up on to the steps of the White Hart and, decked out in red and gold, declaring that he would, on this 10th day of September in the year of our Lord 2022, be putting in a few shifts at the local greengrocers, so sound the trumpets and God save him.

I wondered how that would go down. I wondered how people would feel when they found out that they – not him – were paying for the lads to blow their instruments.

And, yet, more of this Lilliputian liturgy still to come: almost a week in, but almost a week left. A five-mile queue to see a coffin. A funeral that will pretty much paralyse a city of eight million. Center Parcs shutting down? You what? In this economy?

I ponder it all and I think again of that child in Friary Court, asking: was that it? How it reminded me of the words of another kid in another crowd: but the emperor’s not wearing any clothes.