The Queen is alive, knees knocking against each other in the empty crusted-on stack of Sandringham House, and meanwhile her death fills the world. A spectre is haunting Her Majesty in her frail and lonely power; her ghost crawls with the frost in those misty end-of-the-world mornings; it rasps her destiny through clanking ceilings late at night. The Queen is going to die. We're all going to die, some day, but the Queen's death is already here, drifting through the world even as she potters about absent-mindedly here and there in the ruins of her empire.
People are willing to believe that the Queen is dead at the slightest hint; even ardent monarchists have a secret forbidden desire for it. When she missed her traditional Christmas Day church service – a "heavy cold", the Palace told us – there were worries, get well soon messages, a nation gleefully gearing itself up for loss. When she hid herself away from the public for days on end we knew something was about to happen. Then the rumours started streaming in, cold wisps out from the ground: a media blackout, a hushed-up announcement, she was dead already and they weren't telling us.
And then something very strange happened. The Queen, wandering through her grounds at 3AM (why? What strange nightmares propelled her?) was mistaken for an intruder by one of her own guards, and nearly shot. It would have been a strange end: all those near-miss illnesses, all that long work throughout the 20th century, protecting a feudal institution from the logic of modernity, updating an anachronism just enough so it can survive – and then she dies with a bullet to the chest, just like the Romanovs a century ago, just like all the other royals who couldn't empty themselves of all real content to make themselves acceptable to a changing world. Of course, the line that she was mistaken for an intruder is only the official story, and it's not really believable. How many intruders are tiny, frail women in brightly coloured coats? How many intruders have their faces on the money? Is it possible that the guard nearly shot the Queen because he mistook her for her own ghost?
We're all waiting. Every newspaper has its own database of dead-Queen material, 32-page full-colour supplements compiled over the decades. The police have been working out how to secure her funeral, the TV stations have Dead Queen Day schedules to be rolled out as soon as the doctors announce they couldn't save her, a million brands have soppy tweets sitting expectantly in their draft folders, quivering for death.
When the Queen dies we'll need a lot of bunting, a lot of flowers, a lot of British flags small and large, a lot of clubs to beat the anti-monarchists with, a lot of prison cells in which to hold them, a lot of nooses with which to hang them from the lamp-posts. And in an age of informational capitalism and just-in-time production, the people who make all those things need to constantly take this sudden boom in demand into account, every single day, because it will happen. Her own son, jug-eared and decaying, is living in an inverted Oedipal nightmare: he needs his mother to die so he can assume the long-reigning potency of the paternal phallus. An old woman is still alive, somewhere, but The Queen's Death exists, concretely, in the world; the ghost is real.
Hypothesis: she's been dead for a very long time. Why do people love the Queen so much? It's not as if she's ever actually done anything; she is, in all likelihood, just a dull old Tory living in several stupidly large palaces; her ceremonial role could be executed just as well by pretty much any member of the public, or by one of her corgis, or by one of her waxworks. Ask any devoted monarchist why they're so fond of this crinkled mediocrity and you'll probably get a variant on the same answer: she represents "tradition", she "provides stability", she's "always been there", she's been "patient", she doesn't go anywhere, she is beyond life and death.
People like the Queen because she's absolutely devoid of attributes. The Queen is a blank master-signifier, something that structures our national discourse without ever having to point towards anything other than itself. She just is. She glows with a halo of faint and unqualified is-ness. She is, in other words, an unexplained phenomenon. Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith is a thing that goes bump in the night.
When she took the crown an era ago in 1953, the person who was Liz Windsor died, and something else took over. She could no longer be just another person; whatever thoughts and feelings she may or may not have had fell into the void, and she became The Queen, utterly blank, a regal nothingness that lives forever on the edge of its own death. An opened set of dates waiting to be filled in again, a (1953-tomorrow), or the day after, or the day after that. She is her own ghost. The thing that was once Liz Windsor sits cold and terrified in some royal estate, and her death rules the country, waiting to happen. And like the faithful and obedient subjects we are, we wait impatiently for it to happen too.
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