Grief, the personal and the political

From the death of a prince to the loss of our own loved ones, Mark Perryman goes in search of the connections.

The Perryman family

On last Friday evening, the supermarket where I do my Saturday shop sent me an email informing me that they were ‘deeply saddened by the death of His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh’, adding for good measure ‘we extend our heartfelt sympathy to Her Majesty the Queen and The Royal Family’.

Such gestures are entirely performative. The next morning the supermarket was open as usual for me to do my shopping, no black armbands worn by staff, no mournful, tear-stained faces at the checkout as I paid for my goods. All those newspapers churning out page after page of grief-stricken coverage, how on earth were those pieces written – pages laid out through the tears? Keir Starmer issues his own moving tribute, Angela Rayner and Jeremy Corbyn the same, and we’re meant to believe that all three have been beside themselves with grief at a much-respected national figure? Oh, and Boris Johnson is so moved to grief he cancels all government press conferences, no questions at all for him or government ministers on the Covid-19 crisis in case such a thing might get them all emotional over the loss of Prince Philip. And just in case we don’t get the message, all political parties agree to suspend any campaigning for the 6 May local elections, our knock on the door in danger of being seen as a sign of disloyal disrespect.

Meanwhile the Grand National goes on, the Premier League too, all essential shops are open, and on Monday are joined by all those locked down since Christmas, the long-awaited reopening of pubs too. Entirely unaffected by this moment of enforced public grieving are millions watching the racing and the football on the TV, millions more doing the shopping, getting their hair cut, sinking a pint with scarcely a thought in the world for this sad loss, as we can hardly move for declarations of a nation in mourning.

I have yet to see a single person with a black armband. You’d somehow think there’d be a roaring trade. Nor have I passed anyone looking in the least bit mournful. Maybe I move in the wrong circles (quite possibly), but where is the evidence of this tidal wave of public grief?

None of this belittles the sad loss to a family, any family, of a husband, father, grandfather or great-grandfather. Nor the loss felt by those who have a strong identification with the Royal Family. I entirely respect both, but why is there this pathology of universal grief – what does it achieve, what is its purpose?

One of my earliest memories is of a state funeral, one where the grief was absolutely purposeful. 1965, the death of Second World War premier and leader of the coalition government throughout the war, Winston Churchill. Both my parents fought in that war; my middle name is Alan after my father’s closest friend, a pilot, who was shot down to his death in the Battle of Britain – one of the ‘few’. I was too young, but my elder sister was taken by our father to join the tens of thousands who would pass by Winston’s coffin as it lay in state. In ‘65, anyone over 30 would have had some sort of memory of that war; most of those over 40 would have served or fought in some capacity.

A year later, many of these same people would watch England beat West Germany in the World Cup Final, at Wembley, unarguably English football’s greatest single moment. England vs West Germany, a football match with none of the flimsy version of patriotism that reduces the heroism and sacrifice of the ‘the few’ who saved us from Nazism to a football song about ‘ten German bombers’, complete with inflatable Spitfires chucked up in the air. And back then it was a time when that war was remembered as a vital historic moment that brought Britain, the Commonwealth and still extant empire, the United States and the Soviet Union, and resistance movements across Europe and south-east Asia together to defeat fascism. This is what framed Churchill’s funeral, a truly global event, grief for this global front, not some kind of warm-up act before we stop the march of world history because we want to get off and show the rest right now, right here what we’re really made of when we stand alone.

Public grief of the sort of ‘65 still has its role, but it tends to be localised rather than state-led and national. The passing of footballing legend Jack Charlton, the Hillsborough tragedy, Manchester’s response to the 2017 terrorist attack on the Ariana Grande concert in the city – obvious examples of local grief connecting to a wider audience. On a national scale, Princess Diana’s 1997 funeral is the closest parallel to Prince Philip’s. But Diana lost her life in a horrific accident, at a young age, following what had been spectacularly revealed as a loveless marriage, betrayal by her husband and mistreatment by the family into which she’d married. It was always a bit of a stretch to call those crowds who lined the streets for her funeral a ‘floral revolution’, but it was absolutely clear there was a taking of sides in the gravest crisis the Royal Family had faced since the enforced abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936.

It is no disrespect to a man who has given his life to loyal and active service in the very public shadow of his regal wife, who passed away peacefully at an age most of us would be more than content to reach, if we question what precisely is the meaning and purpose of this state-sanctioned performative grieving.

As feminists have taught us, the personal is political, and grief most certainly is. I lost both my parents at a relatively young age. I am never ashamed to admit that every single day I miss, intensely, both of them – for me they will always be Mummy and Daddy and I will always be their son hoping that I can make them proud but robbed of ever knowing if I have. And as an older parent, my ever-present fear is that this calamitous emotional mix is what I will leave for Edgar too.

So, grief is private, sometimes public, always personal. The passing of Prince Philip will affect some and won’t others. There should be no rush to judgement from royalists or republicans, no enforcement of the correct emotional protocols. Nor should there be a rank ordering of the required level of grieving and respect. All such responses are gross in their insensitivity and do those who parade them as evidence of their political virtue no good whatsoever.

All of which should leave us to ponder, come Monday 21st June and the projected final end of lockdown, how we will ensure that moment of celebration, of freedom, will also provide the space for a collective, participative and memorable moment to reflect on all those we have lost, and the reasons why. To put it a tad unkindly – 150,000 deaths are more, much more than sufficient to provoke such unkindness – are such moments reserved only for princes?

Mark Perryman’s latest book, Corbynism from Below, is available here.

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