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Opinion

As an era closes, what now for the future of Britain?

Listening to the Queen’s funeral took John Bird on a trip down memory lane, where he reflected on our uncertain times and the need for a steady hand to guide us

I listened to the funeral on the radio in my garden. As I sat I pictured the route, knowing every corner, every old building from my decades of working, drinking, loitering, even sleeping rough within its crevices and crevasses. I much preferred the idea of sitting and imagining the cortege, the gun carriage, the rope-pulling sailors and the crowds.  

The Queen was royally served by Radio 4 and the cream of the BBC’s presenters; though the sonorous, soft Scottish voice of James Naughtie was the only one I recognised, with an Irish voice near Clarence House, a Northern Irish voice near Buckingham Palace and plain English middle class seemingly placed along the way. I sat enthralled. I could do nothing for the duration, until finally the hearse took the coffin off from Hyde Park Corner.  

 The glare of the filmed or videoed event does not work for me because a good piece of descriptive radio awakens more memories. And memories, not necessarily of the Queen but of the time on Earth that I shared with her, are what I wanted to conjure up as I sat, solitary, and listened.  

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 If there was anything disturbing for me in the whole panoply of the death and funeral, it was that last picture of Liz Truss shaking Her Majesty’s hand. The Queen dressed in her usual homely array, Liz Truss a large torpedo of a woman seemingly towering over the small monarch, who in her need to look dignified even held a black handbag on her arm. How unwell she must have been – the look on her face showed it – as she struggled to be dutiful. It was one of the most human looks I have ever seen captured in a royal picture. A woman in the closing hours of life, with her large and powerful last prime minister before her, amazon-like. It was informative but distressing at the same time.  

I remember being interested in the state funeral of Winston Churchill, back on my 19th birthday. But I did not sit by the radio, or the wireless as we might have called it then. I was living in a small room in Earl’s Court and was woken very early by a friend of mine who, among other things, insisted he was Churchill’s first cousin. This seemed unlikely given the petty criminal he was, or had become.  

But he insisted we went to the funeral, and I got out of bed reluctantly and traipsed on the Underground to St James’s Park. Only to find that though my friend had solemnly queued up in Westminster Palace to see Sir Winston’s casket, the funeral was in fact at St Paul’s, a good few miles east. And not, as he had imagined, at Westminster Abbey. We missed the funeral but we saw the vast crowds that seemed to take over the whole of Central London.  

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You could say that the passing of the Queen, and her magnificent sending off to Windsor to join her husband and parents, now leaves the road open for the new PM to get on with divining a way to head off the crisis of inflation. Which befalls us all but, first and foremost, will reduce the poorest among us to abject penury. This is the biggest challenge I have witnessed to the solvency of many stuck in poverty and some nifty, thoughtful, careful support must be conjured up from the stale arguments that have allowed the poorest to slip deeper into poverty.  

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Of course, as has been suggested by the odd thinker (and me): as we are in a surrogate war, which has fuelled the inflationary hike, should we not move to a war economy? In which the government gets heavy handed, as war economies do, and buttresses those in the biggest and most pressing of needs. And does not allow evictions, and hunger and the destruction of any semblance of order in people’s lives.  

I do hope the doomsayers are found out to be mere doomsayers in the next few months. We have seen bad times talked up big time. Let’s hope the experts are as unreliable as many of the experts we ran into over Covid. And those of earlier times – I conjure up the experts’ panic of the millennium bug – that frightened the bejeezus out of the many.   

I am sure there are good experts out there, but being in the know doesn’t seem always to bring good prediction skills to the job. Let us hope we can all now concentrate on the need to get through the recession that is being prophesied. And then perhaps insist, petition, campaign for a real poverty strategy that prevents people falling into poverty, or gets people out once they’re in there.  

A last image (and forgive me for this) – of the Queen’s hearse slowly passing through Knightsbridge to Kensington High Street – evoked the fight I once had with a bouncer outside the Royal Garden Hotel. Where I got a punch on the nose and a split front tooth for dancing with the wife of the man who managed the hotel restaurant as we had our Christmas party.  

What was the Queen doing in 1969, as I struggled with whatever grief I was dropping myself into?  

Liz Truss needs to do us all a favour and bring some stability to the economic health of our nations. 

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.


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