Of shrines and superstition

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The flowers are as extravagant as the grief. Not single stems, nor ordinary bunches but brimming bouquets which fill the arms of mourners who bring them. The gates of the royal palaces have become scenes not of mere sorrow but of a woe which is wanton, opulent and intemperate. It is as if plain Protestant England has been transported in place and time to a sultry Mediterranean Catholicism of shrines and superstition. Don't cry for me, Inglaterra.

This is not to criticise. Merely to observe a change. Yet there is something in the new reckless discharge of emotion which is not so tolerant of ways that are not its own.

Yesterday morning's tabloid press carried an unprecedented attack on the Queen for appearing "uncaring". She had remained sequestered with her family in its sadness. She had not addressed the nation. She had refused to break protocol by allowing the flag to fly at half-mast over Buckingham Palace - "The Final Insult," the Sun called it. "Let the flag fly at half- mast," demanded the Daily Mail. "Show Us You Care," shrieked the Express in letters two inches high. "Speak to us, ma'am, please speak", said the unctuous Mirror editorial.

But it was not just the media. The public in BBC vox pops demanded that the Queen "come to the microphone". All manner of public figures offered their two-penn'orth to the effect that, as one tyro Labour MP pompously put it, "a little bit of emotion would not be amiss". Even the Prime Minister's defence of the sovereign was two-edged in its inverted assertion that the Royal Family "share our grief".

The Queen was so hurt that she took the unusual step of announcing the fact in a statement. Later it was announced that she would fly back to London early, speak to the nation tonight and allow the Union flag to fly at half-mast from Buckingham Palace on the day of the funeral.

There is something profoundly distasteful about the way she has been brow-beaten into all this. It is not the incontinence of the demotic outpourings I object to. Let the general public lament in whatever manner it wishes. But what makes people think they may presume to criticise those who deal with their distress in a way which is different?

What we are seeing in these demands - whether couched in the bleak vulgate of the tabloids or the more elegant tropes of streetwise broadsheet writers - is a requirement that bereavement, like everything else, should be reduced to info-tainment. The Queen is not seen as a grandmother who is comforting two boys who will miss their mother deeply and who must prepare themselves for the public ordeal of mourning their mother with the nation tomorrow. Rather, she is a mere extra in some media spectacular. She must conform to the demands of a world of homogenised lowest-common-denominator populism. If the people fail to understand what a Royal Standard symbolises, and when it should be flown, that ignorance must be paraded and all must bow to its prejudice. Such is the logic that leads to public hangings.

The Royal Family's silent suffering is alien to such a culture of noise. But there are times when silence is seemly and bereavement is one of those times. A family in mourning is comforted to receive letters of condolence; but it is not usually expected to reply to them until after the funeral.

There may be legitimate complaints about the Royal Family's failure to attune itself to the times. It may yet be that their private lives will come into public view to the point where the TV cameras intrude into much more - so that, as in the time of Louis XIV, the Monarch's subjects might be in the bedroom to see him rise, or where, as in a bygone Britain, the Home Secretary was expected to be present at the birth of the heir to the throne to ensure that no changeling was slipped from beneath the sheets.

But that is thankfully not now the case. In the meantime, the Royal Family should be allowed to grieve in the manner it feels most fit, and from which it derives most solace. And the rest of us should not be so arrogant as to impose upon them our own new-found exorbitant demonstrativeness.