Rthey are rituals. Sad men in coats. Waiting in a grey, well kept place while the BBC talks about the Queen. A day without cricket at the Oval proved an eerily appropriate place to wait on a Thursday afternoon.
For much of the time it felt like a pastiche of formal English, something John Lennon might have scrawled on a napkin in the back of a London cab and considered turning into a cheesy and satirical limerick. Hours and statements and black ties in the news. An obsessive lawn care. Queues, flags, beer and measured conversation (nice pins, said Rodney Hogg, for an old Sheila). Prince Charles arrived at Balmoral. Tea will be consumed early. And we will limit ourselves now to a special announcement.
I make no apologies for writing about the Queen here. After 96 years, a large part of that has been spent around the kind of venues where major sports are played, from the Austerity Games to the Matthews Final to a Uefa-sanctioned minute of formality in the Europa Conference League (that would do) the Thursday night.
Not that the Queen had any obvious love of sport. “I have often observed in women of her type a tendency to regard all sports as inferior forms of fox-hunting,” wrote Evelyn Waugh of Lady Circumference in Decline And Fall. Does that sound right? The queen loved horses. She seemed to really enjoy going to the cricket. One of her first non-ceremonial appearances was to meet Vijay Hazare’s touring Indian team at Lord’s in 1952. She met Don Bradman’s Australians at Balmoral and her sister stood very close to Keith Miller and looked delighted.
But generally the Queen’s regular sporting appearances have had an air of something to endure, on the spectrum between another garden party full of people who really want to be at a royal garden party, and an ill-fated Dane Bowers dubstep in a rain- silent anniversary concert.
I once accompanied the Queen on a visit to Wimbledon. The crowds cheered as she stalked the yards in a mint green suit and a stunning matching hat in the shape and size of an elegantly turned pot. The most remarkable part was the physical reality, still surprising in the flesh, of this total commitment at all times to being the queen, to being a cipher, a presence, an object.
The moment this really came into focus was on Center Court. From a distance the Queen seemed to be actually watching and possibly enjoying the tennis, this green hat fixed the rock in its upright position. The gift came when a line call was called into question and the entire court huddled to stare at the Hawkeye screen. Only one object remained motionless among these 20,000 heads, the green lime hat staring resolutely straight ahead, wonderfully still, royally indifferent to line calls, and surprisingly tender out there in all this air.
There are probably two things worth saying about all this. First, football should not have been canceled as a tribute, and not just because that seems too scary and sly. There are probably good business reasons, but the Queen wanted to get on with things. More precisely, people do not mourn and mourn like this now, obediently hidden in their living rooms. Public sentiment is restless and volatile. What exactly are they worried will happen in these spaces?
Certainly canceling sport is unlikely to do much for those of us who think monarchy is a silly thing, that we could probably just let it go (Charles III? Really? We have a Noble King now?) Much better for to use the occasion as a celebration, a wake for a 96-year-old monarch who had (I will say) a very decent knock.
Furthermore, no matter how opposed the absurd, sealed-off world of the monarchy may be to the ideal of sport for all, Queen Elizabeth II was also an element of the way we have arranged these things, a part of the architecture and sports myth. The queen is in all the photos. The Queen has lifted the FA Cup more than any other person, even Ashley Cole. He was there when Rob Key made his double ton against the West Indies. At the other end of the scale only the hardest of hearts could find nothing painful or at least interesting about Bobby Moore wiping his hands on the Wembley steps before shaking off those white gloves. This is a shade of what Englishness was, a presence in the shared sporting memory bank that will never be repeated, now gone for good.
Perhaps there is a kind of liberation in all this. It has been pointed out that the queen was also the visible figure of an unjust society. This is not an observation that really gets us anywhere. He literally put on a crown and said: be oppressed by my presence. All royal families are by definition vessels of prejudice. Their core being says: I am more worthy than you, my blood is more sacred.
But equally the world is like this everywhere in some form. If you think the Queen represents a state of entrenched wealth and favor, wait until you get a load of global capitalism and the 1%. Or look at the Premier League, where we have clubs owned, after all, by dictatorial monarchies with a degree of inherited power roughly equivalent to Britain in the early 1640s.
Fold time back on itself, restore the last absolute monarch and it seems very possible that Charles I owns Manchester United (he manages it terribly) plus a huge chunk of the treasury and all your personal liberties. Try rooting for the King in this version of the FA Cup Final or this winter’s World Cup. To get off our knees, to stop pulling the front, it all seems like a profoundly sensible idea. But this journey is long.
Is this shaping up to be a loving, subtle celebration of the Queen and sport? Probably not. It is worth adding that one reason people liked the Queen is that she did not choose to be Queen, but remained wholly committed to what she saw as her national duty, part of directing life in whatever form we asked. Who was, as sport tells us more plainly than anything else, an opaque, ever-present figure, that immutable hat in the stands.