This strange Limbo which we currently inhabit reminds me of the long haul flight from Glasgow to London Heathrow to Changi Singapore, thence to Auckland New Zealand. It is one long queue, interspersed by periods of enforced captivity and inactivity. You check in, go through security, browse the book shelves and the duty free, find a lounge, await the call, board, sit interminably at the gate and then at the holding point, and finally get airborne. Then you land again and negotiate the endless corridors of the terminals, with that mild anxiety that you might miss the connection. Then you repeat the whole sequence, only more elaborately. Baggage checked straight through, fingers crossed. At security, watch, phone, wallet, loose change, laptop, belt, shoes, all deposited for X-ray scrutiny in a battered tray on the conveyer belt. Another book shop, more duty free. Another lounge. The call to board. Another interminable wait on the taxiways. You are exhausted and the journey has barely begun.
But now, at long last, the passengers and their baggage have been secured on board, latecomers have been ensconced with suitably red faces, and the doors have been closed and cross-checked. The captain has addressed us in clipped and barely audible tones, and the first officer has radioed the tower.
“Speedbird 747 push back.”
An excruciatingly slow reverse, and a protracted taxi round the periphery of the airport.
“Speedbird 747 hold.”
We sit at the holding point, by the threshold.
“Speedbird 747 clear for take-off.”
How best to pass thirteen hours in the encapsulated quarantine of a mobile cigar tube? You make some sort of contact with your neighbour. Surely it is a failure if you do not. Then there’s a blessed cocktail, and dinner. You browse the airline mags. You tune into whatever is on the radio or the telly. Find the classical music station, find a good movie, read the first few pages of the book you bought at the airport. At some stage, you take a walk up and down the aisles and visit the loo. If it’s daylight, you glance out of the window and marry up what you see with the little aeroplane crawling across the map. But you are in suspended animation, of a state of mind quite incapable of doing anything substantive.
And with any luck, you sleep.
All of a sudden, you are summoned to breakfast. We have commenced our descent into Singapore. All these hours of enforced inactivity and now we are compelled to bolt breakfast so the stewards can clear up before fastening lap-straps.
Changi. An enormous terminal. You are stopping over, so now you have to retrieve your luggage, negotiate another series of long corridors, customs, immigration, and emerge into the steamy night. You take a taxi, and catch up on local gossip, en route to the Sheraton Towers, 39 Scott Road. The roads, and the floral displays on the overpasses are, as ever, impeccably manicured.
Check in at the Sheraton. Pause for a G & T at the bar, where an incredibly talented pianist is playing jazz in rich harmony, after the fashion of Bill Evans. To dine or not to dine? You have been snacking for the past 24 hours, and lost all sense of the appropriateness of mealtimes. You’re not even sure if you ought to sleep. And yet it is night time. In your room, the telly is on, welcoming you personally. Behind the message, a fish is meandering about a tank, goggling inanely.
You awake in the night. You have no idea where you are, when you are, or even who you are.
Last week the King evidently experienced this same dislocation of time. Appending the royal signature to another municipal tome, he paused and muttered, “Is it the twelfth?”
“The thirteenth, sir.”
The Queen Consort whispered, “You wrote the twelfth last time.”
Then the fountain pen exploded and there was a momentary flash of temper.
The Queen Consort, evidently well used to such petulant displays, went into damage control mode, took his place and, apparently, forged his signature. I certainly didn’t think badly of the King for momentarily losing it. Most of us, when we lose a parent, are given a week’s compassionate leave. He has probably put in the hardest working week of his life. Besides, temper is hereditary. George VI, at least according to the movie The King’s Speech, could explode. And I don’t think the Duke of Edinburgh suffered fools gladly. The following day, on the Vine Show, Jeremy asked us, “Have you ever had leaky pen trouble? Call us on 0800…” And he consulted an expert in fountain pen technology. Apparently it’s all to do with changes in the room’s atmospheric temperatures and pressures. In the endless scrutiny of the royal activities of the week, no stone has been left unturned.
Thus it is with this protracted period of mourning. There is nothing else to do. It is as if we have entered a hermetically sealed airship which must negotiate its way across this elaborately orchestrated and choreographed masque. There is nothing else to be done other than to observe the world turn as we gradually make our way to the other side.
The live stream from Westminster Hall, and the fish in the aquarium in the Singapore hotel bedroom, are one and the same. Jetlagged, you stare at the screen, hypnotised. I kept thinking I recognised faces in the Westminster queue. Some of the obsequies were extravagant, others rather perfunctory; mostly they were dignified in their solemnity. The silence was impressive. No mobile phones! I watched the endless procession with the distracted detachment of somebody who has completely lost track of time and space.
Another morning, another taxi, another queue, and all the rituals of checking-in. Once more we’re off! And this time, a surge of the heart. The next time you step out of this ship, you will walk into Aotearoa.
Jacinda Ardern, the NZ PM, was on the Laura Kuenssberg show. With extraordinary finesse, she managed to adulate the late Queen, and the current King, while anticipating that New Zealand would, within her lifetime, become a republic. Here, people have been arrested for voicing republican sentiments during a time of mourning. The issue was raised in Friday/Saturday’s Any Questions, so admirably chaired by Victoria Derbyshire, who has the grace not to interrupt. Two questions: should people be allowed to disrupt a period of mourning with protest? …and, will the Queen’s passing strengthen or weaken the United Kingdom? Somebody heckled, in a voice remarkably loud and clear:
Brexit broke Britain!
There was a shocked silence. Ms Derbyshire said, “Moving on…” and passed to the next question.
Now it is 9.30 am on Monday morning, and we’re still aboard, somewhere over Australia’s hot red centre. Back in Blighty, the great and the good have descended upon London. Shortly, with the exception of President Biden who can retain his motorcade, all the presidents and prime ministers will take the bus to Westminster. What a security nightmare. Ms Kuenssberg asked Ms Ardern about the bus. Ms Ardern couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about it. Kiwis are very down-to-earth. Ms Kuenssberg concluded the interview. “Jacinda Ardern, thank you very much.”
“You take care now.”