When future historians come to retell the story of the pandemic, the image of the Queen sitting alone, masked and in mourning, will surely rank among the most poignant.
Whilst Prince Philip’s coffin was being loaded onto the back of his custom Land Rover, I was enjoying the sunshine, reading and pottering around the allotment. I recently picked up a new edition of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others for a project I’m working on and sat reading its opening pages, just as the news outlets began reiterating, over and over again, how tragic it was going to be to see the Queen sitting alone.
In those opening pages, Sontag reads Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, and her observations could not have felt more appropriate.
Woolf, asked by a man how “we” might stop war, challenges the assumed solidarity of this “we”. Men and women do not think about war in the same way, she argues. But when we look at photographs of the pain of others, of victims of war and violence, we all react the same. We all recoil and share that response, which rises up in us and leads us to make that same naive wish: “never again”.
But Sontag isn’t having it. As rousing as Woolf’s essay is, as a tandem work of pacifism and feminism, she doesn’t agree that everyone views photographs in the same way. In fact, that is a dangerous suggestion. The romantic notion that we all recoil synchronously from horror too often causes more harm than good. Because there’s nothing like a horrifying photograph to manufacture consent and enable more war, more atrocities, more injustice. So writes Sontag:
And photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.
War was not waged in Windsor in memory of Prince Philip, even if the military presence may have given that impression. There was no violence or horror on display, but we were treated, once again, to rolling coverage of royal pain. Columnists and commentators all emphasised how the Queen is now relatable, suffering like we all have; how Princes Harry and William were seen together for the first time in ages, newly bonded in their grief. The death of Philip brought the royal family together, and the rest of the nation along with it.
It didn’t. It won’t. The Queen will be in pain, and I do feel sorry for her. I feel sorry for anyone who has lost a loved on in this pandemic, whether from the coronavirus or otherwise. But no amount of royal pain is going to float the royalist illusion of a national consensus.