The plan goes by the codename “London Bridge.” When Queen Elizabeth II, age 93, dies, there will follow a ludicrously overblown series of rituals that seem to be set more in the Gormenghast extended universe than in 2019. Everything must be calculated for maximum solemnity and respect, relative to some arcane metric comprehensible only to people who have spent their whole lives being courtiers. There are special measures for if the Queen dies abroad; a distinctive “Scottish ritual” to be followed if she dies in Scotland. Buckingham Palace staff have memorized how the flags should be positioned relative to Her Majesty’s passing and funeral; at one point, a 41-gun salute will be fired. People with special ceremonial titles and positions will be involved, called things like the “Garter King of Arms”; the funeral will be overseen by the Earl Marshall, the 18th Duke of Norfolk, whose family have been planning royal funerals since 1672.
Despite the distinguished lineage of the organizers, there has never been a royal funeral quite like this — many of the ostensibly storied rituals have been accumulated over the course of the Queen’s lifetime. The sort of pageantry that now defines British state occasions dates back mostly to the time of Victoria and her son, Edward VII, the product of the royal family’s long drawn-out retreat from any of the actual business of government. As the journalist Walter Bagehot wrote in 1867: “the more democratic we get, the more we shall get to like state and show.” If the royal family don’t exist to actually exercise any power, they must quite logically exist to give the empty show of it.
Queen Elizabeth’s reign is almost exactly contemporaneous with Britain’s decline from a vast imperial power to a cringingly isolated island whose politics mostly involves angry middle-aged men telling their own children that if they don’t accept that things have always been bad and must constantly be made worse, well then they just don’t have any common bloody sense. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Queen’s passing will be marked by a ridiculously exaggerated and ceremonially unprecedented level of pomp, the sight of Britain desperately trying to ward off its own dwindling into international irrelevance. Within the next decade, it is likely that the Queen will at some point leave this planet, and it is also possible that Scotland will become independent of the rest of the UK. It’s even conceivable that we will see a united Ireland.
With the spectacle itself so centrally important, one of the most carefully planned aspects of the Queen’s death is the matter of how the public will find out. At first the news will be given to the governors general of various Commonwealth states; to ambassadors, and prime ministers. Then there will be a newsflash given to various news associations. “At the same instant, a footman in mourning clothes will emerge from a door at Buckingham Palace, cross the dull pink gravel and pin a black-edged notice to the gates. While he does this, the palace website will be transformed into a sombre, single page, showing the same text on a dark background.” A special cold war-era emergency radio system will be activated, to help news media prepare. News channels have well-rehearsed coverage, contingent on the manner of the Queen’s passing, ready to go. Radio stations will use their special mourning playlists.
“The royal standard will appear on the screen. The national anthem will play. You will remember where you were.”
But what if we don’t find out about the Queen’s death that way? What if we find out about it via a viral WhatsApp screengrab from a group chat with a penis avatar called “Old Times,” in which a guy called “Gibbo,” who seems to have something to do with the military, is explaining to his mates “Ricey,” “Burnsy,” “Cheeks,” “Josh,” and “Morty” that, according to a “guards reg WhatsApp group,” “Queens (sic) passed away this morning, heart attack, being announced 930 Am tomorrow,” and that all the guards will be expected to pack a bag containing both a “Washing kit” and a “Body washing kit” as well as enough socks and underwear “for 2 weeks”? Because that’s what seemed to happen on social media last night.
If the Queen has actually died I can’t believe I’ve found out— Ian Alexander 🏴 (@ianalex86) December 1, 2019
A) from twitter
B) from a screenshot of a WhatsApp group
C) said WhatsApp group has a knob as its profile picture 😂 pic.twitter.com/hsnML8f1xm
Queen death hoaxes have been a part of social media for a few years now. At the end of 2016, when a cold had just caused her to miss attending Christmas church services, the idea started trending that there was a #mediablackout on the news of the Queen’s death, but it quickly turned out to be a fake. People in Britain know that the Queen’s death would plunge the nation almost immediately into the worst sort of chaos — nothing would be allowed to work properly, lest the loudest and most bloviated bootlickers start accusing everyone of a lack of respect. And who knows how long this would go on for? This is why we suspect the authorities might plausibly withhold the news from us: it would simply be better for everyone, surely, if the Palace just quietly hushed up the news of Her Majesty’s passing? Got in an imposter to perform all her duties instead.
There is this special class of things, which the Gibbo hoax approaches, that on any rational consideration seem too ridiculous to be possible, and yet they either already are, or will inevitably become, factually true.
When the Gibbo screengrab initially started circulating, plenty were skeptical, but something about it just felt plausible. Everything about the idea that news of the Queen’s death would break in this way is completely ridiculous — but isn’t that just about right? “Gibbo” and “Ricey” spoke quite convincingly like soldiers; the dick pic as the avatar marked the group out as pure “lad’s banter,” as did the apparent presence of non-speaking characters with names like “Cheeks.”
Why do all straight men always have a group of friends called like : Baggsy, Trousers, Stupid Phil, and Egg— Nicola Coughlan (@nicolacoughlan) August 16, 2019
Meanwhile, the fact that the country would now be plunged into a period of mourning during an era-defining election, in which the opposition Labour party, led by the quite openly republican (the anti-monarchy type of republican, that is, not the American, anti-humanity kind) Jeremy Corbyn, had just been beginning to gain a faint bit of traction against the farcical death-cult that is the ruling Conservative party, an election that incidentally, as far as I understand things, there is no constitutional mechanism to stop, seemed... well, just like the type of thing that would happen, wouldn’t it? In 2019. When everyone is exhausted, and everything just happens... so much.
There is this special class of things — which the Gibbo hoax approaches — that seem too ridiculous to be possible, and yet they either already are, or will inevitably become, factually true. “Donald Trump is the president of the United States” is one of those things. “Joe Biden sucking his wife’s hand on stage hours after launching the ‘No Malarkey’ tour” is probably another — yes the sight of the thing is brain-melting strange, but of course it happened. We can see the future of Joe Biden sucking his wife’s fingers on stage in the old footage of former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott eating an onion as if ’twere an apple.
At a certain point — I couldn’t tell you exactly when it was, and the answer may be different for each of us — reality just sort of started melting, and all these things started accumulating. The dick pic royal death announcement would have simply been confirmation of the basic surreality of the real. Probably so would one right-wing commentator’s fantasy, of Gibbo, Ricey, and tens of thousands of shitposters being tried and executed for treason.
Are people falsely claiming the Queen is dead? Isn't that High Treason? Do you all assume your judges will have a sense of humour?— Andrew Lilico (@andrew_lilico) December 1, 2019
Perhaps then the solemnity of things like royal rituals are not solely an attempt to ward off the nation’s gradual decline. Perhaps these things stand as attempts to discipline reality: To force it to hold some sort of rationally comprehensible shape.
But this is the discipline of a substitute teacher, struggling to maintain their authority over an unruly class, that simply has no reason to respect them. If what looks, at present, like rationality, is struggling to comprehend the real, then we’re going to need a different rationality. The present ridiculousness has real, serious effects; real seriousness in our thinking can only be won, if we are willing to look the ridiculousness in the eye.
At some point, over the course of the next decade or just a little more, the Queen will die, and so a little more of the old reality will have been eroded away. By then, who knows, the UK itself may quite plausibly no longer exist. One day, and it may not be too far away, Gibbo will have his revenge on the Queen.