When British people say ‘we do pageantry like nobody else’, they are indirectly admitting that we depend disproportionately upon the past to give meaning to the present.
It may have been the grey of the London sky and the tender green of new leaves on plane trees along the Mall that lent to the coronation spectacle a sense of melancholy recessional rather than the parade of pomp and power it sought to project. When British people say ‘we do pageantry like nobody else’, they are indirectly admitting that we depend disproportionately upon the past to give meaning to the present. When the re-enactment of ancient custom takes on such importance, this implies some absence or uncertainty in contemporary life.
When cultures are in the ascendant, dominant and expanding, they are impressive and intimidating, particularly since they find it impossible not to express their supremacy over others by conquest or colonisation; but when they are in retreat and have lost their hold over the imagination of the people, they become poignant and show a vulnerability that had never appeared at the height of their power. It was this that inflected the extravaganza of the coronation; created a spectacle in full consciousness that the display of splendour does not belong to any conceivable future.
This is something the British ought to know well since we spent the long imperial moment destroying or tearing down the cultures of others, their sacred rites, practices and traditions. With missionary fervour and unequalled military power, we scythed our way through ‘lesser’ civilisations, scorned their heathenish beliefs, extirpated their superstitious rituals and put an end to their barbaric customs, bringing, in their stead, what we saw as civilisation, truth and freedom.
The time has, perhaps, come for us to undergo a similar experience, although no one has invaded our sacred groves and forests, trampled our tabernacles or desecrated our gods…..