The Elizabeth Line
DIARY ENTRY #1
London’s newest underground railway line has been in the planning since the 1940s.
Feverish Victorian speculation led transport investors to build loads of new track, unburdened by considerations of passenger needs, or how ‘joined up’ the result might be. By the time Hitler was mustering his brownshirts in Germany, London was a scattergun of rail causeways and burrowed holes, which made little sense and less money. The speculators had lost their shirts, and, to add inconvenience to insolvency, had upped and died.
In 1948, the newly inaugurated London Transport Executive communicated two chief tasks: to accelerate new transport infrastructure delayed by war, and to bring coherence to the city’s broken-spaghetti rail network. The Executive’s vision took a long time to come into reality, the last big cobble of which was locked in place by the opening of the Elizabeth Line, in May 2022.
Big ideas take their time.
Your correspondent is, by happy coincidence, in the city of London as he writes. It is always nice to be back among the Old Girl’s skirts. London has, as Dr Johnson detected, all that life can afford. This thought brought him to a timeless dictum: If you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.
In the grey-black wetness of this September evening, the human remains of Elizabeth Regina pass through the city.
The rain and street lights converge to make the television pictures sparkle and shimmer. Perched in front of the telly with sushi in hand, my inner dialogue debates whether this is fact, or fiction. The nigiri and sashimi are shop-bought. One needs to be staying at Claridge’s to get a mere cheesy toast sent to a London hotel room.
The cortège proceeds past Piccadilly, where the Queen grew up, with little expectation of wearing a crown. Finally, it slowly rounds an umbrella-festooned Victoria Memorial, facing the famous balcony of Buckingham Palace, and enters the gates. The awaiting people ripple with muted applause. Now and then, a carnation is half-heartedly launched in the direction of the hearse, which is flaring in illumination from within, all the better to view its coffin cargo.
One needs to be seen to be believed, she had famously said.
Her reign was a slow slide into abject transparency, where she and her family had become laboratory specimens under a glaring cultural microscope. Indeed, many of the mourners now mediate their experience through their smartphones, held aloft. The derivative act of ‘capturing history’ is given more value than actually bearing witness.
Not a single Diana-esque bloom hits its moving target. And it is hardly by chance. Mourners pay homage in the manner schooled by the mourned.
DIARY ENTRY #2
I had stepped into a battery-operated black cab on arrival at Heathrow. There was only one subject on the menu.
I’m not a royalist, my driver said, with the air of a man who had rehearsed his position. But I am a Queenist. You have to respect how she lived.
I nodded in agreement, enquiring if London felt different to him during these recent days.
There’s more people, but it’s quieter, he said, evoking a city wrapped up in its own thoughts. We fell into our own comfortable silence, sustained by the battery’s low hum.
I had half-baked thoughts of going to a West End show on my one evening free. But the bleakness of the weather and the events underway had affected my mood. Neither rhymed with Hamilton.
Merriment in general was having a lean time of it.
In Shepherd’s Bush, a massive Fun Fair pitched on the green, with ancillary trucks and caravans, was temporarily closed and boarded up. The explanatory signage affixed by Irvins, purveyors of Fun, read a little oddly to me.
‘We’re deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Her Majesty…’.
‘Hear’ of her passing? Hear, as if it’s a rumour, unconfirmed?
Next stop, full blown conspiracy. I began to wonder if the Queen might one day be spotted in Graceland – the latest recruit to the Carnival Of Monarchs Undead, now touring in Memphis.
DIARY ENTRY #3
This morning, I am returning to Dublin. Being without rush, I have afforded myself the luxury of using London’s latest public transport attraction.
Stepping on and off the Elizabeth Line is a delight. It’s a smooth, polished, lavender version of the familiar London transport experience and aesthetic, neatly knitting together those spaghetti rail lines of previous generations. It is pleasant, also, to arrive to Heathrow without the familiar slap and tickle of the Piccadilly Line, which is a rollercoaster masquerading as a train.
As I approach Terminal 2, I am reminded, through vast hoardings overhead, that this is The Queen’s Terminal.
Inside, a now-familiar locution adorns screens once reserved for advertising. It confirms, again and again, what “all of us at Heathrow are saddened to hear…”.
The build-up of organisational mourning vexes me somewhat, and I remember that last night in Waitrose, purveyor of passable sushi, even my checkout screen bemoaned the passing of the Queen’s ‘long, happy and glorious reign’.
Perhaps the point of my vexation is a dissonance – between mourning stimulus, and mourning response. Most people continue to go about their business, buy their dinners, step on trains… I have failed to witness the quiet which my taxi driver observed and related to me. Hamilton had three individual tickets available for yesterday evening; scattered marginalia across an otherwise sold-out theatre.
I, of course, do not doubt the affection in which the Queen was held; but how high is the volume control of loss?
How much of the shock and sadness is constructed, and how much authentic? To the extent love is present, to what or whom is it directed – monarchy or this monarch? If the British Monarchy is important to British identity, how important is it to Britons?
I feel sure the late Queen has long pursued such enquiries. People think in 1-year horizons, Transport Executives in 50-year tranches, Monarchy in centuries.
Her reign has witnessed a shattering of majestic mystery, an obsession with personal foibles, and a shift in the locus of respect. This media era has made the story about her, not her throne; the love is directed towards soul, not symbol.
Every line has its challenge, be it rail or royal.
Charles, William and George are stacked, like planes over Heathrow, ready to take up the sceptre.
A blueprint of change is surely pre-agreed – designed to knit the modern monarch to its whimsical people of immutable values.
This blueprint will need a steady hand, and change will fall slowly. Carefully. Because the Crown is as strong as its weakest king.