The Union Jack

Like most of the country, perhaps most of the world, I watched much of the coverage of Elizabeth II’s obsequies. It has to be said that we do this kind of pageantry, pomp and ceremony awfully well in this country. The music was well chosen and magnificent. Pipes and drums by the hundred. I have to confess a weakness for the skirl of the bagpipes, despite having not one drop of Scottish blood in my make up.

One can talk, and Hugh Edwards the BBC anchorman, did at some length of the symbolism of every last detail of the ceremony, down to the very flowerbeds from which the flowers for the wreath were chosen – three palaces no less! Nothing of the quick trip to the local garden centre here.

Over the last few decades the Union Jack has, to my mind, taken on along with the cross of St George, a darker edge, being so often misappropriated by right-wing groups and by sporting hooligans. Perhaps I’m oversensitive but these co-opted uses and associations of the Union Jack have made me uncomfortable. The flag was seen often as an aggressive image, inviting confrontation. Over the last few decades, this has been a gradual erosion of the more noble associations of the flag.

I think that changed yesterday. I think the Union Jack once more became a symbol of unification. The images of skinheads, hooligans and the worst kind of football tribalism were, with one great arc of pageantry, swept aside. The Union Jack became once more a proud symbol of the unification of kingdoms. Nothing could demonstrate better to the thug element how unwelcome they were. The Union Jack, once again, is a symbol of the best of us, the better angels of our nature. It is, once more flag I would feel comfortable flying.

The Queen has been perhaps our country’s best export, our best ambassador. With simple manners and a notion of service that few brought up in post-millennial Britain would understand, she has put forward the best face possible of the UK.

Reading the above you would probably conclude that I was an out and out royalist, prepared to throw down my life for my country. You would be wrong. If anything, my views are marginally in the direction of republican inasmuch as I reflect on these matters at all. But symbols are important as yesterday showed in abundance. In the space of nine hours, the union Jack once more became the symbol of the best of our country and not the worst. We have taken the flag away from the hooligans and thugs. It represents us once more, not them. Thank you your Majesty, thank you.

A beloved monarch

It was clear by early afternoon that this was not a simple health scare. The gathering at Balmoral of her children was clear indication that this was the final act of her Majesty’s life. Details were sketchy, as perhaps they should be, but ‘medical supervision’ is a bleak euphemism for pain relief and dignified management once the outcome is clear.

The formal announcement later in the afternoon was sombre, measured and simple. Her Majesty was as dignified in death as she was in life.

I find it difficult to express my feelings clearly. Perhaps I am, like much of the nation, experiencing my own personal recapitulation of bereavement. Certainly, I find myself reflecting on the death of my own mother and father and my feelings around that. And, at the end of the day, the Royal family are still a family first and foremost. Stiff upper lip extends only just so far.

Much has been said of her longevity, dignity, honesty and perpetuation of what might now be considered old-fashioned values. There is little I can add to what will undoubtedly be a torrent of analysis over the coming days and weeks. Wherever one’s political leanings lie, whether left or right, red or blue, they are today irrelevant. Whether monarchist or republican, let’s seek unity not division .

The clocks have stopped on one of the most remarkable reigns in history. But they have also brought to an end the life of a much loved mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

The family needs time to grieve. And grieving rarely follows a timetable.

Across the river and into the trees

I have been a lucky man. Life has, thus far, been kind. Those may seem absurd sentences for someone who has had Parkinson’s for 16 years, type II diabetes and even a heart condition thrown in for good measure. A year ago I had neurosurgery to implant electrodes that would control my shaking hands and restless feet. Hardly the medical history of a lucky man you might think.

You would be wrong.

I often feel a fraud. I know many with Parkinson’s, crippled by the vicious tarantella of dyskinesias and the agony of dystonia. I know many whose nights are full of terrors, stalked by demons, prey to wild beasts. Or riding that ragged edge between sleep and dreams toward the gates of delirium. I know diabetics, models of compliance, entering their later years as amputees, their digits, one by one plucked from them by neuropathies, vascular insufficiencies too numerous to mention, and the blackening of sores and gangrene.

Were these afflictions to afflict me, I would doubtless rail against the injustice, the savagery and relentless onslaught of the condition. But instead the Almighty, by whatever pronouns you know him/her, has seen fit to give me more time to reflect.

Before L-dopa, life expectancy with Parkinson’s was six years from diagnosis. That would take me to 2012. I would not have seen my eldest musician daughter graduate from university let alone my younger children. No paediatric intensive care nurse. No skilled paramedic. I would have missed all of it, serving only as food for worms. And even within a life expectancy of six years, they would have been pretty grim. A slow waltz into darkness.

Worst of all, I would have missed the last series of Game of Thrones.

Primo Levi, in “The Drowned and the Saved” touched upon it in the apparently arbitrary murders in the WW2 concentration camps. The suicide rates amongst survivors of the death camps reflected their inability to reconcile their own survival against the extermination of many other similar individuals. This paradox drove many (the author included in all likelihood) to take their own lives, unable to understand their salvation in the context of the greater drowning.

Yet others, better patients than I, can write with authority about the screaming agonies of dystonia, the tarantella dance of dyskinesia and the many invisible symptoms of this sordid syndrome. Not me. I may preach from the same pulpit but my words if not my authority are carried away on the breeze.

I am not alone. I know of others who whether vocally or sotto voce, feel equally uncomfortable. Often in the aftermath of successful DBS, our bodies react to this liberation by making us feel guilty about advocacy. I can (but won’t) name friends who feel equally uncomfortable. So how do you speak to the “drowning” from the comparative security of the lifeboat.

If one of the central pillars of advocacy is the acknowledgement of experience, then we are muted. Yet I would argue that it is that transition from drowned to saved that is, in itself, informative.

So brothers and sisters, perhaps you should be the judge of this. Is my voice no longer relevant or meaningful. Do we press on in the hope of regaining our authority or do we, like Stonewall Jackson recognised the need to collect our thoughts once more and “cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees”.