Uneasy Lies the Head…

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.  So mused Henry IV in William Shakespeare’s eponymous play, after he had seized the throne from Richard II.  Being ruler of an Empire had proven more wearisome than he had reckoned.

I thought of his quandary upon hearing the news that Prince Charles has succeeded his deceased mother, Queen Elizabeth II, to the British throne, and will henceforth be known as His Majesty Charles the Third, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

That is a mouthful, and may prove to be more than he can chew.

For the first nine years of my life, I pledged allegiance to a King every morning in school—and to the flag, the Empire, and my country—but I had scant appreciation of what those actually were.  To me, the King was a framed portrait of a uniformed man hanging on the wall of my classroom; the flag was an attractive array of red, white, and blue crosses, draped below the portrait; the Empire was made up of the pink areas on a Mercator projection wall-map prominently displayed nearby; and my country, Canada, was for a long time defined by the few square city-blocks I could traverse on my tricycle before being corralled by a frantic mother.  But it was pink!

Indeed, as we were taught, the sun never set on the British Empire.  We sang the national anthem every day with great gusto: God save our gracious King, Long live our noble King, God save the King… 

It took a while for us to master the switch to God save our gracious Queen… upon the death of George VI in 1952 And eventually, we stopped singing the song at all, in favour of our own national anthem, O Canada, officially adopted in 1980—long after I had left my schoolboy days behind.

It never occurred to me back then that those glorious pink areas on the map were the result of rampant, colonial conquest of the original inhabitants of those lands.  And in fairness, how could I have known?  I was raised to believe in right vs. wrong, truth vs. falsity, morality vs. depravity, religiosity vs. atheism, generosity vs. selfishness, civility vs. rudeness, the rule of law applied to all equally vs. anarchy—all admirable virtues in and of themselves, but all defined, of course, by the privileged White authority represented by the Crown.  The triumphant.

…Send him victorious, Happy and glorious…

I was brought up in the bosom of the Anglican Church, a colonial version of the Church of England, and taught to believe that sin was inevitable, repentance essential, and forgiveness attainable.  And those, too, I came to understand, were defined from on high.  Sin was anything the clergy might from time to time, in their great, Christian wisdom, determine it to be; repentance was adjudged sincere or not by their strict standards; and forgiveness was beneficently granted by the Lord through them—or not, as they deemed appropriate—often requiring mandatory acts of atonement.

To be sure, I enjoyed a privileged childhood, for which I am grateful.  But my upbringing rendered me an absolutist well into my adult years, fully invested in the values and tenets I had been taught.  That I am today something of a relativist may, I suppose, be attributed to my advancing years and a questing mind, more than to any great, moral awakening.

It seems to me now that, although might should never make right, the definition of right vs. wrong is still determined by those who can enforce their interpretation.  Truth vs. falsity is defined and re-defined by those who are winning the culture-wars at any particular moment.  Ernest Hemingway wrote a memoir, published posthumously, the title of which—A Moveable Feast—describes perfectly the relativism of the definitions of virtues we still profess to believe.

What constitutes selfishness today, as opposed to self-interest?  And who gets to decide?  What is regarded as moral vs. depraved behaviour?  And by whom?  Where is the boundary between civility toward one another vs. rudeness and hate?  And who sets that boundary?

Is adherence to a set of liturgy-bound, religious beliefs more legitimate than a self-imposed regimen of acceptable, generous-of-spirit behaviour?  And who is to decide if the adherents of either viewpoint are upholding and demonstrating their professed beliefs, as opposed to merely paying lip-service.  Hypocrisy is never pretty.  

In the diverse, multicultural world in which we live, there are many who would answer those questions. And there are many more, alas, who will not listen to any but their own.

A major advantage of being an absolutist is that one need never question one’s own motives or actions.  For the acquiescent, it is enough to act within the boundaries of the commonly-accepted virtues proscribed from on high, or profess to be doing so.  For the scofflaws, it suffices to act in opposition to that, based upon their own set of contradictory values.  Each side sees itself as right, the other wrong.  And they are absolutely certain of their positions.

Relativists, on the other hand, are forever doomed to uncertainty, questioning the validity, the relevance, the wisdom of their beliefs and actions, no matter what they do.  Theirs is the age-old question—why?

King Charles III strikes me from afar as one who, though bound by centuries of absolutist tradition and ritual, will prove to be something of a relativist, a King who will question many of those very institutions and sacraments surrounding him, with a view to modifying them.  I want to believe he realizes that, even as the monarchy is steeped in pomp and circumstance, it cannot stand still.  There is no such thing as stasis.  Just as our world is ever evolving, so, too, must its institutions.

Charles now wears the crown I pledged allegiance to on the head of his grandfather during my long-ago school-days, and I pray it will not lie uneasy upon him.  I hope it will inspire him to critically examine his reign relative to the world around him, to lead his monarchy to a strengthening of ties with his subjects, and toward reconciliation with those whom the Empire has harmed.

…Long to reign over us, God save the King.

Firecracker Day!

Today is Victoria Day in Canada, otherwise known to one and all as Firecracker Day. The post below was first published a year ago, in May 2020.

The twenty-fourth of May is the King’s birthday,

If you don’t give us a holiday, we’ll all run away…

Those were the opening lines of a schoolyard rhyme we kids would sing joyously as the long holiday-weekend drew near.

…We’ll break all the rules and tear down the schools,

And call all the teachers silly old fools!

The King, of course, was George VI—by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith.  His picture adorned the walls of every classroom, and every morning my classmates and I joined voices in mostly off-key renditions of God Save the King, the Canadian national anthem way back then.

For some years, we also recited a pledge of allegiance to the Union Flag, known to us as the Union Jack, then still the flag of Canada—I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the empire for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  Or something like that.

None of us really knew the significance of any of it, of course—the King, the anthem, or the flag.  But we dutifully manifested our loyalty and obeisance, proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Strangely enough, although we didn’t know it, the twenty-fourth of May wasn’t really the King’s birthday at all.  Rather, it was the day named to honour the birthday of his auspicious great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, born 24 May 1819, who reigned for more than sixty-three years (a record currently being extended by her great-great-granddaughter, King George’s daughter, Elizabeth II).  As such, it was known officially as Victoria Day.

Adding to the strangeness, the need to ensure a holiday-Monday in years when the twenty-fourth of the month fell on another day of the week meant that we often celebrated the occasion on a different date, usually the Monday preceding the actual twenty-fourth.

To us kids, however, none of that mattered.  For us, it was always just Firecracker Day!

Because we could hardly wait for darkness to descend on the big day, that Monday would seem like the longest day of the year.  In my neighbourhood, five or six families would pool what were often meagre resources to purchase a package of fireworks.  We’d gather in someone’s backyard, the kids and mothers safely removed from the launch area, the fathers bustling about as if they knew what they were doing.

The fireworks were nothing like the fantastical pyrotechnic displays we have become used to over the past few years, of course.  These were much more modest.  The usual format would see a few low-rising pinwheels set off at the beginning, some in vivid colours that drew oohs! and aahs! from everyone assembled, our faces craned skyward.  They made sounds like phoomph! and peeshhh! as their glowing embers drifted up and up, and then inevitably down as they died.

boy-watching-fireworks-kimberly-hosey

The second group included firecrackers shooting higher into the night sky, exploding with more force and noise—takatakatakataka! and bang-bang-bang!  Blossoms and plumes, the white ones so bright they would make us squint, would rain down, miraculously extinguished before they ever reached the ground.  I can still hear the squeals and shouts of delight and awe from everyone, and see their faces lit up by excitement—even the fathers, normally so macho and reserved.

The last batch would be the ones we all had been waiting for, the boomers and cannons that seemed to climb impossibly high before exploding in huge, fiery blooms and streamers.  Ka-whumph!  Ka-ba-blammm!  Boom-boom-boom!  Even when we knew what was coming, we’d be startled by each successive percussion, plugging our ears, almost feeling the sound pounding physically into us.

The very best one was always saved ‘til the end, and one of the fathers would make sure that everyone knew this was it.  It felt like no one was breathing as he bent over, ignition stick in hand, touched the fuse, then leapt back out of the way.

Whooooshshsh!  The powerful rocket would burst from the ground, trailing fire and smoke, the mightiest of any we had seen.  The plume from its tail would flame out, we’d wait, we’d wait…and then KABOOM-KABOOM-KABOOM!  The multi-coloured contrails would zoom higher and higher, arching and spreading wider than any before, like a tablecloth being floated high overhead, before settling down upon us.

Most of the time, as I recall, we were struck dumb by the spectacle.

sparklers2

At the end of the evening, every kid would get a sparkler, a long wand with which, once it was ignited, we could write our names in fiery letters in the dark (those of us who could write, anyway).  And then the night was over, a night that always seemed incredibly short after such a long day of waiting.

It’s been sixty years and more since last I was part of such a celebration, and I won’t be out in anyone’s backyard on Firecracker Day this year, either.  But I’ll almost surely enjoy a quaff or two, and will probably raise a toast to the Crown.

For old time’s sake, I may even sing a chorus of God Save the King.

But quietly, for those days of my youth are gone forever.

Firecracker Day!

The twenty-fourth of May is the King’s birthday,

If you don’t give us a holiday, we’ll all run away…

Those were the opening lines of a schoolyard rhyme we kids would sing joyously as the long holiday-weekend drew near.

…We’ll break all the rules and tear down the schools,

And call all the teachers silly old fools!

The King, of course, was George VI—by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith.  His picture adorned the walls of every classroom, and every morning my classmates and I joined voices in mostly off-key renditions of God Save the King, the Canadian national anthem way back then.

For some years, we also recited a pledge of allegiance to the Union Flag, known to us as the Union Jack, then still the flag of Canada—I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the empire for which it stands; one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  Or something like that.

None of us really knew the significance of any of it, of course—the King, the anthem, or the flag.  But we dutifully manifested our loyalty and obeisance, proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Strangely enough, although we didn’t know it, the twenty-fourth of May wasn’t really the King’s birthday at all.  Rather, it was the day named to honour the birthday of his auspicious great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, born 24 May 1819, who reigned for more than sixty-three years (a record currently being extended by her great-great-granddaughter, King George’s daughter, Elizabeth II).  As such, it was known officially as Victoria Day.

Adding to the strangeness, the need to ensure a holiday-Monday in years when the twenty-fourth of the month fell on another day of the week meant that we often celebrated the occasion on a different date, usually the Monday preceding the actual twenty-fourth.

To us kids, however, none of that mattered.  For us, it was always just Firecracker Day!

Because we could hardly wait for darkness to descend on the big day, that Monday would seem like the longest day of the year.  In my neighbourhood, five or six families would pool what were often meagre resources to purchase a package of fireworks.  We’d gather in someone’s backyard, the kids and mothers safely removed from the launch area, the fathers bustling about as if they knew what they were doing.

The fireworks were nothing like the fantastical pyrotechnic displays we have become used to over the past few years, of course.  These were much more modest.  The usual format would see a few low-rising pinwheels set off at the beginning, some in vivid colours that drew oohs! and aahs! from everyone assembled, our faces craned skyward.  They made sounds like phoomph! and peeshhh! as their glowing embers drifted up and up, and then inevitably down as they died.

boy-watching-fireworks-kimberly-hosey

The second group included firecrackers shooting higher into the night sky, exploding with more force and noise—takatakatakataka! and bang-bang-bang!  Blossoms and plumes, the white ones so bright they would make us squint, would rain down, miraculously extinguished before they ever reached the ground.  I can still hear the squeals and shouts of delight and awe from everyone, and see their faces lit up by excitement—even the fathers, normally so macho and reserved.

The last batch would be the ones we all had been waiting for, the boomers and cannons that seemed to climb impossibly high before exploding in huge, fiery blooms and streamers.  Ka-whumph!  Ka-ba-blammm!  Boom-boom-boom!  Even when we knew what was coming, we’d be startled by each successive percussion, plugging our ears, almost feeling the sound pounding physically into us.

The very best one was always saved ‘til the end, and one of the fathers would make sure that everyone knew this was it.  It felt like no one was breathing as he bent over, ignition stick in hand, touched the fuse, then leapt back out of the way.

Whooooshshsh!  The powerful rocket would burst from the ground, trailing fire and smoke, the mightiest of any we had seen.  The plume from its tail would flame out, we’d wait, we’d wait…and then KABOOM-KABOOM-KABOOM!  The multi-coloured contrails would zoom higher and higher, arching and spreading wider than any before, like a tablecloth being floated high overhead, before settling down upon us.

Most of the time, as I recall, we were struck dumb by the spectacle.

sparklers2

At the end of the evening, every kid would get a sparkler, a long wand with which, once it was ignited, we could write our names in fiery letters in the dark (those of us who could write, anyway).  And then the night was over, a night that always seemed incredibly short after such a long day of waiting.

It’s been sixty years and more since last I was part of such a celebration, and I won’t be out in anyone’s backyard on Firecracker Day this year, either.  But I’ll almost surely enjoy a quaff or two, and will probably raise a toast to the Crown.

For old time’s sake, I may even sing a chorus of God Save the King.

But quietly, for those days of my youth are gone forever.