Queen Elizabeth II Coronation, 30th May 1953. (Photo by NCJ - Kemsley/NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

Ghosts of British life

Remembering a forgotten past

Artillery Row

One summer, when I was a student, I worked at the Tower of London for a few weeks. The work itself was pretty soul destroying, but in my breaks I could wander anywhere I wanted within the Tower’s precincts. Chatting to Beefeaters was a particular highlight; they might share hair-raising stories about their times in active service, and they occasionally invited you into one of their little almshouses next to the Tower for a cup of tea and a biscuit. I was fascinated by the Prayer Book services in the Tower’s chapel, where the Beefeaters made up most of the congregation. I continued to visit this chapel on Remembrance Day each November for a few years afterwards. 

Around the same time I was reading about all sorts of things which I would now condemn. I suppose they’re best described as “Western Esotericism” — a ragbag collection of subterranean spiritualities which was particularly popular in literary circles in the late 19th century, although it claims a lineage “from time immemorial” — drawing on ancient paganism, the Greek and Roman pantheons, mystical Christianity, renaissance astrology and so on, ad infinitum

It was clearly a very ancient ritual, full of the weird symbolism I’d been reading about

In one of my lunchtime walks around the Tower, I entered an odd antechamber with a TV set on a table which always and only played a VHS of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. I had no memory of ever watching footage of this ceremony before then. It was a dark room, and the luminescence of the flickering black and white scene gave the atmosphere a distinctly ethereal quality. I came back to the room regularly over those weeks, seeing different portions of the service each time. Sometimes tourists bustled in and out of that room, confused about where they were going, looking at maps to find their way to see the Crown Jewels. They sometimes looked unsettled when they noticed me leaning against the wall opposite the TV: a lingering presence in the half-light, the whites of my eyes flickering suddenly into view when lit by the screen. 

The “extra-curricular” reading I was doing that summer meant that, to my surprise, the coronation service was particularly interesting. It was clearly a very ancient ritual which was full of the weird symbolism I’d been reading about. The sceptre and orb, the shrouded anointing, the ancient Stone of Destiny were the sorts of things that meant this most mainstream historical event was unexpectedly steeped in things that I thought belonged to a secret tradition, held in the hands of chosen initiates, or at least the rarefied circles of fin de siècle London.

Amongst such initiates, there were ways to explain why the coronation service would transfix a young Englishman. Here were ancient archetypes of the collective unconscious being acted out. Here was the karmic intertwining of my own destiny with that of these strange Islands of Britain being brought before consciousness. Here was the solemn power of the unseen forces that have guided these peoples since before the druids first gave forth their bardic song amongst the Blessed Oaks of Avalon. 

I have now repented of all this stuff. Yet the fact remains that the service was strangely haunting, in ways that endure beyond my youthfully exuberant reading of that summer. Here was ancient tradition, encountered by someone who felt they’d grown-up in a traditionless world. Here was something that seemed innately and uncannily familiar, although I’d never encountered it before. Here was a memory of something I’d never experienced, a weird cultural déjà vu. Here was something that seemed incredibly appealing, a source of pride even — when I’d always been taught that the Monarchy was a jingoistic propaganda tool for making uneducated fools fight unjust wars. But the Beefeaters weren’t fools. Maybe I was the one who had been taught a load of sheer foolishness, by people who should have known better. 

I was haunted by a past that I had been taught wasn’t my past

What I experienced was a feeling perhaps best understood as related to what Mark Fisher calls “hauntology”. Fisher describes it as being haunted by a promised future that never materialised. For him, this includes of course the collapse of leftist hopes in the inevitability of Marx’s view of history, after the takeover of neoliberal economics in the 80s. Another aspect of Fisher’s descriptions are acutely personal for me, however. He first began writing of hauntology through music journalism, trying to name the eerie and halting effect of hearing very familiar little samples and hooks from 90s rave music reappearing, fleetingly, at unexpected moments in songs by early noughties artists. 

He was writing in the depressing first years of the 21st century, when the vitality and promise of British popular music was emptied out by a resurgence in manufactured artists from reality talent shows, after the decade of “peace and prosperity” collapsed with the Twin Towers, when the promised utopia of drug-fueled abandon had only led people to rehab centres, insanity or death. For the lucky ones, it led to accepting the inevitability of sorting one’s life out: doing what you need to do with your life before it’s too late to find a way back. 

Fisher describes this time as London’s collective comedown after the rave era. Maybe I reacted by trying to keep naïve hopes for a better world alive by escaping into dreams of the Blessed Oaks of Avalon. The weird thing is, the “alternative” ideas — the not-conforming, the promises of a world of an enlightenment not granted to normal people — were somehow encapsulated and yet surpassed by grainy footage filmed in Westminster Abbey in 1953. Here was a world of meaning for blue-rinsed grannies with commemoration plates mounted proudly in bungalow kitchens in provincial towns. Yet it understood and channelled all the impulses behind both the unreal fantasies of reality’s esoteric escapists and the hedonistic delusions of 90s dancefloor disciples. Those grannies aren’t fools, either, any more than the Beefeaters were

So it wasn’t hauntology in Fisher’s original sense — because I wasn’t haunted by a future that never materialised. I was haunted by a past that I had been taught wasn’t my past. I’d call it an amnesiac nostalgia: a yearning for something that I innately knew belonged to my history, but which had been erased by all the cultural wrong turns of British society since the 1960s. Then the elements of the present which I’d been taught to dismiss suddenly seemed saturated with meaning. Those bungalow kitchens were far more sacred spaces than any obscure temple ruins. In the inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies, we will be served with a cup and saucer of builder’s tea and a custard cream. Ghosts always appear for a reason — to right some wrong or rectify some injustice. When those we remember sleep in peace, we need not be haunted by a past that refuses to be rewritten. 

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