Immodestly, I have long considered myself to be good with words, able to conjure up something funny, pithy or moving when called upon to do so. But I have never had a clue what to write on those little cards accompanying flowers for funerals. I was 20 when my grandad died. His was the first funeral of a close family member I’d attended. My mum gave me one of those little cards and a pen. I looked at her and at the blank card and burst into tears. I tried to write something, failed and cried some more. And then I did write something – “Love you Grandad,” I believe – and this started me off again, because of course these were words that, while sincere, I had never said to him while he walked the earth. Mind you, if I ever had, I expect he would have looked at me quizzically, even alarmed. In retrospect, I wish I had gone for a bit of levity: “Up the Albion!”, or something like that. Either way, it was simply horrifying to be writing the most heartfelt thing I had ever written, to somebody who would never read it. Thirty-five years on, I’m no closer to getting my head around this.
So if I hadn’t had to go for work, I would have steered clear of the floral tribute to the Queen in London’s Green Park. The last time I had seen such a thing was the acre of flowers outside Kensington Palace in the days after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. One message I read that day stuck with me. It said: “Rest in peace and God bless you, Diana.” And then, apparently as an afterthought: “And Dodi.” And as an afterthought to that: “And driver.”
The Queen’s tribute is beautifully done. The flowers are laid in low heaps – flowerbeds, of a sort – in pleasingly different shapes. It’s as if a crack team from the Chelsea flower show had been called in to arrange everything. As for the messages, while it felt intrusive, I read a few. If she would never read them, then at least the rest of us could. We may, after all, have been the intended audience.
Some kept it simple: “Thank you for everything. RIP. Carlo.” Others said a little more: “Thank you for your service to the country and the Commonwealth. It has been a pleasure to serve you.” Much has been made of the Queen’s service to us, but here there were many references to us having served her. “We were honoured to be your servants,” wrote someone. Having never been in the military, I had never thought of myself as having served her. Perhaps I have been doing so without noticing. My favourite one, in a vibrant turquoise and defiantly unpunctuated, read: “To our queen you are the best queen in the world thank you for everything you have done for us you are the best Sky Sabrina and Freddie.” One card was in a silver envelope, neatly addressed in an adult’s hand to Queen Elizabeth II. The envelope was sealed. There was a purity about this; whatever was written was plainly not performative. For her eyes only, though she would neither open it nor read it, and neither, I assume, will anyone else.
Surveying all this was the historian Prof Kate Williams. She told me it was her hope that all these words and pictures would be collected and kept as priceless archive material. It didn’t look as though this was the plan. These words and pictures were already wilting with the flowers, and soon it was raining. This analogue, pen-on-paper treasure trove, flowering briefly but wildly in this otherwise digital age, will soon be lost for ever.
Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist
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