A bad start to the week, with the introduction of the term “monkeypox” into the lexicon, and things get steadily worse from there. Thank heavens, then, for the Queen at the Chelsea flower show on Monday, cheerful in pink, onboard her open-sided Queenmobile, smiling as broadly and blamelessly as her avatar in Peppa Pig. I say this with no sarcasm whatsoever: God bless you, ma’am.
It’s not a line that sits well with my general feelings about the royals, but the Queen, by rationing her public displays of good humour, has ensured that their appearance can still lift the spirits. At 96, after a spate of recent absences, there is pathos merely in the monarch keeping an engagement. We are nearing the end of an era and you don’t have to be a royalist to feel moved by its passing.
There is something else at work, too, when one considers the Queen on a good day, a dynamic that may descend on Prince Charles after his coronation, but I doubt it. Years ago, I stood in the crowd outside Windsor Castle on the occasion of the Queen’s 80th birthday. I went with all my sour republican instincts, prepared to cover the event and poke fun at the royals. But it was a beautiful spring day. People had risen before dawn to travel from all over the country to be there. Some of them had brought their labradors (OK, not all the sneering was in check).
After a couple of hours, out came the Queen, a vision in daffodil yellow. I can’t lie, it was thrilling. There she was! The Queen of England! Bold as brass and after a lifetime of practice, assiduously avoiding eye contact while making everyone feel seen. “Hello!” she said, and “Thank you!” and “Whoops!”, handing flowers to an aide. We were all so thoroughly transported, a reporter from the Press Association who moments earlier I’d been having a good bitch with, blurted out, “Happy birthday, ma’am!” and looked instantly mortified. “My God,” she said. “I don’t know what came over me.” Call it the magic of royalty, our endless serfdom, or just an expression of communal good cheer, but as the Queen motored about on Monday admiring the jubilee flower displays, it was hard not to smile and enjoy the same vibe.
A queen of a different kind, Margaret Atwood, aiming a flamethrower at a fireproof copy of The Handmaid’s Tale on Tuesday, is the kind of publicity stunt we can all get behind. The indestructible copy of the novel will go on sale at Sotheby’s, with proceeds going to the writers’ association PEN America. It took two months to make and can withstand temperatures of 650C (1,220F). The opening bid at Sotheby’s will be $35,000 (£27,750).
Atwood, of course, is famously game when it comes to PR stunts. She dresses up in costume for shoots, and appears in cameo in TV adaptations of her books. The blowtorch, which the 82-year-old wielded with the equanimity of one who, if push came to shove, could probably rustle up a quick militia, was designed to throw light on the current appetite for book banning in schools in the US. According to PEN, of the more than 1,000 books currently banned by individual American schools, 22% address racism, while 33% have LGBTQ themes. With the supreme court poised to shelve Roe v Wade, some version of Gilead awaits.
It served no lofty political purpose, but I still maintain that not even the flamethrower can unseat the memory of the LongPen, Atwood’s invention of 2004, a device for remote book signing. While it never took off – to my knowledge, the only other author who used it was Conrad Black, in 2008, remotely signing books while under arrest – it remains an unrivalled piece of authorial eccentricity, which, if you want to lean into the mythology of Atwood’s clairvoyance, anticipated our remote lives on Zoom.
Boris Johnson, coated in some kind of retardant spray, remains apparently fireproof after the publication of Sue Gray’s report into Partygate. Perhaps it’s a simple question of physics; fire can’t burn in a vacuum. Anyway, enough words have been spent on that moral black hole this week. Let’s turn to another individual – Rudy Giuliani – who with resistance equal to Johnson’s, refuses to slink away and never come back. After triggering a panel walkout last month, when his participation was revealed on the Fox reality show, the Masked Singer, Giuliani popped up in New York this week, to engage in one of his customary encounters with the public.
“You are a jackass,” he yelled at a woman who had just heckled him during a Celebrate Israel parade. The former mayor of New York and Trump ally, who is accused of undermining the 2020 election result, walked on several paces before the spirit of Oscar Wilde moved him to turn back. “You’re a brainwashed asshole,” he continued, rising to the peak of his wit, and, “you are probably as demented as Biden”. Eloquence spent, he staggered up Fifth Avenue, gnashers first, with all the sentience of metal being drawn forth by a magnet.
Another end of an era: on US daytime TV on Thursday, Ellen DeGeneres celebrated the last day of her talkshow after 19 seasons and almost 20 years. It had been a wild ride. Sacked from her sitcom for being gay, targeted by conservative groups to be dropped from her endorsements (JC Penney stood by her); positioned for years as the only visible lesbian on daytime – or anytime – TV; and finally, exposed at the end of her tenure for possibly not being a straightforwardly lovely woman. The list of people on television who are not straightforwardly lovely is as long as the list of those on television itself, and if DeGeneres contributed to a toxic workplace, one suspects she also copped worse criticism for it than others.
“Twenty years ago,” she told viewers before signing off for the last time, “no one thought this would work. Not because it was a different kind of show, but because I was different. When we started this, I couldn’t say ‘gay’ on the show. I couldn’t say ‘we’, because that implied that I was with someone. I sure couldn’t say ‘wife ,because it wasn’t legal for gay people to get married. Now I say ‘wife’ all the time.” Her bogus mantra “be kind” might have died a death, but the lesson of her career – be visible – still holds.
Good cheer where we can find it, to see out the week. “Manchester United are rubbish”, ran the wording on the BBC’s breaking news ticker feed, where dummy copy had been erroneously thrown up. The Guardian, of course, is the field leader in this sort of error and those of us with decades of service were, while sniggering at the BBC, put in mind of the greatest correction of all time. I republish it here, for your delight. “A caption in Guardian Weekend, page 102, November 13, read, ‘Binch of crappy travel mags’. That should, of course, have been ‘bunch’. But more to the point it should not have been there at all. It was a dummy which we failed to replace with the real caption. It was not meant to be a comment on perfectly good travel brochures. Apologies.”