A Long, Long Line

Something pretty extraordinary–by modern standards, at least–is happening in the U.K. Thousands of Brits, from sports stars like David Beckham to the common folk, are lining up to wait for hours to file past the casket of Queen Elizabeth as she lies in state.

The lines are so tremendous that the BBC is writing articles about them, and the British government has established a live “queue tracker” on YouTube so that people can keep tabs on the line as it snakes past landmarks like the Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament to Westminster Hall. The maximum length of the line is 10 miles, and the government is warning people who would join the line that they will have to wait, and stand, for hours, without a chance to sit down. People are flocking to join the line, anyway.

We’re used to seeing people leave flowers and notes at places when a well-known person dies, but this situation is different. The people waiting in this colossal line are spending their precious time and voluntarily inconveniencing themselves to pay their personal respects to the Queen. Those of us who don’t quite get the British monarchy have to admit that, in the modern era of frequent self-absorption, this demonstration of devotion sends a powerful message. The British people are voting with their feet, with their hearts, and with their time. It’s an impressive testament to their love for someone who sat on the throne for 70 years.

It makes you wonder: would the death of any American figure provoke this kind of showing? I can’t think of one, can you?

Making A Winter Even Colder

By all accounts, the good people of the United Kingdom may be in for a rough winter. It will be even worse if the economic conditions cause some of the country’s excellent pubs to close–including a pub that is reputed to be the oldest continuously operating pub in the U.K.

The pub is Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St. Albans, and its problem is the cost of energy. The pub says it has been serving thirsty customers their pints and pies for 1,200 years, but now its energy costs have doubled. And, being a public place, a pub can’t conserve energy by turning off the lights in certain areas during business hours, as a British home could. The cost increases, and the fact that winter tends to be the slow season for pubs, raises the possibility that some pubs will close–which would make the bleak mid-winter even bleaker.

The pub businesses in the U.K. have warned that the crushing costs for electricity, heating, and other pub supplies might cause widespread closures, and resulting job losses. They say that pubs have faced an average 150% increase in energy costs, and the impact of the costs is causing “irreversible damage.” Some pubs say they are dealing with a 400 percent increase in the cost of a one-year gas supply contract, and some say they can’t get a contract at all. (Pubs are not alone in suffering, incidentally, the average household faces an 80 percent increase in energy costs.) The costs increases are attributed to the Russians exercising periodic shutdown control over natural gas supplies, which has caused fears that supplies might be cut off entirely in the winter to increase Russia’s political leverage in its war against Ukraine. The fact that the U.K. doesn’t have extensive gas storage facilities doesn’t help the price volatility, either.

Times have been tough for the pubs over the last few years; they were forced to close during the COVID pandemic, and they are dealing with changing drinking habits in their communities. But it’s impossible to absorb increased costs of the kind pubs are facing without also dramatically increasing prices to customers- which would cause further deterioration in pub business.

I’m hoping that the pubs somehow make it through, and Ye Olde Fighting Cocks gets a chance to give visitors a warm, friendly place to quaff a pint or two for another 1,200 years. I can’t imagine a trip to England without spending at least time in its iconic pubs. Pubs are one of the things that make England England.

The Known Versus The Unknown

On Thursday the people of Scotland will vote on whether to dissolve their ties with England and become an independent nation.  After an early history of bloody wars, Scotland and England settled their differences and have been part of the United Kingdom for 307 years.  All of that could end on Thursday if the Scots vote yes, and emotions are running high on both sides of the referendum campaign.

As part of the United Kingdom, the Scots have experienced the glory of being part of the world’s most powerful nation and won two world wars, but many of them are chafing under the restrictions that come from the current arrangement, where Scottish aspirations might be subjugated to the votes of the English.  Independence, and a sovereign nation that will consider only Scottish interests, therefore is a tantalizing prospect.

But there are risks in independence — and opponents of a yes vote are describing those risks in gory detail.  Major players in the Scottish financial industry, like RBS, have indicated that they will relocate in the event of a yes vote, and supporters of a continued United Kingdom argue that a yes vote will hurt Scottish universities and — horrors! — the Scottish whiskey industry.

The key question raised by opponents of independence is whether Scotland’s economy is sufficiently large to hold its own on the world stage, or whether its budget would be out of balance, interests rates would rise, and businesses and academic brainpower would flee the country.  Proponents of independence say that such concerns are simply scare tactics ginned up by the English, who fear how they will fare, economically and politically, if they are forced to go it alone.  Would an independent Scotland struggle — as has been the case in Iceland and Ireland — or would it be a sturdy economic engine like Switzerland?

Of course, it’s impossible to say what the future holds — so the vote boils down to a classic choice between the known and the unknown, comfort and risk, old and new.  Scotland’s great poet, Robert Burns, spoke of fear of the unknown in the first stanza of his poem A Prayer in the Prospect of Death:

O THOU unknown, Almighty Cause
Of all my hope and fear!
In whose dread presence, ere an hour,
Perhaps I must appear!

We’ll find out whether the Scots elect the known, or the unknown, on Thursday.  People throughout the United Kingdom are holding their breath.

Considering “Death Cafe”

In America, is there a taboo about talking — or even thinking — about death?  If so, how should people deal with that taboo?

Recently the first “Death Cafe” to be held in the United States occurred here in Columbus.  (I didn’t attend, but I heard it mentioned on a local NPR station and thought the idea sounded interesting.)  “Death Cafe” began in the United Kingdom; it seeks to deal with the death taboo by encouraging people to meet and talk about death over tea and cake.  The underlying concept, as the linked website explains, is that thinking and talking about death will cause people to focus on leaving a legacy and ensuring that their lives have meaning — and that focus may lead them to behave in a more selfless way before they hit the point of ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

I’m not sure that there is a taboo, in America, in talking about death.  To be sure, it doesn’t come up often in friendly conversation, but I don’t sense that is due to custom or societal prohibition.  Instead, I think it’s simply because there are lots of other interesting things to discuss.  When tragedy strikes and a close friend or loved one dies, I don’t feel constrained about discussing death, and I don’t think my friends and family members do, either.  Some people may not want to confront their mortality, but many of us recognize the inevitability of our demise and at least want to make sure that we have things in place for our survivors.  Why else would people buy life insurance or pre-pay for a cemetery plot?

That said, if there are people who feel abashed in talking about death, and Death Cafe helps them overcome their reluctance, the idea has served a salutary purpose.  I’m all in favor of anything that might make people behave better to their fellow man in the here and now.