Ntate George and the Queen

Here's a strip of negatives of pictures I took of Ntate George two months before he died in 1993. He lived his whole life in Lesotho, worked as a gardener for university faculty when he could get work, and loved QEII with heart-wrenching devotion. I got out the negative because I am reading John Loengard's Age of Silver (2011), which got me thinking about the few negatives I have managed to save: artifacts of another time. Precious.

When I met him, Ntate George was past sixty, looked ninety, and weighed about seventy pounds. He walked with a stick, spoke some rudimentary English, understood my rudimentary Sesotho, and loved to talk about the Queen. Had I ever seen her? No? He thought all whites came from England and would not be deterred from that thinking.

"Oh, it must be wonderful to see those horse car," he said, "those gold and red." Tears would fill his eyes. "I got a cake tin," he said proudly, "with her face. In my house, from Coronation." He was too weak to continue doing manual labor, and he lived on handouts. I was one of the few who had some pocket change for him whenever he came to visit me, but I had to go to Durban, South Africa, for two weeks for some video editing in June, and while I was gone, he quietly starved to death.

Over Jubilee weekend, I thought about Ntate George. He would have loved it. He would have glued himself to the TV in the pub where the university students hang out. The old elf would have danced with joy, would have sung God Save the Queen, sobbing and valiant. He considered her his queen, although of course Lesotho has its own queen. For a few minutes he would have forgotten his hunger, his aches and pains; and he would have imagined himself basking in reflections off all that gold. I thought about the Jubilee and why it mattered to people like George. If you live in grinding poverty all your life, seeing such a spectacle is the closest you can come to grandeur. Maybe that grandeur exists in part because of your poverty; but at least when the royals put on a show, you get to enjoy some of what your labor created. You have some ownership. The show gives you back something. Even if you only see pictures of it. Or TV images. Or a cake tin. From Coronation.

I too love pageantry and splendor, spectacle and show. I like to think of all the craftspeople who got paid for their work because of the Jubilee: the milliners, dressmakers, tailors, carriage fitters, horse curriers, poop scoopers, flag-hangers, uniform-makers, jewel-polishers, servers, embroiderers, glaziers, leather-workers, cake-makers, bunting-stringers.... It is an incredible expense, but the money circulates, and everyone--the British of course, but even upstart Americans and people like Ntate George--can feel some ownership, some participation in something grand and beautiful. Not the monarchs but the show. This is probably horrifying to my good socialist anti-royalist friends, and I understand their point of view very well. It would have been better to fund pensions for the likes of Ntate George, health clinics. It would be much better if he hadn't starved. But if he'd had a pension and health care and had not starved, he would still have longed to see those horse car, that gold and red. Spectacle gives the people pleasure. It isn't just an opiate. It fills a need in our hearts. OK, maybe not all our hearts. But it has its place.

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