Will Self: PsychoGeography-The end of an era as Dubai buys up English History
|Personally, I’m sad to see her go, but I’m astounded by how little public attention the departure of our reigning monarch from these shores has received. Perhaps it’s something to do with the credit crunch and rising interest rates? So geared to the prayer wheel of the property market has the British collective psyche become that if the market stalls we can think of little else, and when house prices start falling you can chop the arms off the average homeowner, while he or she contemplates your bloody hatchet with Buddhist detachment, only muttering, “But they said buy-to-let would be a sure-fire investment…”
I digress – but not much. On 2 June, the 55th anniversary of her coronation, when Queen Elizabeth II embarked from Southampton on board her namesake, the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth 2, both were bound for retirement. Their destination is The World, the bizarre group of 300 artificial islands created off the Jumeirah coast of Dubai at the behest of its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Shaped so as to resemble all the terrestrial land forms, The World is considerably smaller than the world; the biggest islands being approximately 450,000 square feet, the smallest 150,000. The average distance between “continents” is about a hundred yards – you could comfortably cross the Pacific on a lilo.
Not that Her Majesty will be doing any such thing. The QE2, launched in 1967, will be moored off The World to serve as a floating hotel. Personally, I think there’ll be a certain jibe between the respective scales of the ship and the archipelago, but I suppose Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum knows what he’s about.
However, the Queen will, for once in her life, be “actual size”; she’ll occupy a one-thirtieth scale replica of Windsor Castle that’s been built in the middle of the island shaped like Britain. From the teensy battlements of this bungaloid demesne, she will indeed be monarch of all she surveys.
For the Sheikh, luring the Queen to Dubai to rule over a tiny version of her former kingdom must be not only the Cullinan Diamond in his headdress of bling, but also a curious form of post-colonial revenge: for so long dependent on British military “advisors” and arms exports, the tiny Gulf state now calls the shots. What’s in it for the Queen is more difficult to assess (she never gives interviews, although she did agree to model – nude save for a Barbour – for a forthcoming Vanity Fair photo-spread). It’s known that as her reign has grown longer, and she’s progressed up the hit parade of monarchs to lodge at No 3 (behind only George III and Victoria), Elizabeth has increasingly smarted under the constrictions of constitutional monarchy.
While Tony Blair was still in power, radical plans to allow the Queen to become soi-disant “Queen of Dogs”, and have complete temporal authority over all canines, were well advanced; however, with the accession of Gordon Brown – a known opponent of all things corgi – the putsch was brought to heel. I feel a great sympathy for the Queen, who is the acknowledged patron of all things psycho-geographic. Her accession coincided with the advent of international jet travel, and she is, without doubt, the most travelled head of state ever. Try to imagine what breadth of mind that must have inculcated her with, what exquisite catholicity of tastes … You can’t, can you?
Still, at least the Queen won’t be alone in The World, because Richard Branson has expressed an interest in providing her with a train network of uncommon efficiency – if only Hornby size. Moreover, I understand that other world leaders – both serving and superannuated – are also being courted by the Sheikh. Tony Blair may have failed to solve the Israel/Palestine conundrum in the world, but the Sheikh is giving him another crack at it in The World, where the Gaza Strip is the size of the average council allotment. I’m sure Blair will excel at the making of the necessarily ditsy démarches. And if this weren’t enough, the ruler of Dubai is discussing with the UN Security Council the possibility of abducting Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe, and imprisoning him in “Zimbabwe”, where the only citizen he’ll be able to starve is himself.
Which brings us back to the departure of our Sovereign, and our shameful failure to pay any attention. Yes, the credit crunch was part of the story, but there’s also the burgeoning of cruise liners to be blamed. In its day the QE2 was the biggest vessel, with the biggest cabins and the biggest ballroom and the biggest library; but the new generation of liners dwarf her with their rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, shopping malls and clone towns complete with entire suburbs of identical semis mired in negative equity. Yes, you guessed it – the entire landmass known as “Britain” has been launched down the Euro-slipway and is now throbbing across the Atlantic. It wasn’t the Queen who left us, but us who…