I walked into my kitchen the other day to hear the end of a conversation. I caught only the phrase “…in a fridge, with her handbag”.
I was rather proud of myself for guessing correctly that this was a recollection of the rumour, back in September 2001, that the Queen Mother had inhaled her last G&T, but that the news was being held back on account of all the September 11th business.
These things always set my idling mind spinning at the origin of these rumour tropes. Who first was alleged to be kept on ice; gone, if you like, but not defrosted?
To me, it sounds terribly Cold War: I recall the fate of more than one Soviet leader (Brezhnev, the fleeting Andropov) being speculated upon while they failed to make any public appearances for a while. Popes also seem to be favourite targets for this rumour, hence, I suppose the sad malarkey this year with the late John Paul II having to put in reassuring appearances at his hospital window.
The movie ‘Dave’, a presidential version of The Prince and the Pauper, using a life support machine to keep the President of the USA technically alive and governing for its mainspring, but this is comparatively recent, and I don’t know of any other American instances.
I suspect that the assumption that the Russians would flash-freeze their leaders is a slightly shocked reaction to the mummification of Lenin, with all of its confusing intimations of saintliness. Otherwise, the trope seems to operate on the ancient assumption of some kind of connection between king and land: even a wounded king is better than a dead one. It could hardly express more clearly the common belief amongst the rest of us that it’s the possession of power that counts, not the ability to use it. The practical mess that a frozen leader would mean for the government of any country should make us dismiss the idea out of hand, but there’s no denying the power of the symbol of the indestructible leader.
Finally, I wonder if the myth of the frozen leader isn’t, at heart, a consolatory fantasy as seen in the myth of Avalon. Although Arthur is gone, we hold onto the slightest promise of a return should things really require it. I wonder if every apparently callous rumour of a frozen, unburied, aristocrat or politician is really our fear of letting them go. Does anyone these days depend on the Once and Future Queen Mum?