The thing about Her Majesty the Queen is that she looks very like my own late Aunt Liz. I have therefore always had the strangest feeling we are somehow related, although we are of course nothing of the kind. It also means that her family feels like my family, sort of, and I am interested in them, in a kind of distant cousin once-in-a-while contact way.
I have met HMQ three times: twice on board HMS Belfast (and on the first occasion her train was late and she and Prince Philip had clearly had a contretemps – he asked me where the nearest pub was, and I took him to The Old Thameside I think, and he had a Guinness – but that’s another story); and once when on the security detail for a royal Garden Party at Falkland Palace. It was a sunny day and she was wearing an emerald green hat and dress.
The thing about HMQ is that whatever one’s opinion of the monarchy, she is Always There, and she always has been, in my 60+ years of existence. She is however looking very frail now and I suspect she may not Be There for very much longer.
And so much will change when she is not.
I do not label myself a Republican or a Monarchist. Labels are dangerous things. These are just people to me. Like it or not, however, we are all of her era; we are all Elizabethan.
I approve of some aspects of monarchy and deplore others. As a tour guide in London (my first job out of uni) I witnessed at first hand the extraordinary tourism pulling power of the Royal Family at Buckingham Palace and Horse Guards Parade and Kensington Palace and Windsor Castle. They – she – were the reason why many had come. French tourists whose forebears had decapitated a monarch would hang off the railings, eager for a glimpse of a member of the Royal Family.
When I have met The Queen she has always been charming, good at her job, appearing at the visit or opening or gala or garden party, rotating her three questions (‘have you come far?’, ‘have you been waiting long?’ and ‘what is it it that you do?’) with apparent sincerity and warmth. Some of her offspring I find less warm, less sincere.
The British Monarchy is a curious anachronism, but because it is a British anachronism it sort of works, if a tad weirdly in the 21st century. Holding the top job – being Queen – has however become a life sentence of service – and some might say of servitude, which is only one step above slavery. Once her uncle, Edward VIII, had abdicated and her father became King, the future Queen Elizabeth II became the slave of our nation.
Monarchs lose so much when they come to the throne, often even their names (HMQ was fortunate to keep Elizabeth; her father lost Bertie when he became become King George VI).
The Queen is an intelligent and politically experienced woman who loves her dogs, horses and family – probably in that order at present. She may appear to have immense wealth and land and privilege but can do little with any of them. Her life is mapped out until the moment she dies, regimented by the day, by the hour, by the minute. There is little room for spontaneity. And now, clearly, she is limited in what she can do by pain. It is no fun being old. It is even less fun being old and The Queen.
What would her life have been like as a minor aristocrat married to a naval Lieutenant? A life spent in the quiet shires, wearing wellies and tweeds and headscarves, raising an occasional racewinner’s cup? As she herself might say, it doesn’t do to dwell on it.
When I think of HMQ, I am torn between admiration for a dutiful life well lived in the service of the nation; and deep pity for the life she has not been able to live, a life of ordinary sociability and small pleasures.
After her will (presumably) come King Charles III, who will try far too hard to be a good king, and who will therefore prove controversial and unpopular. His shorter reign will at least enable Prince William and his family to live a life more ordinary, more shielded from the public eye for longer, until William too becomes King in middle age.
It is William’s son George who bothers me the most. Will this chubby little boy grow up to have absolutely no say in his own destiny, like his great grandma? How do you say to him that he must reign until the day he dies? That level of expected servitude in a little boy cannot be something to be proud of as a nation. To me it all feels grotesquely TrumanShowesque. Imagine the conversation: ‘when I grow up, I want to be an astronaut… or a fireman… or a lion-tamer…’. Awkward pause. ‘So sorry, darling, but you will be a King, and a King until your death, when your son or daughter will be crowned.’ Even abdicated kings have hellish lives at the hands of the media and those who believe them weak or feckless.
I do not think either politicians or members of the ‘Firm’ as they themselves refer to it, should be expected to behave as paragons of virtue. The former should try to run the country well and the latter to become good representatives of our nation both at home and abroad. That’s it.
The media feeds on all aspects of the monarchy, adoring the conventional, shiny ‘Kate ‘n’ Wills’, deploring ‘Harry ‘n’ Megan’ for choosing to step off the regal conveyor belt, salivating over the misdemeanors first of Charles and then of Andrew. Most unite in fawning adulation of The Queen herself, but the papers and the TV coverage have all but destroyed her family. The hypocrisy of this is staggering.
If only we had inspiring, charismatic political leaders as an alternative media focus to the Royal Family but we don’t. The coverage is relentless. Even the Independent ran a drearily speculative piece on who was sitting next to whom at a Jubilee service. It’s vile. I am not in the least bit interested in who who has fallen out with whom, still less in who princes or politicians may choose to sleep with (so long as their partners are A. human, B. consenting and C., of legal age).
If people in ‘high places’ ever lie, I would like them to be honest when found out, but this today seems almost impossible: lying is the default position. Lying has wrenched our country from the safety and prosperity of Europe. Lying has lost a referendum and won an election. It is now the norm and we are living with the malign consequences. Worst of all, this lack of accountability is what children – including small royal children – will grow up believing is acceptable.
The way the Jubilee is being used for political and nationalistic capital worries me, but I would not like to deprive The Queen of a period of celebration for her life’s work either. God knows we all need a little fun after years of sickness and fear. I may be more soggy sagging homemade bunting than rows of regimented Union Jacks printed in China, but I still hope Her Majesty The Queen enjoys – and survives – her special weekend.