The passing of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, The Queen Mother, has stirred up mixed emotions in me. I have finally had to accept that she has been a figment in my life for well over fifty years, and that her death should probably mark the final end of my youth. As a young boy I collected all kinds of things including comics, coins, bird’s eggs, dinky racing cars, conkers, hilarious school reports, marbles, cigarette cards and packets, and stamps.
The stamps continued to keep me in touch with people and places, and in fact awoke an interest in geography in me. The stamps which fascinated me the most were the pictorial issues. I particularly liked those from The Seychelles and Mauritius, which were miniature idyllic local fishing scenes and such, and those from Nyasaland with different colours of the same leopard on the same idealized mountain slope denoting different values. I also loved the ones from Swaziland with the tribal shield, and the views on the New Zealand stamps. There was a big world out there, and I could escape into it by just opening a book. There were stamps from other countries, and different exotic places, but some of these were too garish for my taste, and quite early on I decided to collect only Empire and Commonwealth stamps.
I find that it’s always best to specialise with something like that because it’s easier to maintain an atmosphere in a collection by so doing. All of these stamps of course had the King’s head in the top corner, so that a consciousness and an icon of the King was maintained in my life from a very early age. This was normal, and I didn’t think that much about it until I was about fifteen. I had remembered the King as a brave man from about the age of four. My consciousness of him grew in the first years after The Second World War. It was obvious that he was a frail kind of a man who seemed to be painfully shy. Everybody knows about his stutter, and that he was a diffident kind of person, but to experience him as a weekly event in newsreel coverage fostered an admiration in me which has never left me. He could have been anybody, but more importantly, a lot of people saw themselves in him. He was never showy, and always perfectly reserved. In this I suspect that people of my age and older have had the best possible experience of kingship in action. To have had such an extraordinarily constant man as head of state was an eye-opener and a blessing.
OK, so he was born into what was probably the most privileged class of people in the world, and his position was precluded from having much to do with the day to day hands-on of government, but in his person, the title of Head Of State has rarely resided on more fitting shoulders, anywhere in the world. There is certainly no other British leader who could have fallen into that category in the previous century. Winston Churchill and Lloyd George were much more flawed, and reading down the roll of ‘honour’ of those who have been leader, it’s hard to imagine any one of them coming above about 2 in a scale of 1 to 10. Oddly enough, I would probably rate Lloyd George, Harold Wilson and Churchill at about 3. Historically, I can think of only a handful of people who I would have trusted to the same degree as King George V1. Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Oliver Cromwell, Cardinal Hume, King Alfred, Willy Brandt, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Leon Trotsky come to mind, but most of the baggage that would come with such a list would be unacceptable. In my opinion, the fact remains that there are precious few individuals who have occupied high office with the same integrity as the late king.
When he died, I was ten years old, and the headmaster of our junior school came into our classroom just after roll-call and said, “Boys and girls, it is with the deepest regret that I have to tell you that The King has died in his sleep, let us pray”. At which point the lord’s prayer was recited. About two seconds after the amen, he said, “God save the Queen”. Two or three of the girls were in tears, and one of them, Rene Bentley, was in floods. She was inconsolable and she spent some time out of the room. We all reflected, and I seem to remember that it became a rare hour of honest contemplation and questions as to the nature of life, which was much more interesting than the usual fare. The way in which people reacted had a deep effect on me, and I guess that I carried that forward into what I began to know about the King and what his achievements had been. And of course, in those days there wasn’t that much more to know than your friends, your enemies, your street, your parents, your school, your town centre, a loose knowledge of other towns and cities, odd facts about the government, the prime minister and the King, and in that order.
As I began to realize the achievements of the King, my respect for him grew. In fact I began to realize, when I was about sixteen, that there hadn’t been anyone else like him in British life for some considerable period, and by the time that I was twenty five, that he had been irreplaceable. Of course, by then, I was in a different life altogether, where I knew that the world had moved on so much since my childhood that the Royal Family could no longer be entirely relevant. By then I was kicking up a bit of dust in a world in which essential revolutions had confirmed many necessary changes. A world in which the advent of one person, one vote, had completely overturned the old world order in less than fifty years. In February 1952, The King who had presided so gracefully over so many of these changes died at his post. It was a sad day.
But his consort continued to live on, and within a short space of time was consolidating his reputation rather than sinking into retirement, into the oblivion which would seem to have been prescribed for the ‘ancient regime’. I’ve discounted her for most of my life, not as non-entity so much as distant to my own life, up and down the emotional big dipper of having for the most part to sail into the wind. And for many like me, she would have been an irrelevance, but she was always a fact. Queen Elizabeth eventually fulfilled her entire promise, and in so doing vindicated her husband’s choice of partner. Not for him the scheming divorcee or the dozen mistresses, but a bee-line for one of the most beautiful and accomplished young women of his time, with a clear view of expressing something eternal. You would have died for the chance. All that can be said, in the final analysis, is that they expressed themselves through each other more than adequately. The dreadfully shy and humble man and his outgoing, vivacious partner who could express his inner desires for the nature and direction of his family and the society of his people.
That society has drastically changed since then, but eternity in love has remained a constant aspiration, and there was nothing plainer to see in that early footage of them than that he doted on her. For her part, once she’d had the time to digest his honest ardour, she rose to the challenge of becoming a Royal wife. You may say that it was no great sweat for her, since she’d already been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but to be automatically catapulted to fame and scrutiny upon acceptance of his hand in marriage was a very brave choice for a young lady of twenty three to have made. It wasn’t as if she was the atypical European princess who would have been the usual preferred choice, she was a fun loving girl from the upper echelons of British society.
You may say that such people have an easy life, but if you’re honest with yourself, no one has that. I’ve intimately known three women of her rank, and it’s by sheer fluke, time and place that I haven’t married at least one of them. But my heart has never been swayed by any consideration of rank, for the very simple reason that rank will not make any difference to my life or the way I have always chosen to live it. I doubt whether this recent great outpouring of respect has that much to do with rank either. Elizabeth Bowes Lyon was born with rank in positive attitude and spirit of endeavour. Her hereditary title was not of much importance, she’d have been a huge success even if she’d been born on the bottom rung. Again, you may say that she had it on a plate, but competition can be harder at the top than it is at the bottom. One of the easiest things in life to do is to remain anonymous.
The top and bottom of it is that she was a winner, at a time in history when many of her class were designated losers. But there is also something else worth noting. Royalty has very often resided in close intangible proximity to the people. The king and his lowest subject have traditionally been bound to each other in an identical quest to serve, in a manner in which the king cannot be bound to his peers or to anyone inbetween, to anyone who in any way fancies his chances or would rise above his own merit. The king, in this sense, is as much the property of his common people as they are his. The bond between them is almost unbreakable. Conversely, when the king has lost his people, it won’t be long before he loses his crown. Jumped up politicians, journalists and commentators who refuse to understand this fundamental relationship do so at the peril of being found insensitive. I saw Polly Toynbee, among others, who I have often respected, taking a pot shot at the whole spectre, and of course, she’s entitled to, but it’s useless trying to defuse or deny such a massive show of genuine affection for a person who was, after all, a constant in 20th century British life.
Of course of course of course, I cannot remotely share the faith she had in christianity, and I would have been hard pressed to have spent a day with her without questioning her on faith, ideas and royalty, but this is nowhere near the point. The point is that she was an even-handed generous woman with a very positive attitude who became an icon, for just those reasons.
In the light of my knowledges of myself and life on the outer spiral arm of British society, questions begin to ask themselves. What do I think about the Royal Family? How can I possibly see myself condoning royalty in an age when universal suffrage has rendered that kind of status virtually impotent? Is there anyone alive who is fit to be king or queen? Is the office entirely anachronistic? First off, I have an overriding emotion that says ‘I would like to have my King back’, but The King is gone, and there is no one in his family to replace him. Queen Elizabeth The Second is a living institution. She seems to take after her paternal Grandfather, George V, but it could be after her mother’s father, who was an equally stern Anglo-Scot. She is much more dour than her mother, and less vulnerable than her father. Of her children, Andrew’s a hoorah, and Edward is a conspirator. Anne is perhaps less affected, but somehow aloof, and quietly as brazen as her dad, and Charles is sensitive but not strong enough, and not one of them has dealt with privilege in such a way as to render it irrelevant in any judgement of their character. In other words, the ideal personification of royal figure head lies dormant in the generation about to inherit it.
The next and obvious question is, does it exist in the younger generation? Mmm, on the evidence of my eyes, I would have to say that Prince William is as transparent as his mother, and I’m afraid to say that, like her, he seems to be transparently sulky, and perhaps petulant. He may mature, but she didn’t. Harry looks to be a slightly better bet, but who knows, and he’ll probablynever get there. So what happens next? President Prescott? Well bollocks to that. With a maximum choice of three candidates for a Presidency, Blair is an egotist in the mold of Thatcher, Duncan-Smith is very average, and not quite in charge of the loony wing. Kennedy is the most honest of the three of them, but he has no mandate. I think Presidential politics is junk, you don’t really get to know your president, only occasional whiffs of his party’s real agendas, and then he’s gone… and left the septic tank full …..and it’s backing up into the house.
So where does that leave me? Well although most of the intelligentsia on the left would like to see the back of the monarchy, and make headlines such as “Fairwell to a worn out system “, what would they put in it’s place? I’m afraid that trying to convince someone like me about the fantasy of the aforementioned executive Presidency, with puerile propositions suggesting that it would be different because the quality of candidates coming through for the top job would increase in a more egalitarian system, is rubbish. Even given her character defects, and the unquestionable odours of privilege, the current queen is a font of knowledge and often a wise woman who has real longevity of world experience. And most of that experience is with politics at arms length. I don’t really like her that much, but I sure as hell would hate the alternatives. As flawed as he was, I’d much prefer someone like Che Guevara…. Yeah..let’s have a crazed Argentinean revolutionary for British President. Get some spacial awareness up front. He’s been transfer-listed for a generation now. What the hell are we waiting for?
You can call it lazy thinking if you like, and call me out for not giving of my time and intellect working towards the finer tuning of democracy, but some of us have got lives to live. In short, it’s not
going to work. (pun irrelevant). If there’s a person, and a time and place for that job, then he or she will eventually turn up and claim it, set an example, lead a revolution, and construct an ethical template for future candidates. But revolutions of that kind, based on the disaffection of the majority of the population, are likely to be in short supply for the foreseeable future. Or until climactic change results in fundamental upheaval. For the time being stick this one in the pot….. When the effective President of the ‘free’ world clearly didn’t get the most votes but was gifted the post by a partisan court, he has as much credibility with the economically oppressed in other countries as Hitler, Saddam and Milosovic. And he gives great strength to megalomaniacs and war criminals like Sharon and Mugabe, because the way in which he gained power, and clearly the way in which he has abused power by so doing, is no different to them. For a very long moment, the USA joined the judiciary with the executive, and we’ll all pay for that mistake for a very long time to come.
In fact, Bush has given every bent politician on the planet an object lesson in how to disregard democracy, and I don’t want to go anywhere near that garbage. I want my King back. He wasn’t a swashbuckling powerhouse philosopher emperor, or a two bit politician, he was just my poor devout King, and the woman who was his vessel and companion kept much of his ethic alive for fifty years after he died. You can point some more, and say that she was an irrelevance who should have died with him, but she didn’t. You can say that privilege is sickly and disgusting, but before you do, you’d better check up on the personal wealth of many ‘Labour’ cabinet ministers. You can say that monarchy’s a nonsense, that it doesn’t make sense in a modern world, that Margaret Thatcher, the Bushes, Richard Nixon, Norman Tebbit, Spiro Agnew, Dick Cheney, Blair, Mandelson and the spin doctors, are all of a different class of person, better qualified for executive power in modern life than anyone who has been handed hereditary power. But I don’t think so. The King was better than all the mad contestants who have scrambled up the greasy political pole put together. Quite simply, he was completely honourable. Sure, I want colour, and people misbehaving, sex and all the trappings, honest atheism, funny stuff, and yes, a healthy smidgen of cynicism, some old buck and the full monty etc. etc., but not transparently in my King. I just want him back the way he was.
In writing this, I have considered the bizarre personages who have occupied the post in, for instance, 1043, 1399, 1540, 1648, and 1936 etc., and the way in which the institution has necessarily been changed, but that’s little more than entertainment from this distance. First hand, I remember my first look at the Universal Postal Union stamps, which I think was 1948. They were different than the usual British stuff. There was a picture of the King and Queen on them. My life at home was stained, but at least the King was someone irreproachable. You could be as poor as the proverbial church mouse, and as guilty as proverbial sin, but if you’d looked into the King’s soul, you’d been touched with something much more profound, where poverty and guilt were swiftly ushered into the background.
Spiritually, then…. of the mind and emotions, even if the notion of privileged royalty is anathema to you, ask yourself… what is it that I want from a head of state? Do I want a head of state? Is a titular head of state an irrelevance? How would you play it then? How would your allegiance to your own people manifest itself? Broadly speaking? Universally? ….Personally, I just want my King back. He may only have been a constitutional figment, and could never have been anything else, but he was much better than anything I’ve seen since. Without the remotest shadow of doubt.
Some of you will not appreciate this piece, because-because-because, but I stood outside all of my revolts to write this, and it brought a tear, because I knew that it was right. And that I was being true.
Copyright 2002 Roy Harper