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Letters From London

Royal Memories

As Britain prepares for the Golden Jubilee—the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s throning—a reflection on the pomp, circumstance, and correctly colored ties in the monarch/subject relationship.

Most Britons have a fond royal memory. At some point in their lives on this small, sceptred isle, their existence intersects with a Royal, whether major, minor, disgraced or lauded, or one that’s simply forgotten. It’s almost a statistical inevitability. Coupled with these chance meetings of ruler and subject are the big events—the births, marriages and funerals—that punctuate Britain’s patchy relationship with its first family. On 6 February 1952, young Elizabeth Windsor became Queen following the early death of her father, George VI. Her accession was heralded as the dawn of a new Elizabethan era and the coronation ceremony, which took place on 2 June 1953, represented the peak of full-blown British pageantry. (Incidentally, it also cemented the nation’s relationship with television: the number of private sets doubled following the decision to broadcast the ceremony). Fifty years later, a more cynical nation celebrates the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Despite our studied sneers, the cultural legacy of a lifetime of subjection inevitably escapes, whether as well-rehearsed anecdote or cherished memory. As I said, royal memories are rarely less than fond.

My girlfriend tells the tale of encountering the Queen Mum on a hazy summer’s afternoon in the late 1970s. The royal party, having departed from some local event, threaded their way through country lanes, eventually passing the end of her parents’ cul-de-sac. There, skinny arms folded over bicycle handlebars, waited a small group of children. The royal car slowed to a halt and the QM, then a stoutly robust senior citizen, wound down the window, greeted the bemused infants, and departed. The royal audience over, the children raced back to their parents, only to be soundly disbelieved, perhaps even disciplined for coming up with such ridiculous stories. In my mind, the scene appears like something from an Enid Blyton book: vivid green grass, wholesome children, sturdy bikes and a gloved white hand extending gracefully from the walnut-trimmed window frame of a hefty Daimler. But I’m confusing my decades—the event more likely had the sweaty cling of manmade fabrics, humming with freshly discovered palettes, shocking hairstyles, and the lick of heat that characterised those summers.

Today’s memories are less susceptible to the romantic distortion created by youth’s distance. Even if you’ve steadfastly avoided all regal contact in the past three decades—ducking out of street parties, ignoring royal weddings, divorces and scandals—few people could claim to have no memory of the day of Diana’s death. On 31 August 1997 every late twentieth century obsession and theory was thrown violently together: glamour, fame, speed, sex, death, conspiracy, race, violence, establishment plots, media intrusion. Like all car crashes, the urge to slow down and stare was irresistible, but this was rubber-necking on an international scale. It even gave the internet its first real taste of notoriety, as rumours of the existence of Ballard-esque photographs of the crash scene circulated (Googling ‘diana crash’ should be enough to convince the doubters).

The main prop in Douglas Coupland’s novel All Families are Psychotic is the letter, marked simply ‘Mummy,’ that was placed on the Princess’s coffin by her teenage sons. It was perhaps the most poignant and personal tribute in a fortnight that saw the birth of ‘national grief,’ making an apparently aloof and distant Royal family irreversibly aware that we, the public, expected them to play up to our expectations. Diana’s death and funeral remain a watershed in late twentieth century British culture, occurring just as the nation was coming to grips with a new government, one that was vastly more complex than everyone had been led to expect. Media commentators wrote endlessly on the perceived shift in the national mood, how the shared experience of grief was a reflection of a new caring, sharing society. Yet now, nearly five years on, no-one can really be sure what it all meant.

* * *

It was a more cynical media that greeted the news of the Queen Mother’s death, an event that had been planned down to the last buttonhole, quietly rehearsed in backroom studios. For nearly two decades, foreign correspondents have travelled with a black tie, in case the dread event should occur and a proper degree of decorum be needed. Newspapers had page upon page of special supplements laid out and ready to roll as soon as the announcement was made. The QM’s tenacity put a strain on these preparations—the occasion of her 100th birthday in 2001 saw a sea of newspaper features and pull-out specials, the majority of which were simply re-packaged obituary supplements that had been ready for years.

When the Big Impending Death finally occurred, the popular mood was hard to gauge. The initial announcement was so widely expected—the QM had scarcely been seen in public since an illness the previous Christmas—that initial treatment was almost casual. As expected, the major tabloids produced commemorative editions, each devoting upwards of 25 black-edged pages to the QM’s life. But the royal family’s critics in the media couldn’t have predicted the level of popular support. The populist press, ever alert to the public’s whims, pressed all the right buttons. A prominent anchorman’s decision to ditch the dark threads in favour of—horrors—a mauve tie, prompted traditionalist condemnation, and a fierce anti-republican backlash quickly snow-balled. Pro-monarchist commentators rounded on the modernisers, displaying a paternal, almost patronising regard for the people’s collective grief. As the QM lay in state in Westminster Great Hall, over 200,000 people queued into the night to file past her coffin. An estimated one million people lined the route of the funeral cortege.

Affection clouds judgement: instead of assessing our relationship to the country’s extraordinarily outdated constitution, the spyglass has been focused ever more closely on the trials and tribulations of a small, sometimes extraordinary, frequently banal family, until recently headed by a woman born in the 19th century. One thing is certain. The QM’s death saved the Golden Jubilee from the oblivion of indifference. In the weeks before and after the funeral, the number of so-called ‘Jubilee Toolkits’ requested by the royalist party faithful rose dramatically. Had the British penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, for reducing triumphalism to national self-pity (cf Millennium Dome), been averted by our new found love of the royals?

I have a royal memory of my own. It isn’t connected to Diana (on the day of Diana’s funeral I was driving across South London with a friend, heading towards a concentration of second hand record shops. The streets were, quite literally, deserted). Instead, it was an event, not an encounter, shared with two friends. On the night of 11 November 1992 we exited a small pub in Windsor, the late lamented Old Trout, having watched a soporific but sporadically entertaining show by New York slowcore pioneers Codeine. As we walked back towards the car, something seemed amiss—it could have been the tint of the sky, the sound of sirens, or the sheer number of people out on the streets so late at night. We swiftly saw why. Thanks to a carelessly placed spotlight in the Private Chapel, Windsor Castle, the Queen’s official residence, had become a blazing inferno.

After the fire there was a brief but ultimately pointless debate about the possibilities for a radical, contemporary reconstruction of the destroyed parts of the castle, 1/5 of its total area. A few architects provided alternative schemes, but the nation’s hearts just weren’t in it. The 37m restoration proceeded much as everyone had expected, a meticulous recreation of the faux medieval splendour of the original building. The monarch made some widely reported comments about what a beastly year she’d had and the royal family settled back into the far corner of the popular imagination, cherished not venerated, admired yet hardly encouraged.

We stood and watched the castle burn. It was a medieval sight. The narrow slit windows of the structure were brightly illuminated from within, like a Thomas Kincaid trinket on steroids. Sparks and flames kicked up into the clear November night, reaching perhaps fifty feet above the walls. I remember seeing airliners low overhead, dipping their wings on their final approach to nearby Heathrow, barely 10km away. Forget pomp, circumstances, parades and celebrations. That was the place to be, up in the sky looking down. As royal memories go, it’s not much. But in a society that randomly mixes apathetic indifference with unthinking veneration, it’s somehow infinitely more satisfying.


TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell