Both Daylight and Magic
When we look back on the second decade of the twenty first century, what will stand out? Unrest in Eastern Europe and the looming shadow of Russian expansionism, lockdown and Covid-19, America being run by an orange-tinged millionaire with a shaky grasp on reality, the fallout from Brexit, Partygate and our third woman prime minister in thirty five years?
Undoubtedly, all of these things will feature in the history books and be woven into the stories our children tell their children. But it’s not war, or conflict, or pandemics or politics that I want to focus on today.
All over the world, the front pages and the airwaves are full of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the world’s second longest-reigning monarch (Louis XIV just pipped her to the post). And so they should be. She was a remarkable woman and it’s not just in Britain and the Commonwealth that we’re wondering what on earth life will look like without her.
I was born in 1966, fourteen years into her reign. I came to consciousness seeing a short, smiling woman in a succession of hats with a large handbag over her arm shaking hands with people, cutting ribbons (for what purpose I did not know) and occasionally pictured with her family. My grandmother, an ardent Royalist, had nothing but good to say of her.
“Aye, she’s a good wee wumman,” she would say, nodding approvingly, every time the Queen was mentioned. “It’s just as well yon besom was never crowned.”
I should explain that she was Scottish, and often lapsed into dialect. A translation is given below.
The besom in question was Wallis Simpson. Nana was not a fan. Neither did her husband, Edward VIII come in for much praise. The Queen’s father, George VI and his Queen, Elizabeth, however, were often spoken of in the warmest terms and I grew up feeling that they were somehow part of our family, people we may never meet but who, nonetheless, were working hard on our behalf. Upstairs, there was a bag of old money with the King's head in profile. We also had some of his father and I used to love to play with the excitingly-shaped coins.
At Christmas, the tradition was always the same in our house. Nana would stay over in my bedroom while I shared with my sister (she only lived down the road, but this was a thrilling departure from routine). We would open our stockings, have breakfast, go to church, return for Christmas lunch and then sit reverently by the radiogram (a Dansette on spindly legs) to listen to Her Majesty address us. We were not allowed to speak, wriggle or in any way distract the grown-ups from whatever it was our monarch wished to say. Once she had finished, Nana would sigh deeply and say, “Aye, Jeanie, she’s a lovely speaker. I mind her poor father and his speech. We would sit there and will him to get his words out. Of course, the Queen Mother was sitting with him, poor wee man.”
Nana had been married to a sailor and occasionally lapsed into saltier language than we were used to. Once, in a smart Glasgow department store in the late 1930s, she was walking around with my mother, then a schoolgirl and was transfixed by a woman wearing what she deemed to be unsuitable headgear.
“Och, Jeanie, that’s a bugger of a hat!” she boomed, causing my poor mother to blush and slink away into the coat department. She was equally open in her views on the Royal Family. Edward and Mrs Simpson (“bad, selfish, drove the poor King into an early grave”), Princess Margaret (“of course her father spoilt her”), Princess Anne (“very plain, but she’s a hard worker”), Prince Philip (“aye, he’s got a twinkle in his eye, so he has) and Queen Mary (“she must have been black affronted with that son of hers abdicating”).
Nana was born in 1897 and lived through the reigns of six monarchs. She could just remember the Old Queen dying in the winter of 1901 and the mourning into which the country was plunged. During Edward VII’s brief but surprisingly successful reign, she entered her teenage years and George V and his upright, pearl-bedecked toque-wearing consort Queen Mary met with her full approval as she became a young woman and met and married my sea captain grandfather. Along with nearly everyone else, she was scandalised by the glamorous but racy Prince of Wales’ shenanigans with Mrs Simpson and his abdication and breathed a sigh of relief as the shy, stammering Duke of York took the throne with his good Scottish wife and two little daughters.
The Queen’s Silver Jubilee took place in 1977, my last year of primary school. We planted red, white and blue flowers in the school garden, made posters and collages, received commemorative mugs and waved Union Jacks as our radiant Queen toured the UK. It’s as fresh in my mind as if it were yesterday. Nana died in 1985, still a huge fan of Elizabeth II, still with plenty to say about the wider family. How amazed she would have been to see her monarch chatting to James Bond, celebrating her Golden, Diamond and Platinum Jubilees and evolving from the young, untried woman in a glittering tiara and furs to the great-grandmother in the digital age.
I’m going to miss her. I think most of us will and writing this has brought back a whole host of memories. There they all are, a great cloud of witnesses, our ancestors who have gone before, a huge part of what makes us what we are.
The Queen always worked hard not to let the daylight in to spoil the magic and she will be much missed.
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