"Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl..." Was that charming little ditty on the White Album, Beatles fans? I think so. I was hoping Paul McCartney was going to sing it at the queen's concert the other night but he didn't. I've heard a lot of grumbling about that concert and its fireworks finale--indeed, about the whole of the four-day jubilee celebration--along with all the justified hilarity about the absurdly worshipful American media coverage of the event. For Americans to go gaga over the British monarchy seems, well, a bit ironic to say the least.
But, listen, I have to admit a big wave of nostalgia, seeing images of the throng that crammed Pall Mall from the Admiralty Arch to Buckingham Palace. I'm no monarchist--never was--but I remember the all-nighter I pulled on that very same tree-lined avenue sixty years ago, to assure myself a front-row spot for the passage of the queen's carriage on her way to her coronation. I was all of fifteen years old, and it was more the adventure of being out all night, I think, that drew me there, than loyalty to my queen. That, I hate to admit, along with the opportunity to smoke a lot of otherwise forbidden cigarettes, away from the disapproving eye of the adults in my life. I consumed an entire pack of Senior Service, along with a few Woodbines, I recall.
I say I'm no monarchist, which is true: my rational mind is pretty much appalled by the notion of inherited privilege, even though I have to acknowledge, in all honesty, that it's something I myself enjoy! On a lesser scale, surely, than the House of Windsor, but still... I was born white, of solid--perhaps even slightly upper-middle class; attended fine boarding schools and "went up" to Cambridge; if that's not privilege, I don't know what is. Still, nobody bows or scrapes to me, nobody curtsies or calls me "Majesty" or "Highness." Not even "your Grace" or, more humbly, "m'Lord" or "your Lordship." I feel the same about inherited wealth, with the same awareness of a certain hypocrisy: I am relatively secure in my financial life, thanks in good part to the social status I acquired by birth. Still, I do not own great swaths of land, palaces and castles. And I find it somewhat offensive that a handful of others do, for no better reason than the accident of their birth. At least, I reassure myself, they no longer hold the reins of political power as they once did.
That said, I'll cop to a certain admiration for the woman who has worn the British crown for sixty years, and I do not begrudge her the celebration of her achievement. Her "reign" (!) has been at times a turbulent one; her family have all too often proved themselves to be reckless clowns, or worse; though I have observed these things only from the distant view across the Atlantic for these many years, I have been aware of a movement, powerful at times, to dump the royal family along with the whole tradition of the monarchy. I think this would be a great loss for what used to be called "Great" Britain and is now the United Kingdom.
Essentially powerless, the monarchy can hold the center at times when everything else is off-balance and off-key. I myself lived through World War II. King George and Queen Elizabeth and their family functioned as a courageous and unwavering model of fortitude in the chaos of that time. They refused to leave London, even as Hitler's bombs rained down, and were out there in the rubble offering solidarity and compassion with their presence. The King's voice on the radio, frail and hesitant as it was (see The King's Speech) was as important in its ways as Churchill's thunderous rhetoric. Mock her as they may, the Queen herself has been the model of dedicated service to the country that accords her the privileges she enjoys. She can be faulted for the occasional failure to "feel the pain" of her subjects (see The Queen), but she has never failed, I think, to "do her duty" as she saw it.
So while I may have reservations about that British stiff upper lip--indeed, it has caused me a share of suffering in my own life--I have a great deal of respect and, yes, a whole lot of compassion for this second Elizabeth who works very hard indeed at a job she never applied for and perhaps never wanted. I hope that the family craziness skips a generation, and that her grandsons will know how to temper her sense of duty with a sense of true compassion--for themselves as well as others. That blend, I believe, will make the monarchy more relevant to our times.