Platinum Jubilee: In defense of the Queen

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 (Lydia Silver)
(Lydia Silver)

When I was 14 years old, I hotfooted it after school to my local record shop in Manchester to buy the new album by local heroes, The Smiths, as a matter of some urgency. This is what anxious Northern youth did by way of personal medication back in the summer of 1986. With its boldly unequivocal title, The Queen is Dead was set to elevate the band from their position as mascots of idiosyncratic, parochial charm, singing about Rusholme funfairs and Whalley Range bedsits, into a confident, streamlined global machine taking sharp punches at British institutions on behalf of an energised new generation.

It pulled off the trick handsomely. By giving the record an arch Republican stance, The Smiths guaranteed a loyalty stamp from teenagers hoping to agitate their grandparents. That was the matter of the monarchy pretty much settled for me. I concocted quick, irate adolescent theories about the rotten British class system’s endemic interconnections with inherited privilege, imagining the closure of Buckingham Palace sorting all that out in a stroke. Between a thrilled bedroom screening of a friend’s worn VHS of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, hearing my big brother’s copy of Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ and this fresh musical pronouncement on the dastardly royal family, my case was closed.

Somewhere in the ensuing 35 years those sharp opinions have softened somewhat. The Queen is Dead is a particularly useful document of its moment, given what has happened to both the author of the title song and its subject, one of whom I slowly fell out of love with, in direct contrast to unusually increased affection for the other. Brexit and far-right supporting Morrissey, it seemed as the years strolled by, had a bit more in common with endemic British bigotries than the early subject of his loathing.

I’m not sure how, when or why I learnt to be a casual republican with genuine fondness for the Queen, a position congruent to the cultivated mysteries around her. It caught me by surprise, like noticing your reflection in a newsagent’s overhead shoplifting mirror and conceding you’re balder than you expected. Ageing does curious things to the body and the mind, often by stealth. The wisdom of turning middle-aged, I’ve found, is intertwined with the sobering shift of possibilities seamlessly turning into the gentle sadness of inevitabilities. An endless succession of beginnings shifts slowly into the repetitive thud of endings. The very idea of change transfers from something good to something unsettling.

In this regard, life’s constants become a useful companion. You haven’t the time left to harbour grudges against endemic institutions that refuse to budge. The revolution was probably not meant for your lifetime? So be it. Because there is nothing in British culture more constant than the Queen, waving a dignified hello in a perfectly tailored block colour ensemble, raising a corner of her mouth to remind you that everything changes while essentially staying the same.

The succession of scare stories about the health of Her Maj since the death of her husband last year has prompted fleeting moments of genuine personal concern. The Queen’s presence, in my life at least, has become reassuringly tidal.

We know there is trouble ahead for the Windsors when she does inevitably depart. Part of us being imperceptibly bound to the institution of royalty, whether we like it or not, gives us a sixth sense for these things. They are our most fundamentally continuous gossip cycle. The royal family have rarely seemed less unified or positioned at a more simmering boiling point of factional war with one another. The briefings passed between residences are by now multidisciplinary. A veil of shame hangs over certain corners of the family, others are a whisper away from becoming a laughing stock. But still Elizabeth II feels curiously unaffected.

The Queen’s most tantalising trick during her tenure has been to appear simultaneously all-powerful and utterly powerless, a gripping sleight of hand her successor, Prince Charles, will struggle to repeat in the transparency and openness of the digital age. He has a mountain of public goodwill and affection to recover and transfer to his personal brand — something his mother appears to take for granted while working hard to maintain behind the curtains. The consideration of a world without her and what comes next is within reaching distance. With this shift, those passive, vaguely royalist arguments about what would happen to the country under the premiership of an elected head of state require more pressing thought. Our gossip cycle intuits that Charles will struggle with an ethereal responsibility of which his mother makes lightly stoic work. Now we really do have to ask ourselves, what would a president Thatcher, Blair or Johnson have felt like?

The royal family is our living soap opera, the Queen its de facto custodian landlady. When I was a teenager, I loved the brassy, gobby ire and chipped nail polish of the younger Coronation Street women: Elsie Tanner, Suzie Birchall, Bet Lynch. Glamour was all exterior gloss, leopard print, laddered tights, hearts on sleeves and open veins. Now I remember with most fondness the unflinching, glacial pomp of its original matriarch, Annie Walker. When it was reported recently that the Queen had been instructed by her doctors to stop drinking, it was Ms Walker whose thoughts I turned to, slipping down in the middle of the night to an empty, dimly lit Rovers Return bar top with towels over its pumps, pouring a medicinal schooner of sweet sherry unable to sleep, her concerned stillness hanging over the chaos of the street carousing outside.

We now have an actual soap opera, in real time, being filmed about the Queen’s life, The Crown — I can barely sit through an episode without getting agitated on Her Majesty’s behalf. Olivia Colman in the central role? Too twitchy, slight and middle class (let’s see how Imelda Staunton fares later this year). Writer Peter Morgan casting asides on her marriage? Too angry and snide. The Queen is her own cinematic experience, art directed against the flash and glitz of the day; one which has played without pause, shaping opinions this way and that, prompting backlash, fatigue and some praise. Fictionalising her feels like turning a mirror inward in order to look at itself.

The Queen is 96. Perhaps because of her age, perhaps just because we have got so used to her presence, she lives in a hinterland of quiet beyond recrimination, beyond even opinion. Her great skill is to not appear to care what people think of her, like Boris Johnson in reverse. Her family acolytes get mired in unseemly gossip, raging PR battles, beset by personal ambition, dumb marriages, personal profile disasters and screeching business madness, most of which backfire repeatedly. Slates fall from her roof left, right and centre but the building of her engineering refuses to crumble.

SHE RETAINS A SINGULAR POSITION, BOTH OUTSIDE OF POPULAR CULTURE AND CURIOUSLY INDIVISIBLE FROM IT

As a personal brand she remains ferociously effective. She is the one symbolic national figurehead synonymous with calm. You can misunderstand Shakespeare, bore of The Beatles and write extended university theses on how Harry Potter was set up as champion of society’s misfits and outsiders, only for his creator arguably to let us down at the 11th hour with controversial comments on transgender people. But in 2022, to diss the Queen is somehow to appear directly at odds with the national psyche.

Because I haven’t followed the Queen’s every doing and undoing for my adult life, and spent a good portion of it actively disinterested in her, I had trouble remembering when her annus horribilis speech was. In my head it happened one Christmas sometime after the death of Diana and before the falling of the twin towers. Actually, a bit of cursory research shows that it was as early as 1992, at a Lord Mayor’s Lunch in London to mark the 40th anniversary of her coronation, just after the fire at Windsor Castle.

This weekend she marks her 70th. In one sense, to the casual observer, reaching that figure looks easily done. The Queen does not want for anything. She is in possession of an unthinkable fortune. Staff toady around her doting on her every whim. She is afforded unwavering cross-party political support to the point where even Jeremy Corbyn managed to grimace his way through the required pleasantries to keep things looking surface-level compliant. She enjoys the absolute devotion of the world’s media. When her grandson and his new wife made a series of allegations against the institution, she was single-handedly named to avoid her being blamed, and the coupled even named their newborn after her in order to appear onside. In this respect, 70 years on the throne looks like more than an affable innings.

Let’s be frank. 2021 was the most horribilis of her anni so far. She buried her husband. Her favourite son was stuck in a cat-and-mouse chase of his own making with the American judiciary concerning his alleged involvement with an underage sex trafficking ring, which he denies. Harry and Meghan appeared to have monetised their allotted 15 minutes’ airtime to maximum personal advantage. It is at this moment she could do with a celebration.

Yet the Queen retains a singular position, both outside of popular culture and curiously indivisible from it. She will forever be a precedent for the parameters of power. Whatever is thrown at her, whatever disasters surround her, whatever personal sadness affects her, she commands respect. There’s a lesson in there for all of us. God bless her.

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