So I get talking to this American guy in the Grainger Market one day, and he says: “What’s it like being a loyal subject instead of a citizen?”
“It’s a fair question. He’s a citizen. I’m not. I’m a loyal subject. I’ve got a queen. He’s got a president. His Commander in Chief will change at least once in a decade, my queen has been around for seven decades. Presidents are elected, an open and democratic process. Kings and queens, like European commissioners, are not.
All my life I have been ‘loyal’ to a head of state in whose selection I have had no say.
Titles Should Never Need Explaining.
Well, this one does.
“Have you come Far?” One of Her Maj’s stock questions for people she meets when there is a coming together. (trade secret: when the dialogue with one loyal subject is getting too long, she shifts her handbag from one arm to the other; a signal to her minders that she wants to progress to the next person. They are really clever at stepping in and making sure that happens).
What’s in the Queen’s handbag? Various accounts list lipstick, a compact mirror, and cash for church donations, family photos and trinkets. Me? I think there’s a Gregg’s pasty and an Oyster Card, in case she gets stuck and has to go home by bus.
It’s important to remember not to touch The Queen. I’m not altogether sure of the reason for that one. Maybe they’re afraid we’ll wipe our hands on her – try and swipe left or something? I don’t know.
In 1954 in Exeter, when I was seven, The Queen came to our city. My kindergarten turned out to see her. Since she was still ‘new’ the school was anxious to give our patriotic fervour a jump start.
The headmistress (whose name, ‘Miss Comfort’ generated some serious etymological issues for me later in life) primed us with an announcement after morning prayers, showing us a portrait of Her Maj fully kitted out in a crown and stuff, and assuring us of her incomparable beauty. For good measure, she also threw in some photographs of the glittering coronation procession some two years before.
Each equipped with a small flag on a wooden stick, my classmates and I set off through the rain in a ‘crocodile’, kicking and scuffing our regulation school shoes, for the half-mile or so to Magdelene Road, where the royal cavalcade was scheduled to pass. Miss Comfort led the way, petrifying traffic wherever we came into conflict. Assistant Head and Dogsbody, the really quite wonderful Miss Darling, occupied the caboose.
By the time we reached Magdalene Road improvised ‘sword fights’ had taken their toll on several of our small flags, either by fractures to their wooden sticks or rejection, leaving them to be trampled underfoot. This implacably upset little Daisy Hawley whose flag so perished: she wept, loudly, for the entire morning.
The road was fenced off by barriers, and we mingled with a crowd at least five deep. We cheered raucously as word spread that the royal procession was on its way.
‘Hooray’, we cried in almost unison. It seemed to be expected of us.
I blame Miss Comfort. She had shown us images of a golden coach drawn by glossy grey horses, footmen in ceremonial dress, soldiers in busby’d splendour. Our imaginations filled in the rest: the solemn rhythm of hoof beats interspersed with the honk of brass and the bark of military commands. She had shown us the pictures, so I expected no less. I was seven. I listened for the sound of approaching hooves, the pomp and trump of a marching band.
Police cars have sirens now – they had bells then. There were quite a lot of those. Police outriders and four black limousines whisked by at forty or so miles per hour. The Queen, I later learned, was riding in the second limousine. I couldn’t tell you for certain. I didn’t see.
That evening my parents asked me if I had seen The Queen.
“Yes, she went by in a car,” I replied. “I think the police were chasing her.”
Jump forward 69 years.
As the dust on the celebrations for our now 96-years-old monarch’s Platinum Jubilee settles I am reminded of those cheering crowds back in 1954, uncritical of the limited spectacle presented to them, flapping their paper flags in the rain.
A lot has changed since 1954. The hosts who gathered outside Buckingham Palace for a hoped-for Jubilee balcony appearance last week were relayed the finest details on a giant screen. This is the media age. It is no longer a flag the loyal subject holds aloft; it is a mobile phone. Enthusiasm is confidentially expressed and a silent recording says it for us: “I was there.”.
Queen Elizabeth’s image and carefully modulated tones can be discovered with ease almost anywhere – on You Tube, Twitter, Insta-ad-infinitum. She vies with Delavigne or Cher for the title of the World’s most recognisable face. Yet there is a distinction, a very important distinction; and that is in the danger of growing old in the job. Her audience – myself among them – has grown old with her. The young (largely, we’re talking generalisations here) have been left behind.
The royal ‘Firm’ maintains a defensive wall around the royals, which means only a few of the very privileged, may move freely within the bailey. Most ‘loyal subjects’, therefore, only hear such carefully sifted grains of information about the royal family as the Firm is prepared to drop. We tend to augment this with the canards of the press, which are rarely accurate. Although sufficient to engage the older generation, perhaps, these do little to impress youth and an audience geared to the 21st Century. The Queen is 96, playing to followers with long memories. If the monarchy is to have a future – something many of us may question – it has to adjust to the fresh, media-led dynamism of those born long after her first Jubilee.
Unfortunately, the order of succession decrees that Charles, The Queen’s son, must succeed her. Charles is 74. He has some interesting ideas – he wants to reduce his family’s burden on the taxpayer; he’s a convinced, even fanatical ‘green’ – but his audience is overwhelmingly the same demographic as his mother’s, whilst lacking some of her subjects’ unquestioning devotion. He is a reserved, somewhat reticent individual who drags a reputation around with him as the faithless husband of Diana. Netflix may protest their depiction of him is fictional, but his impressionable younger subjects won’t be deflected by that.
Charles’s overall popularity is hard to measure. He scarcely seems to be a ‘man of the people’, rather more an embarrassed wearer of a heavy crown. His shy, ermine-bedecked appearance before the crowds on that Buckingham Palace balcony is too easy to imagine, as is his subsequent apologetic withdrawal to the inner sanctum and a waiting glass of sherry. So late in life his stuffed shirt image is impossible to shift – I am sure he would not want it shifted – and to the upcoming generation he is in danger of being completely invisible, damagingly irrelevant.
He also has to deal with the misadventures of a brother recently on the run from the law in the United States, and the mutual dislike of his sons, one of whom has slipped ‘The Palace’ yoke altogether and is perfectly willing to discuss in detail things the Firm desperately wants to keep secret.
Although the Queen has reigned long and dutifully over her country, it might be fair to say her sons have not turned out all that well. Maybe if the order skipped a generation, and the crown passed to Charles’s son, they would be better able to fend off the intrusions of media and misfortune in the 21st Century? Would William and his wife, the glamorous Kate batter down those curtain walls?
But then again…
I can be naughty. At seventy-five, I am in the oddly privileged position of being able to make predictions that would make Nostradamus blush, without being around for long enough to see them tested. Therefore, with great glee, I forecast that in twelve years or so the UK will have become the fifty-first state of he Union, symbolically ‘reigned’ over by Charles’s second son.
King Harry and Queen Meghan. What greater force for unity could there be?