July 08, 2010

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is visiting us here in Manhattan this week. As I write this, she has just got through delivering an address to the U.N. General Assembly, 16 of whose member nations have her as their head of state. The speech wasn’t anything very substantive, but then she’s a constitutional monarch. Non-substantive speechifying is what she does. She does it superbly well. She’s now on her way to lower Manhattan to open a memorial park for the 67 British citizens murdered in the 9/11 attacks. (Weren’t any citizens of her other 15 nations murdered too? But perhaps that’s been allowed for. I’m just reading from the news wires here.)

I can’t claim to be much of a monarchist. Since getting U.S. citizenship in 2002, I’ve left the old country pretty thoroughly behind. I didn’t even do the maneuvers to maintain dual citizenship, though several expat Brits explained them to me, and there are some minor conveniences to be got. Dual citizenship just seems wrong to me. How can you be loyal to more than one country? I’ve only been back to England twice since my naturalization: once business, once pleasure. The place has changed too much, mostly in ways I find disagreeable.

And yet . . . you never let go altogether of the place where you were born and raised. However much—however deliberately and thankfully and unrepentingly—you change your life, there’s still a craving for some continuity, even if only at a symbolic level.

Queen Elizabeth’s coronation (June 2, 1953) was the first large public event I was fully aware of. We had a street party. I was given a book filled with figures from the coronation procession that you could cut out and assemble as a table-top procession all your own. All the schoolkids in the country got coronation mugs, of course—my sister still has hers.

Thus are tuned the mystic chords of memory. If you’re human at all, you’ll hear them till you die, however faint, however unwillingly.

I only saw Her Majesty once in person. That was when she came to visit my home town in the summer of 1964. She drove through the center of town to the Guildhall in an open car, waving at the crowds of townspeople who’d come out to see her.

I actually hadn’t, and wouldn’t have, being a bit of a lefty republican at that time. This was my college summer vacation, though. I’d taken a job as a construction laborer, helping to put up a building right there in the center of town. (The building was still there when this picture was taken. It’s the square gray block in the middle. Ugly? Sure. Don’t blame me. I didn’t design the wretched thing, I just helped build it.)

“Like the rest of us, Elizabeth was born into a world where certain things were expected of her, as a matter of duty.”

We had a couple of floors up and scaffolding going higher, so all of us—common laborers, chippies (i.e. carpenters), brickies (bricklayers), steel fixers (handling the steel reinforcing rods for the concrete), masons (putting polished stone facing on the finished floors—I got to know one of the older masons, who told me he’d spent his entire apprenticeship on government work: cutting headstones for the WW1 military cemeteries), and the rest—all of us had a grandstand view of Her Majesty’s motorcade as it tooled past.

The common laborers were mostly Irish: big, rough, potato-fed lads from the back country, some of them Gaelic-speakers. They’d come over to England for construction work in the spring, then head back to the home village in Ireland to hibernate through the winter, when bad weather made construction jobs scarce. I always found them genial and good fun to work with, though you didn’t want to go for drinks with them after hours unless you enjoyed fist-fights and massive hangovers.

They were Irish, though, and this was the Queen, so there was a good deal of black humor flying around. “Hey Michael, where d’you put that violin case of mine?”—that sort of thing. It was light-hearted, as it could afford to be, the IRA being in a quiescent phase in the early 1960s. The Irish lads actually seemed quite keen to get a good view. So there we all were, up on the high scaffolding, watching the Queen ride past on her way to lunch with the Mayor at the Guildhall. It was exciting stuff for a little out-of-the-way English country town.

I would have denied that at the time, of course. If it hadn’t been for the simple curiosity of my Irish colleagues, in fact, I’d probably have stayed at my labors through the entire event somewhere out of sight, as a protest against the whole silly, stuffy, expensive, old-fashioned business of monarchy—“gold fillings in a mouth full of decay,” as Malcolm Muggeridge had referred to the royals a few years earlier. There was an election coming up and I was strong for Labour. Harold Wilson and his fellow socialists would soon sweep away all those relics of a regrettable, class-ridden, imperialist past! We’d soon cut the Windsors down to size—have them riding round London on bicycles, like the Scandinavian monarchs, and turn the Royal Yacht into a vacation home for retired coal miners. 

Well, most of us have daft ideas at nineteen. With age comes wisdom. Nations, like individuals, need some continuity; and continuity-wise, a line that goes back (if you’ll tolerate some juggling by the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers) a millennium and a half to Cerdic of Wessex, is not to be sniffed at. Certainly it is not to be demoted overnight, not by a nation whose social resentments are constrained by layers of custom, sentimentality, irony, and forbearance.

Like the rest of us, Elizabeth was born into a world where certain things were expected of her, as a matter of duty. She went ahead and did those things doggedly, never setting a foot wrong, for half a century. How many of us can say the same of our own obligations?

Is the mess in order? May I propose the toast? Thank you.

Proposer: Mr. Vice, the Queen!
Vice: Gentlemen, the Queen!
All, standing: The Queen!


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