Some things you only know about The Queen if you're British
Congratulations to any overseas visitors who were in Britain to see us at our most British last weekend. But you may be wondering: what does it all MEAN?
In this travel blog, I’m going to write about last weekend’s Platinum jubilee, which marked the Queen’s 70 years on the throne. I think this is the right subject for a travel blog, even though I won’t be offering tips on which castles to tick off and which royal events to attend (though if you get the chance to visit the Braemar Highland Gathering, do).
As travel writers, we’re always trying to get at the meaning of a place (or we should). That’s exactly what the many writers for overseas newspapers have been doing as they have given this extremely rare event as much coverage as they can. They want to tell their readers what this all says about the British.
I’ve hugely enjoyed the coverage – as someone quite willing to pass judgement on other countries’ quirks and traditions, you have to attend patiently as they do the same on yours.
Here is a handy bullet-point list summing up their observations:
Britain is in decline (they’ve been staying this for as long as The Queen has been on the throne, but it still requires to be repeated)
The citizens just about realise this, but a royal occasion allows them to bask in memories of former glories through pageantry and popular music
We remain class-riven, polarised, unhealthy and divided
However, we do know how to put on a good show
We’re great at wearing hats
We love a party but we know there will be a hangover (note: this is a metaphor – the traditional metaphor)
The one area of manufacturing where we remain supreme is National Treasures – the Queen, obviously, but also a long line of distinguished and lovable people, not to mention fictional bears.
All of which is true, or partly true. But let’s fill in what these brilliant commentators and colour writers missed.
A street party photographed by National Treasure Martin Parr
The Queen is a legend in her own lifetime
That is about the lamest cliche in the book. Almost anyone can attain legendary status after one season in the Premier League or an appearance on a TV talent show.
I’m writing as someone who, a bit pompously, regrets the weakening of that word, legendary. Hercules is a legendary figure. Rod Stewart isn’t.
But The Queen satisfies all definitions and criteria of legendary-ness.
First, we don’t really know if half the stories we hear about her are true.
She’s certainly not saying. She never gives interviews and has spoken about 12 words in public over her long reign that might be called an ‘opinion’. So we have to rely on stories, hearsay and anecdotes from people who claim to know her. That’s the stuff of legend.
Legends are stories cultures tell themselves to understand what they value and what they are like. So the Queen’s legends are very important.
Let’s take my favourite.
The Queen is at a privy council meeting – or it might be a Buckingham Palace garden party. A mobile phone rings. The pompous politician – or nouveau riche woman in a hat – fumbles desperately for the off switch. The Queen, calm as ever, says ‘you should answer it. It might be someone important.’
Why does this story make the British so happy?
She is funny
Having a sense of humour is the most desirable trait any British person can have; and conversely, not having one makes you a figure of suspicion and alarm. Everyone attests that the Queen is funny in the bone-dry, often self-deprecating way we most love. She is famously – legendarily – a great mimic. As someone who never says anything more penetrating and controversial in public than ‘the weather’s nice’ and ‘it has been a difficult year for many’ (COVID etc), we relish the idea that she is observing all these great and inflated figures and finding them ludicrous. Jane Austen did much the same thing.
I’ve enormous admiration for The Crown. The Netflix series does a fine job of weaving together the legends with a first class modern history of Britain highlights reel. I also like Olivia Colman: but in casting her as Her Majesty, they got the casting badly wrong. Not because, in the words of Charles Hilary Moore, Baron Moore of Etchingham, she has ‘a left-wing face’ (said the owner of the most right-wing face in the kingdom). It’s not that. The actress just didn’t get the merest – and it is the merest – twinkle in those blue eyes. Olivia Colman’s Queen is much too heavy. I expect Imelda Staunton’s to be perfect.
She is not the poshest person in the room
‘It might be someone important’. The Queen famously – legendarily – said of Princess Michael of Kent that she was rather too grand for the rest of the family. Diana’s family, the Spencers, are famously – legendarily – rather grander than the royals. Ordinariness is part of the Queen legend. It was a great moment for the nation when a photograph smuggled out of the Palace showed a collection of tupperware containers on the royal breakfast table.
Foreigners and billionaires might do flashy. Our head of state has doggy dribble on the rugs and her cornflakes out of a plastic jug.
In their brilliant podcast on Jubilees, The Rest is History boys asked how the Royal Family gets to have that particular cake and eat it. Be ordinary, middle class, all muddy dogs and frayed collars, and yet put on these ridiculous pageants, just as they have done since the Field of Cloth of Gold, and probably before.
It’s not a mystery. They just like dressing up. The British do. It’s all a bit of a hoot, as long as you remember to put on your solemn face at the right moment.
A friend of mine painted the Queen’s portrait. I asked him if she is really as funny as people say. I hope he doesn’t get into trouble if I relate what he told me. The story deserves to have legendary status.
For their sittings in Buckingham Palace, the Queen was in the full regalia: gowns, sash, tiara, jewellery, the lot. As they left the room after the session, they ran straight into a group of ambassadors who were getting a tour of the premises. They pressed themselves against the wall in terror.
‘I don't know what the matter is,’ said HM. ‘I dress like this every day’.
She is a bit grumpy sometimes
There is no question the Queen has gotten grumpier in her old age. That’s fine. Don’t we all? Grumpiness is one of those English words we own and ‘grumble’ is a verb that perfectly sums up the low-level discontent with Things – just Things – that is a part of the British condition. It doesn’t quite translate into other languages. No wonder the current Chinese dictator is trying to ban it.
She is an Anglican
Actually, she is the Anglican – head of the Church of England. This is a form of Protestantism characterised by its tolerance, lack of fervour and all-round drippiness. It has been refined over the centuries to put the British at ease when contemplating life, death, salvation and other subjects that can get a bit heavy when you’re down the pub.
As everyone knows, the Queen's Christian faith is legendarily deep and sincere. But she manages not to worry us, as most people do when they start talking about religion. She speaks about God as a benign and rather distinguished neighbour who drops in for a chat sometimes – and is also, incidentally, not the poshest person in the room either.
The same charges you’d make against Anglicanism are the same ones you’d make against royalty. It perpetuates a feudal idea of service. We are born to serve, subjects (of heaven, of our country), not citizens. The Number One legend of the living Queen is she is dedicated to Service.
It’s ridiculous, anachronistic and it won’t do. But we are perfectly comfortable with the idea as long as she is around.
I went to a church Jubilee service on Sunday. I am not a churchgoer nor a believer, but I thought The Queen would like it if I went – so off I went. There was free tea and cake afterwards (of course, out of sheer embarrassment I put too much money in the collection place and bought four church mugs). The ladies in charge of the flowers had done a rather lovely triptych of arrangements featuring queenly hats.
Thanks to Coldingham Priory, which is well worth a visit
I usually squirm when they start preaching all that stuff about giving yourself to Jesus and obeying the Lord – the Lord – all your life. But today’s hymns, made to be strummed on a guitar not thundered on an organ, have none of that. In Around the World (one we sang on Sunday) Jesus is “our Guide, our Hero and our Friend”.
And I thought, is that what His representative on Earth, the Queen, is too? Our Guide, our Hero and our Friend?
Absolutely not. She is just The Queen.
Two things that made me happy to be British
I love the idea – nay, the prospect – that we will depose our Prime Minister because he ate cake at his birthday party. Oh, how Putin will scorn us, people say. But isn’t that the genius of western democracy and our version of it in particular? You don’t need to launch an illegal war. An ABBA singalong will do it.
And the second was the Queen having tea with Paddington Bear. Paddington is a wonderful creation. He is everything we admire: polite, good-hearted, but he won’t tolerate bossy or self important people, people who think they are too grand for the rest of us. Just like the Queen.
And I thought, I really hope they show this to President Xi Jinping, who is so bossy and self-important that his people had Winnie the Pooh banned because – hilariously – people noticed he looked like that other great British bear.
Think about it. Our head of state is made to do a film where she co-stars with a stuffed toy voiced over by a homosexual actor. It’s everything that’s weak, decadent and fundamentally unserious about the British. No wonder we are in decline.
But just suppose this endures and the other way doesn't?
Songs that take you places
City of Wellington Highland Pipe Band
The Queen legendarily likes ‘tunes that remain in one's head and are very danceable to’. Of course she does. But I think she’d love a bit of Scottish pipe and band music to remind her of her beloved Braemar Gathering. This version is played by the City of Wellington Pipe Band, so we get a touch of the Commonwealth in too.
The full Marklands playlist is here.
In an earlier version I knocked 10 years off the Queen’s reign. It was a slip of the digit rather than lèse-majesté, but thanks to everyone who pointed it out.