There was a decent crowd on Lower Regent Street making their way to the Mall last Thursday to troop the platinum colored jubilee edition. But it wasn’t that difficult to get through on my way to the Athenaeum club in St James’s. I was invited to an anniversary lunch which was briefly interrupted to step into the club’s private garden and watch the anniversary go by.
I’m not a member of the Athenaeum, not in the born way – I have a generous friend who occasionally takes me to lunch there. Most of the conversation revolved around the war in Ukraine. There wasn’t that much talk about the big event happening 100 meters away. And yet, Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign has underscored that this country, at home and abroad, is defined by monarchy, for better or for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health.
All guests were of one age. We had all experienced the great moments of Elizabeth’s reign. There was little new to say. My friend’s wife ordered coronation chicken for her main course. That was the one expression that noted the occasion. The crowd outside was mostly English but there were a significant number of foreign tourists. I didn’t get the feeling that they had traveled to London specifically – they just happened to be here and on the show.
However, the Americans who asked for directions to Green Park on the Holborn subway were definitely in town for the event. When it comes to the Queen and her family, many Americans can be described as modern-day monarchists. I’ve built my journalism career on Americans’ lustful and awed interest in the House of Windsor. I could always sell a story about a royal scandal. The overseas presence was a reminder that Elizabeth has become the global ideal of a monarch over the course of her seven decades on the throne. People think, “If we could have a queen like her, I would be a monarchist.” The queen’s destiny was to be a human tabula rasa for people to see their hopes written on.
In the late 1980s, when I was new to Britain, my friends, who were generally Republican in faith, saw her as the last line of resistance against Margaret Thatcher. They told and told a story of Elizabeth on an official visit to Glasgow, expressing outrage at Thatcher’s government. she government, seeing the dire post-industrial state of the place and saying, “These people have nothing.”
Did she really say that? It does not matter. Their role is to be perceived primarily as a symbol and secondarily as a human being. At events like the garden parties at Buckingham Palace, both perceptions collide. Because of my work, I was invited to one. There I would be in the presence of royalty along with a few thousand others invited to minister in their communities.
Thousands wandered the palace grounds, admiring the flamingos drinking from the pond, sipping tea in huge tents and then gathered on the lawn to a trumpet call as Her Majesty and her family stepped onto the rear terrace and formed a tableau while the national anthem was played . The Queen in front, Prince Philip two paces behind her, the Prince of Wales the same distance behind her but on the other side of her.
Finally the Queen was led down the steps, where a very small group of people was to be introduced to her, but around this scene were crowded several hundred others, a murmur of monarchists who flocked now and then in the hope of gaining a closer look to preserve the actual living Human: Her Majesty working her way around the select group. It was the most unphlegmatic, un-English behavior. You couldn’t ask for autographs, but the people who followed her across the lawn would have if they could. The following year, Diana, another human turned tabula rasa, was killed. After her death, my pro-Republican friends and many experts believed the monarchy was doomed.
I knew otherwise. Over time I had seen that the monarchy in British society served a function similar to that of the constitution in my native United States. It is a sacred symbol, the revered heart of national identity. You can tear it up, abuse it, change it, even cut off its head, but you can’t eliminate it because then you wouldn’t be the same nation.
When foreign-born people become citizens of the United States, they take their oaths in rooms that often have a framed picture of the Constitution with the first three words in extra large type: We the People.
When I finally became a British citizen at a ceremony at Hackney Town Hall, we sang God Save the Queen with two dozen other immigrants, not all of whom spoke fluent English, while her portrait looked at us. We meant every word.
Symbols, totems, the core of national belonging. By then, a decade after Diana’s death, the Queen – with the help of writer Peter Morgan and actors Helen Mirren and Claire Foy – had reinvented herself for her remarkably long and popular final act.
The US TV broadcasters have been in their key positions in front of Buckingham Palace for the past few days. The last Lancaster bomber and surviving Spitfires flew by once more. There were street parties and platinum piss-ups in bars, all rituals observed. But the anniversary is muted. Many more people tried to leave this island for a trip abroad on Tuesday and Wednesday than to London to party at the Mall. The Queen did not attend the Thanksgiving service at St Paul, underscoring the feeling that an era, if not an individual life, is over. If you don’t think the royal show is on and on, think how many Britons are already looking forward to the reign of the next king’s son, the queen’s grandson, William.
The podcast is hosted by Michael Goldfarb, a former London correspondent for NPR FRDH, First rough draft of history