Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Many Happy Returns to a Pretty Nice Girl
So now she's 89 and a day. I was remiss in missing the big day yesterday, but it still seems worth noting.
It's a remarkable age still to be as active as she obdurately remains, made of course all the more notable in that she's the actually the younger half of the world's longest running double act, and he's just as spry. I make no secret of admiring her, immoderately, not so much out of abstract monarchist devotion (although it does seem a system that when it works well, works very well indeed), but because she herself is such a remarkable anomaly.
Who is more famous, more scrutinized, and yet less known? Who else, in a public career spanning nine decades, can boast of a more irreproachable feat of sustained self-presentation (and yet who, one suspects, is less likely to boast of anything at all)?
When her mother died, there was much talk of the Passing of the Last Great Edwardian Lady, but in some ways Her Majesty is even more of the past, with her raising so deeply rooted in the values of Victoria that she seems now not so much of another age as of another civilization altogether. She holds, resolutely, a personal creed of duty, discipline, faith, and sheer steadiness that today is inconceivable. As a result, she carries on as always she has done and, I have no doubt, will continue to do for as long as possible. When at last her Great Great Grandmother Victoria left her post, the changes that followed on the advent of the new King Edward VII were seismic; one wonders what similar shifts we will, in retrospect, someday attribute to her going?
When we visited Buckingham Palace last winter, I was struck not simply by the sheer magnificence of the rooms (although they are truly breathtaking; I won't deny that the first glimpse of the Picture Gallery nearly made me weep), but of the feeling that one was in some species of great machine of state, a kind of engine of impressiveness. It was a curiously warming, encouraging feeling; the scale, the richness, the stillness of the place instilled a kind of exhilaration that was, at the same time, oddly, a peculiar sense of intimacy. While she herself has hardly moved a chair in spaces that are largely unchanged since the first days of the 20th Century, one nonetheless felt inescapably the impact, the influence of the great house's presiding genius.
It was a feeling, I realized, in a more stately way, not unlike that generated by seeing her in person. I've done so twice, although the first - at the Montreal Olympics in '76 - was at a fairly great distance. The second was fleeting, but comparatively close up: when I was living in Ghana (oh, I did get around, once upon a time, but that's quite another story), there was a Royal Visit, a very big deal in a country that was, at that time at least, as fanatical in its devotion to the Commonwealth as it earlier was in its eagerness to leave the Empire. Following several weeks of intense tidying across the capital, there was a motorcade through the principal streets, and she drove right by the gates of our office compound. There she was, in her great black car, smiling and waving as she does, and in little more than a flash gone on, 'round the traffic circle that on ordinary days swirled in a confused mass of tangled traffic. But we had seen her, and felt that little bit different for it.
And now she's rising 90. I hope she goes on a while, at least as long as she feels it worth her while. I actually have some confidence in her successor (remembering, if nothing else, how universal was the consensus that Edward VII was destined to be a disaster, and yet he was anything but), but there's no question it will all feel very odd...