Thursday, April 21, 2016

Birthday Girl: The Big Nine-Oh

Herself, as seen by Mr. David Bailey

There is, I think, very little that can be written about the woman that is in any way new or particularly insightful. 

Having been the subject of public comment more or less continuously for the past ten decades can do that to a person. When the person in question is someone who, in all that time, has never given an interview, has never written at any length (that we know of or have access to) about herself, and who has at all times asked for and in large part received great discretion from those around her – well, what we are left with is a public image.

That said: what an image, one as rock solid and immutable as Gibraltar (part of her holdings, in a sense, of course, which seems fitting). 

One thing that has struck me, though, amid the flurry of publicity that has led up to today, the ninetieth birthday of Her Majesty, is what a rarity it must be for two people – thinking, as one so generally does, of herself as half a pair, like novelty salt-and-pepper shakers, with the Duke of Edinburgh – to be in such apparent roaring good health as nonagenarians. Whatever else is going on, they’re clearly doing something right. It makes me wonder why there hasn’t been more thought devoted to figuring out just what that something is, and encouraging more of it.

There is much, I suppose, about the way they live, that simply can’t be replicated by lesser mortals. Much as we pine, we’ll never have the houses, the staff, the cars, and the ‘round-the-clock access to top-flight immediate medical care. That said, though, we’ll also never have the stress, the constant, unrelenting attention, or the sheer endlessness of being Sovereign and Consort. 

They have, despite all the generally ill-informed joshing about inbreeding, quite good genes, of course. The Duke’s mother, Princess Alice of Greece, made 84 despite being a lifelong chain-smoker and having suffered genuine privation for years during the Second War. The Queen’s mother seemed until her very last months eternal, as cheerful a centenarian as she was a bride (I sometimes wonder if this is more a subject of encouragement or the opposite for poor Prince Charles). Unlike most of their forebears, Elizabeth and Philip seem to be advocates of moderation on all fronts, drinking lightly (if regularly), eating well, and keeping away from tobacco (the negative examples of her father and his mother – palace staff said you could smell Princess Alice coming from two rooms away, so strong was her nicotine habit – must have been monitory). 

Still: I can’t help but thinking that there’s a potential best-selling “lifestyle guide” to be had of considering their way of life. Perhaps I should sit down and write Longevity the Windsor-Mountbatten Way, but until then, for your edification on this august day of celebration, here are ten elements of the royal life available, on some level, to us all: 

1. Have a plan, and stick to it. The virtues of a predictable life seem clear, and few people know further in advance how virtually every moment of their lives will be spent than these two. From the overall shape of the year – the peregrinations among London, Windsor, Sandringham, and Balmoral – to the meticulously scheduled cycle of openings, christenings, reviewing, and generally jollying along that form their daily agenda, everything is laid out clearly and with purpose. You may not need to know that on the coming November 15, you will be visiting a kindergarten, a Women’s Institute chapter, a new city hall, and a hospital for the criminally insane, of course – but do you at this moment have a general sense of what next autumn looks like? Think about it. Plan. 

2. Enjoy – but employ – your downtime. As dedicated as the two are to their public duties, they are equally strong in their private interests. Everything from horses to painting are important parts of their private lives, and while four-in-hand carriage driving or the breeding of dorgis* is unlikely to take up much of our mental and physical energy, we could all benefit from even a fraction of their tireless enthusiasm. 

3. Ignore the carpers. As the old Arabic saying goes, “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.” Few people this side of Elizabeth Taylor have ever had to sail through as much sheer muck in terms of the less-savory side of the press, and none have ever been less ruffled, at least in public. Oh, yes, the Duke does lash out every now and then, but that’s just part of his quixotic charm. 

4. Which brings one to the next point: develop a persona. It’s far easier to maneuver in one’s world, whether a stage as broad as that afforded the Head of the Commonwealth or just your average setting of office, neighborhood, and moderately interesting social circle, if one is both engaging and distinctive. I’ve been shooting for years for a combination of avuncular and wry, for example, and if nothing else, it allows one to fulfill the expectations of others, which can be oddly satisfying. 

5. A corollary to that, but one that is central to the royal mystique: have a look, and really commit. Fashions come and go in a dizzying way, but a well-cut suit or a really good piece of jewelry are eternal. It’s no coincidence that the Prince Consort is still wearing clothes that first saw duty half-a-century ago, or that his wife is the most recognizable person in the world because of her sartorial consistency. 

And it’s not just clothes or well-thought-out accessories; it’s how you move, how you present yourself, even the expression on your face. Have you noticed, as I have lately, how few people seem to employ the pleasantly neutral expression that I was taught was a marker of a lady or gentleman? No – people gawp, yawn, squint, or simply stare off into the middle distance slack-jawed. One result is that scourge of modern life, Resting Bitch Face, than which there is little less appealing. Unlike the Royal Family, you may not have every moment of your life outside your bedroom (and even perhaps more than one inside) potentially captured for eternity; that’s no reason not to at least appear ready for whatever comes your way. 

Clothes-wise, knowing what works, why it works, and how to make it work not only breeds confidence, in the long run it saves an enormous amount of time. More generally, looking well, from shined shoes to decent posture, is if nothing else an immense gift to the civic landscape. 

6. Be interested. It seems to me that the only way to get through the kind of life that the Queen leads and has led since she was in her early teens is to find a way, somehow, to stay engaged with even most mind-numbing part of one’s day. Think how many times she must have paused, for just a moment, at the start of yet another receiving line or while pivoting to exit her car as yet another crowd waits in anticipation, and gathered up every ounce of concentration in order to – as Helen Mirren puts it when playing HM’s several-great grandmother Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in The Madness of King George, - “Smile and vave! Smile and vave, it’s vy zey pay you!” And yet I believe she genuinely manages it. You can see it in her clear-eyed gaze, looking at her millionth prize spongecake or ten-thousandth flower-bearing tot. 

7. But at the same time: to a degree, stay aloof. I’ve read that one way she does in fact get through it all is spending as much time as she can, though all the public ceremonies, in her own thoughts. It’s not going on auto-pilot, really; it’s a form of multi-tasking. And I think it must be very good for the brain, as well as a fine way keep it all from driving one mad. 

8. Have some perspective. No one is more aware of her role, unique and bizarre as it is, than the Queen. I don’t mean in the sense of feeling like she rules the roost or is even terribly special, but rather that – in a phrase more often used as a putdown of one’s inferiors, but that can be important for any of us – she knows her place. A story told this week by one of the troops that guards her in Scotland illustrated this rather neatly. It seems that while at Balmoral at some point, and out and about in her off-duty uniform (see 5, above) of neat tartan skirt and headscarf, she encountered a group of American tourists. They chatted for a moment with this nice local lady and at length asked her if she’d ever met the Queen. “No,” she replied, and indicated her plainclothesman companion, “but he has.” Absolute truth (and a rather good example of thinking on one’s feet, as well). 

9. Give thanks. I’m not saying you have to be, as is ERII, Fidei defensor, or even especially churchy in any way. I do think, though, that there must be something improving in spending a significant amount of time, as the royals do, in expressing gratitude, whether to a host for a lovely event/coffee morning/state visit or to some worthy volunteer for a life well spent (what else, after all, is an investiture but a prolonged session of “Thank you – and good on you!”). A great deal of the Windsor charm comes in The Firm’s enormous gift for making others feel good by making them feel thanked. I expect that you, in any number of ways, might find ways to do the same. 

10. Finally: Live well. This seems self-explanatory, but it’s the one that trips up more of us, more fatally, than any other. And it doesn’t just mean don’t smoke, or don’t gorge, or don’t sprawl on the sofa like a sloth three-quarters of your day (although it’s still key; the Queen, who lost her father five decades before her mother and her much-beloved sister far too early, seems keenly aware of it). No: it means – as the Queen always seems to – exactly what it says. When you do eat, make it of good quality and enjoy it. When you do drink – and from all accounts no one is fonder of her daily Dubonnet-and-gin than HM – relish it; make of it a little ritual, even. My glass of good white wine at the end of the day is a marker that I’m home and the greater part of the housework’s done and now I can sit and read. Find your way to mark the passing of every day. Even if you have ninety years of them, there’s only so many, you know. 

Life, alas, has no guarantees, and I do think that perhaps the undeniable benefits that come with nearly endless privilege do help keep one through the arduous trek of being up and running for nearly a century. Or perhaps all of the above has nothing at all to do with any of it; perhaps the Windsor secret really boils down to having a bagpiper wake one every morning, or possibly it’s the health-giving aspects of having access to the world’s finest sapphire parure. 

All I know is, whatever it is, it clearly works for her and for him, and I’m rather glad of that. It will all seem rather odd when they go, and while I’m quite firm in believing that her successors will do quite well (and on this festive occasion, let’s not stoop to arguing about what lies ahead), there’s no question that, having been around for longer than all but the very oldest of us can remember, in ways we can’t yet predict the world will change on their passing. It’s a truism I fall back on to often, too easily, and yet it’s quite entirely so: we shall not see their like again. 

Happy birthday, Ma’am. The Beatles really did get it right – all things said, she’s a pretty nice girl. 

* Yes, not a typo, you know – they are a mix of corgi and dachshund, combining, from most accounts, the most obstreperous qualities of each. Princess Margaret apparently had a hand in popularizing them with the family, which doesn’t surprise me in the least.


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  2. Meanwhile, I've just thought of a very necessary eleventh: once you've mastered all of the above: make it look easy. Or, to put it less elegantly, never let them see you sweat. At ninety, that alone is no mean feat.

  3. Personally I would love the "health-giving aspects of having access to the world’s finest sapphire parure"... Jx

    PS Happy birthday, Ma'am!

  4. My colleague, who holds a royal warrant as her official Scottish hairdresser, adores her. He says she's funny, warm, gentle, and extremely caring.