blackbirdonline journalFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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The Forever Queen: Good-bye to All That

The Queen has died. She’s no longer among the living. I struggle to imagine a dramatic corollary, a sudden absence on anywhere near the same scale. A Parisian wakes up, rubs his eyes, and sees nothing but blue sky where the Eiffel Tower stood yesterday. An Egyptian drives south from Cairo and finds nothing but shifting sands—and rental camels—where the great pyramids stood yesterday and a million yesterdays before.

Queen Elizabeth is no more. The Forever Queen was mortal after all. Longevity itself, especially a case as extreme and visible as hers, creates an unpredictable shock wave when it ends. A psychological landscape is profoundly rearranged. She was the queen when I was seven years old and when I was seventy years old, queen when I was a child and when my child had her children, queen when my mother was thirty-five and when my mother died at ninety-five. Of all the constants in the lives of people my age—war, prejudice, political stupidity, metastasizing inequality—the reign of Elizabeth Regina was by far the most benevolent. She was always there, and it took a stubbornly mean-spirited person to despise her. I’m not British, it’s unlikely that I would (or could) stand for twenty-four hours in a five-mile-long line to view the Queen’s coffin, as thousands of her subjects are standing as I write this. Yet respect must be paid.

Of course, we never met, the Queen and I. (Though family legend has it that I met her first prime minister. As my mother told it, Winston Churchill was walking through the Public Gardens with his entourage, on a wartime visit to Halifax, when he encountered my parents pushing a pram. Noting my father’s American naval uniform, the great man greeted them with “Hi, Yanks” and flashed his two-fingered V-for-Victory sign at the infant in the carriage—at me, eight months old.) I lived in the United Kingdom long enough to understand that there was an entire branch of public relations devoted to making sure the Queen got good press. But it seems that she usually deserved it. She played the hand she was dealt—if you think it was a great hand, you haven’t thought about it enough—with stoicism and grace. She gave a century-long performance that merits our sustained applause.

I can’t deny that her death has affected me in a way that feels personal. What gives me the right to number myself among her mourners? You decide. I was born in a Commonwealth country, Canada, to American parents, courtesy of the Second World War. I was born in the Royal Infirmary in Halifax, Nova Scotia. All my ancestors came from Great Britain, most of them from Scotland or Yorkshire. My great-grandmother, whom I knew well as a child, was born in Yorkshire and lived through thirty-eight years of Queen Victoria’s reign and the first five years of Queen Elizabeth’s. Through seventy-five years in America, her North Country British accent never changed. When I was a boy and she was a widow in her eighties and nineties, she would fix me tea with milk and tell me about Victoria—“my wee queenie”—and life in horse-and-buggy England. Downstairs her son and his wife—my grandparents—had decorated their dining room with portraits of all the British queens, even Bloody Mary in a dark corner over the silver chest.

You get the picture. I ingested a much stronger dose of the Union Jack than the average faculty brat from upstate New York. And there’s more. My first preteen enthusiasm was collecting stamps, and there was Elizabeth’s postal face on page after page in my stamp album—St. Kitts and Nevis, Guiana, New Zealand, Ceylon, Tanganyika—remember Ceylon and Tanganyika? It was always her classic pose in profile, a woman’s portrait that transcended region, that must have been seen by more human beings than any other in history. At that time, the Commonwealth/Empire included nations on every habitable continent, with many islands in between.

Years later, when I was a graduate student in Edinburgh, Elizabeth’s image was on every coin in my pocket and every pound note in my wallet. For a couple of years, I never left my apartment without the Queen’s face concealed somewhere on my person. That has to account for some of my sense that she was family. I didn’t have to be English; we Americans speak English, my mother was an English teacher, my BA was in English literature. But I guess the clinching connection was Uncle Johnny Briar, a Yorkshire nurseryman, who visited my grandparents several times when I was a child. Uncle Johnny advertised himself as “The Mum King”—as close as any of my mercantile forebears came to royalty or even nobility—and, according to my parents, his greenhouses provided the copious chrysanthemums for Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953.

If the story is true, and I’m sure there’s no one left alive who could contradict it, I think it entitles me to a place, at least in spirit, in the endless line of mourners that wound along the Thames. Not a dry eye in London Town, they say. Even if you’re a deep skeptic when it comes to the royal family, you have to admit that bringing the Queen’s favorite pony and two of her corgis to the funeral was a nice touch.

In spite of the nostalgia I’m confessing, I’m very far from a monarchist or even an Anglophile. The English with their stubborn caste system and their fetish for glitter and pageantry aren’t everyone’s cup of tea (I couldn’t resist that). I admit to a certain American, proletarian aversion to ultra-posh accents on the BBC newsfeed, and I always took a dim view of the kind of American who practically falls to his knees when he hears an Oxbridge accent. I was once lucky enough to hear Sir Peter Ustinov mock every variety of that rarefied English with perfect pitch—and then turn his uncanny mimic’s ear on the Americans at the table.

A colleague of mine was such an Anglophile that I used to refer to his infatuation as Anglophilia. He was an officer of an organization called the English-Speaking Union, and he never passed up a chance to bring some prominent Englishman to Raleigh, North Carolina. On any number of occasions, I walked into his office and found him deep in conversation with Sir This or Lord That. I’m afraid I treated his enthusiasm satirically. Though I’ve had close friends who were Brits, none were knighted, and none were Tories. In Edinburgh, my closest associates were from the hardcore Labor Left, including a couple of Trotskyites. They were limited in their enthusiasm for the Queen, or even the Union.

It’s not a contradiction that troubles me. You didn’t have to endorse the whole package to admire the Queen. Wearing England’s crown is more of a theatrical than an administrative assignment. To serve as a purely symbolic, ceremonial monarch requires patience, diplomacy, natural dignity, and unflagging commitment to the script. The beauty of Queen Elizabeth is not only that she was so good at all that but that she was, or should be, the end of all that. The age of kings is long over. Of course, poor old Charles has no choice but to stumble ahead with this venerable charade, this pretense of power where there is nothing but show. The royal family has been dismissed by its detractors as “the royal zoo,” but that’s too cruel. It’s really more like a theme park, a very expensive one that charms foreigners more than many of the Britons who pay for it.

The best lesson from the royal Windsors is that it’s always naïve and reactionary to place someone on a throne, or any pedestal that implies superiority to the rest of the human race. Actual democracy begins only when the last pedestal is leveled. History might be headed in the right direction if the beloved ancient Queen on her bejeweled catafalque were the last great personage to be raised above us. Admiration is a generous emotion; idolatry, always misplaced, is usually dangerous. Every cult of personality, whether it’s built around a monarch, a self-declared prophet, a religious or political demagogue, or a celebrity entertainer, is sustained by a childish, archaic belief in giants, in supermen and, less often, superwomen.

There are no such things as superior races or noble bloodstreams. Belief in them is a throwback to an early-adolescent phase of human development, when might made right, ignorance was general, and awe was so much easier. When it comes to lust, envy, vanity, malice, and selfishness, we are all cut from the same flawed cloth, burdened by the same temptations. Some of us try hard to resist the darker parts of our nature, some don’t try hard enough, some don’t try at all. Scandals have plagued the royal family and tormented the Queen, but I doubt that Cheatin’ Chuck and his brother Randy Andy were much different from other rich twits of their generation. They were the ones who had to live in a fishbowl. You have to get used to the British media to understand what a crazy fishbowl it is and what a strange institution the imaginary monarchy has become.

Two of history’s most powerful forces, religion and nationalism, almost invariably trace their roots to cults of personality—and they’ve caused more violent deaths than any other forces in human memory. We need to move on. We need to remember the Queen in two ways, as an excellent individual and as the embodiment of a poor idea. She was an ordinary woman, by most accounts, who found herself in an extraordinary situation and exceeded all expectations. As a royal princess, she began her life with respect she hadn’t earned, and she went on to earn a great deal more. But she was an anachronism, a holdover from another world where people with good sense believed in things like “royal blood” and the divine right of kings.

“We will not see her like again,” declared Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, fair praise that cuts in both directions, from the leader of a subnation where half the natives want out of the UK as soon as possible. We can honor the Forever Queen with good conscience and still bid a polite farewell to the world of imperial illusions that made her possible.  

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