When I was about 11 years old the Queen came to our small town. To mark the occasion my mother, a confirmed royalist, made me and my younger sister dress in our Sunday best and stand in the crowd to greet her, waving a small Union Jack.
The royal Rolls Royce drove slowly past and the Queen waved her signature up and down royal wave and was gone. It was memorable, but anti-climactic. Disappointingly, she wasn’t wearing her ermine cape or a crown, not even a tiara. And her face looked rather small. Her retinue, however, was large, stretching out along the road.
The same year my mother arranged for a family photo. My sister and I were dressed like Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. White blouses with short puffy sleeves, Scottish tartan kilts, short white socks and Mary Jane black shoes. Our hair was cut short and held to one side with a barrette.
In an attempt to look especially beautiful for the photograph I had secretly borrowed two of my mother’s metal curling pins. Unfortunately, the left curler fell out whilst I was asleep, leaving the right side of my hair frizzy and the left side dead straight. To the despair of my mother and the photographer, despite frantic brushing, the frizz stayed in.
It was a metaphor for my own ambivalent attitude to the Royal Family. I did not share my mother’s devotion to the crown. If anything, I was envious of their wealth and position, not to mention the palaces and country houses they occupied so effortlessly. They seemed to lead idyllic lives. Why wasn’t my life like that?
Like my frizzy one-sided hair-do, part of me was rebellious to the idea of complete obeisance to royalty. I was a latent republican, or perhaps, without knowing it yet, an American.
Watching The Crown, Season 4 (and I admit I am addicted!) reminded me of this incident. The overriding arc of the whole series has become apparent.
The Royal Family will stop at absolutely nothing to keep their power, their privilege, their wealth and their position at the top of the social ladder. No, Ma’am!
Whether it is preventing Princess Margaret, and, a generation later, Prince Charles, from marrying the person they truly love, or forcing Charles to marry a young woman he hardly knew in order to produce a suitable heir, it doesn’t matter. Protocol reigns, duty is all.
But that pious and admirable value, which goes back to the rigidly correct Queen Mary, hides a will of iron and the absolute determination to carry on, whatever the human cost. Even if it means hiding away those members of the family considered genetically defective, like the epileptic, possibly autistic, Prince John, Queen Mary’s sixth child, or Katherine and Nerissa, the mentally handicapped nieces of the late Queen Mother. As Princess Margaret, played by Helena Bonham Carter, says in Episode 7. “Darwin has nothing on you!” Great line.
And yet, and yet, in these very uncertain times I see the advantage of having a Queen and a Royal Family.
I do not share my mother’s uncritical acceptance of royalty, but I see the Queen as a unifying force in difficult times. “We set an example of stability and responsibility,” she chided Prince Charles. And indeed, she has held her nation together, despite her dysfunctional family. “We will see family and friends again,” she promised from her seclusion in Windsor Castle, back when we were all panic stricken in April. And like a wise grandmother, she was right. We did, and we will again.
The Queen is a figurehead, staying calm whilst chaos threatens her country and the world. She is at the center and the center holds. “It will pass” she advises, in The Crown. “It usually does.” History has proved her right, whether it’s a war, a disputed election, or a pandemic. Like the Queen we should keep calm, stay centered and just carry on.
Top photo: Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth
Photo credit: Ollie Upton/Netflix