Hail and Farewell
Last week the Libertà Hive and several fellow authors were on a writing retreat in the north. It was a great shock, when I came down to raid the fridge for lunch on Thursday, to find four of them, very serious, sitting round the table looking at the news feed on various laptops. “It’s over,” said one. “The Queen is going.” They had heard the announcement made by the Speaker of the House of Commons.
It was like that moment on a staircase, when you trip and think you’ve righted yourself, only then to find you’re still falling. All the way to the bottom. (I’ve done it twice.)
The shock was profound. This couldn’t be happening. But it was.
As the day wore on, and we all pretty much held our breath, I was so very grateful to be with friends with whom I had already shared so much.
We gathered, like a family, round the large table.
By the time the final announcement came, nearly all of us were there, sombre and sad, conscious of the historical impact of this death and, in our own way, all mourning the passing of this distant person we had not known and yet somehow was a part of our lives.
Yet we grieved her departure from this life as if we did know her. Of course, in some ways we did – some things are evident from her conduct over her whole life: sense of duty; impeccable courtesy; marmoreal calm on every occasion. Indeed, sometimes her expression was so determinedly neutral, that she could have been on autopilot. (None of my fellow writers mentioned that, so maybe they didn’t share the feeling.)
The sheer determination to carry on being a good queen and decent human being in the face of huge publicity, good or bad, was impressive. Sometimes, it must have taken a lot of courage. I think stalwart is the word.
And, of course that meant that when she did smile, you felt delight that this conscientious, over-burdened woman had found something she could honestly enjoy and not have to stay solemn in case it offended anyone.
You mostly saw it when she was at the races. I suppose horses don’t have political sensibilities, so she could afford to relax a bit.
And she would smile, just occasionally, with people she obviously felt at home with. Like Paddington. (Not Mr Bond, though allegedly, and I do hope it’s true, that scene made her giggle.) And definitely the Mounties.
Privacy, Sympathy, Humanity
As someone with a very low embarrassment threshold, I have sometimes felt agonising sympathy for the Queen when she found herself represented on stage and screen – and then her entire life turned into a jigsaw puzzle in The Crown. But she never sought injunctions. Just kept calm and carried on.
But listening to a lot of the discussions online and on the radio since her death, I get the impression that she was a person of great understanding and practical kindness.
On Radio 4 today, Robert Hardman, author of Queen of our Times, said that she wanted to visit South Africa while the Foreign Office was still havering over safety, because everyone was giving advice to Mr Mandela but nobody was offering much help. And by going there, she could give him a Show.
It seems they became lifelong friends. I am so glad.
But the one that stops me dead in my tracks whenever I hear it, is her lunch with David Nott, the trauma surgeon who carried on operating throughout the bombardment of Aleppo and returned to the UK with PTSD. At a private lunch with the Queen, he suddenly realised that if she asked him one more question about Aleppo, he was going to break down completely.
And she didn’t. Instead she gave him biscuits to feed the dogs, which they did together while she told him about dogs she had owned.
You need to read his own account of it, to realise what a truly humane gift that was.
On Thursday, I was surprised to find how moved I was by her death. Now I am reconciled to being a bit tearful from time to time, for a while. And not surprised at all. She earned it.
To quote Paddington: “Thank you, Ma’am.