In the six hours of television that had to be filled between the news of the Queen being comfortable and the Queen being dead, the BBC’s Huw Edwards and Nicholas Witchell often reflected on how nobody could remember a time when she wasn’t there unless they were more than 70 years old. I would put the age limit rather higher: 77 sounds about right. Her father died on 6 February 1952, the day before my seventh birthday. It would be wrong to say that I knew he was king or what a king did. It was his death that made me aware of him.
We lived in Lancashire then. I went to a school, Plodder Lane, where my teacher, Mr Boot, was having trouble making me understand that capital letters began sentences rather than every new line (though they seemed to do that in poetry). Plodder Lane, Mr Boot: Dickensian names such as these support the idea, often mentioned since her death, that the Queen was crowned in a different country. It was.
That day, on our way home from school, another boy pointed out a flag flying halfway down a flagpole. “It’s because the King’s dead,” he said. The flagpole stuck up from the roof of one of the town’s several spinning mills – there were chimneys everywhere you looked. My dad worked in one of them. We had ration books and went on day trips by bus or train to the big seaside resorts; to complete the Lowry-esque cliche, a family in our street still went about bare-legged in clogs.
Were we loyal? I hardly think so. The monarchy seemed so invulnerable, so sacred and privileged, that it invited a private defiance from people who felt smothered by the obeisance shown it by the newspapers, the newsreels and the BBC. Dad scoffed at the memory of a neighbour in his boyhood who would talk about the dissolute King Edward VII as “good old Teddy”; Mum remembered how George VI and his wife were known by some in Scotland as “stuttering Georgie and grinning Lizzie”. But this was a kind of secret insolence rather than off-with-their-heads republicanism. It was the oppressiveness – the uniformity of public opinion – that bred dissent, not so much the absurdity of the system as the rigorous fawning that went with it.
The days after the King’s death typified this oppression. Cinemas and theatres closed; nothing came out of the radio but solemn music. The only visual memory I have comes from the pages of the Illustrated London News, which an aunt sent from London. The photographs – or perhaps they were drawings – showed the inside of what looked like a church heavily draped in black. By the time the coronation came, 16 months later, we had moved to Scotland – or moved back, in my parents’ case.
Life shifted from monochrome to Technicolor, and not only metaphorically. Films of the ceremony and that year’s other triumph, the conquest of Everest by a British team (if not in the end by actual Britons), made a double bill at the local cinema, with their colour a big selling point. My new comic, the Eagle, had colour printing far more sophisticated than the Beano or the Rover could achieve; one of its centre spreads showed a cutaway of the ship, the SS Gothic, that would carry the new queen and her husband to Australia. And then there was the vibrant patriotism of the souvenirs – my snake-clasp belt striped in red, white and blue, gaudier than any other item of clothing I possessed.
We were encouraged to think of a new Elizabethan age, and in it the Queen cut rather a military figure, at least to my boyish eye. She rode straight-backed on horses, wore medals and inspected sailors and troops. When a coastguard station on a promontory near our house suddenly acquired a small battery of guns, we imagined them firing on a Russian fleet. But in fact they were saluting guns, which boomed when the new royal yacht carried the Queen into the Firth of Forth, and never, so far as I remember, boomed again. It may have been on the same visit that she went down a Fife coalmine in a white boilersuit and came up again with not a mark on it. Proof, said people like Dad, that the royal family never encountered anything that could be called real life – and think of the money wasted on the guns.
Nevertheless, when in 1964 the Queen came to open the road bridge across the Forth, my mother can be seen in photographs smiling in the crowd behind her. She had a good working knowledge of royal relationships – who was Alice and who was Marina and where the Duke of Gloucester fitted in. Like many people – like me – she lived with a kind of dualism that allowed the coexistence of scepticism and affection. Obviously, a hereditary monarchy was all “a load of nonsense” and its wealth offensive, but it was also familiar and interesting, and for those reasons attractive and, in the right hands, lovable.
I can’t be sure of the last word. Royalty and modern journalism – modern attitudes of all kinds – sit uneasily together. I went 40 years ago to a country house in Gloucestershire to interview Captain Mark Phillips, who was then married to Princess Anne, about his showjumping team. Of course, my interest in showjumping was spurious. I was there, my editor told me, to find some comedy in his situation. The piece was long, strained and unsuccessful, and the editor rightly put it on the spike. Now what I mainly remember is seeing Princess Anne in her kitchen pouring some breakfast cereal for her little son, and my surprise that it was Rice Krispies, the choice of so many quite ordinary human beings. Unconsciously, irrationally, I must have expected something more divine.
That kind of reverential superstition has disappeared. We know now that the Queen talked to little bears and liked to keep a marmalade sandwich in her handbag. She aged well. I began to feel we had things in common. When the royal yacht Britannia made her farewell visit to the capital in 1997, I went down to the Pool of London to wave my hat and see her off. She was such a beautiful ship, and the band of the Royal Marines played Sunset as the bascules of Tower Bridge opened to let her through: I was wet around the eyes. When I heard that the Queen cried too, I was not surprised.
Then this week came the final picture, the one with Liz Truss. My mother, who died at 94, had a similar black bruise on the back of her hand. The country we live in, the people we are – ultimately, we are so frail.
Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist
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