Illustration by Adam Q

Long life: The long reign of the Queen

Throughout my 89 years, I have been grateful for the Queen's reassuring presence
June 16, 2022

There has been one constant figure in my nigh-on 90 years of life: the Queen. Politicians come and go, but she has always been there.

When I was a child, the Royal Family was central to our working-class culture. Our relationship with them was shaped by the radio and cinema newsreels as well as magazines and newspaper stories. Whenever the King made a speech, we gathered round our wireless and held our communal breath as he struggled to control his stutter. My mum made my best frocks copied from those worn by the little princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose. Then, when war ravaged our lives, the princesses sent us messages. In 1940, the 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth told the seven-year-old Sheila that “when peace comes, remember it will be up to us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place.” Sitting in an Anderson air raid shelter with bombs and guns blazing outside, I vowed that I would try.

Pictures of her mother the Queen—dressed up to the nines, visiting bombed streets, laughing defiantly with the locals—made it less frightening. On her 21st birthday Princess Elizabeth promised: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we belong.” Yes, well, that last bit has unravelled somewhat, but at the time it seemed right.

When the devastatingly handsome Prince Philip came on the scene, the fairy tale was complete. Their marriage in 1947 was an explosion of beautiful frocks and elegant carriages, at a time when we were poleaxed in the grey aftermath of a terrible, ugly war. We didn’t care what it cost, lots of people sent off their clothes coupons to make sure the princess could have an exquisite Norman Hartnell gown. And she looked lovely. And he looked dashing. And 200m people listened to it on the radio and rejoiced that they were happy. Because happiness was thin on the ground then. We were trying to readjust our families to the returning servicemen and women who were mentally and physically wounded. There was a growing realisation that we had a massive job ahead of us—repairing the profound damage wrought by conflict. We needed a bit of glamour.

Nowadays, when the Kardashians and their like show every detail of their personal lives, I, after 89 years, have no idea what the Queen is really like

In 1953 we got to feel we knew Princess Elizabeth better, when we hired one of the new television sets and gathered round it to watch this beautiful young woman accepting the weight of the crown. The coming of television wrought a big change in our relationship with the Queen. I remember being open-mouthed at the sight of her sitting side-saddle, stock still, on a massive horse, watching Trooping the Colour. I decided to learn to ride, coached by a terrifying man called Major Trumble, who despaired of my absolute inability to make the horse move. I made the mistake of believing that if I let the vast beast munch a bit of grass then it would do what I told it. But though it totally ignored my command to “terottt on,” it certainly did gallop when the major whacked it on the buttocks, and it raced me under low-hanging branches and down precipitous slopes. I think that horses are nasty animals, but the Queen loves them, and they do just what she wants them to, even when she’s sitting sideways.

I know now that you have to use your heels to give them orders. You must be in control. It seems to me that this is the Queen’s secret weapon—being in control. She seldom shows emotion. Most of the time she is enigmatically stoic.

Nowadays, when the Kardashians and their like show every detail of their personal lives, I, after 89 years, have no idea what the Queen is really like. After a morning of smiling and shaking people’s hands, does she go to her room and howl when she considers the latest debacle in her wayward family? Does she think as she—or her son on her behalf—reads out the latest government plans in the Queen’s Speech: “This is bullshit. I’ve heard it all before for 70 years and you won’t bloody well do any of it.” No one knows, she keeps a straight face and does her duty.

As a person who anguishes over the inequalities in my country, I should be a republican. But at my age I’m allowed to be inconsistent and muddled. Things have to change, but I am grateful for her contribution to my life: the rituals, the marking of occasion with solemnity, the jubilant crowds watching a procession, her frumpy outfits, her daft corgis and her very occasional—and therefore very special—radiant smile.