Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: On Her Majesty’s team

I treasure the memories I have of meeting the late Queen Elizabeth II
December 8, 2022

For 70 years the Queen visited Lord’s as patron of Marylebone Cricket Club; she had come before her coronation as well, accompanying her parents and sister. I’m sure it wasn’t at the top of her list of public engagements, but I’d guess it wasn’t at the bottom either. I recall her presence in the committee room during the Test match against Pakistan in 1978, after I had presented the team to her around teatime. She carried out her task with grace, as usual. I felt that her enthusiasm blossomed when the topic of horses came up.

In the months following her death, I’ve been remembering my impressions of the few times I was introduced to her. As one of her subjects and, temporarily, courtiers, my main feeling was of awkwardness. Was I going to embarrass myself somehow? Might I suddenly have a blank and forget the name of one of my teammates when introducing them to her? Might I call for three cheers with insufficient bravura, or break some rule of etiquette? Is one allowed to raise a topic with the Queen? Not everyone becomes tongue-tied—notoriously, Dennis Lillee asked the Queen for her signature when introduced to her on the field during the Centenary Test in Melbourne (I believe she gave it to him, but not there and then)—but I certainly did.

We all have fantasies of being king or queen; Freud referred to the infant as “His Majesty the Baby”, with its sense of entitlement to adoration and instant gratification. But being born to royalty seems to me a hard hand to be dealt. Freud also pointed out that untouchability applies not only to the lowest of the low (as to Dalits beneath the Indian caste system) but also to the highest: touching the monarch might imply not only adoration, but too much intimacy—even regicidal intent. The formality and hesitancy of the general public makes spontaneity hard to achieve.

I was privileged to be invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace during that same summer of 1978. I remember a story told by the Queen. She was being driven back to London through Brixton on a Sunday afternoon. This was before the days when shops would be open for seven days a week. The car stopped for a moment, and she noticed people window-shopping. She wondered what it was like for them. I thought then how two groups of people were looking through glass into a tantalising world, cut off from whatever was inside, observers rather than participants. The whole paraphernalia of royalty must, I reflected, feel to her at times like being in a golden cage.

Prime ministers too must feel lonely in their high office. One evening during the war, when being driven to Chartwell, Winston Churchill noticed a long queue in the street. He told his driver to stop: he wanted to find out what people were standing in line for. A stock of birdseed had arrived at a local shop; they were queuing to buy food for their budgerigars. Back inside his car, Churchill wept; presumably touched by the persistence of ordinary life through the immense hardships of bombardment and war.

Is one allowed to raise a topic with the Queen?

To my mind, the most striking gesture in sport made by a head of state during my lifetime was Nelson Mandela’s wearing of a Springbok rugby shirt—a widely hated symbol of apartheid—to South Africa’s World Cup Final win in 1995. He even asked Springbok captain Francois Pienaar for permission to wear the replica of his number six jersey, which he took out of a shopping bag in the dressing room shortly before play began.

As captain of England, I had a tiny taste of the kind of attention and the mixed feelings aroused in people towards a national representative. Shortly before my first Test in this role, in 1977, I was shopping in a rundown high street in south London, not far from New Cross where there had been brewing tensions with the National Front. A man who—I guessed from his accent—had been raised in the Caribbean came up to me and addressed me with affection as “my captain.” I was touched to be part of his life.

Of course, respect and affection easily shift into antagonism and suspicion. People felt I’d let them down, personally, by failing to score runs, or to lead the side to victory. A woman once pushed me into a rosebed at Burton upon Trent—she was an irate Middlesex supporter. And the kind woman who helped me deal with my mail 45 years ago told me she did not show me the most abusive letters.

Those who have become figures that—by virtue of their roles—carry complex and powerful meanings for many people, even the projections of a nation, usually manage to convey something real about themselves one way or another.

The duties of the monarch are specific and all-consuming. The Queen carried hers out in her own way, performing a difficult task with dignity. I was impressed to hear from Ted Hughes that, before honouring him in some way as Poet Laureate, she had read many of his poems, had taken them in, and was interested in them. I find that touching, too. The nation’s affection for the Queen was a token of how conscientious she was.

But as Freud also said, when some of his patients fell in love with him he had to learn that this was not due to his own extraordinary qualities of personality. The love and hate towards the psychoanalyst is partly related to what we symbolise and represent to each individual.

Another psychoanalyst, Ronald Fairbairn, noted the profound impact on all his patients of George V’s death and, by implication, the impact he had as monarch when he was alive. Whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, we are all suffused with fantasies about the “parent” of the country, this figure drenched with aspects of what our own parents meant to us, especially when we were small. We are in awe, in love and in hate with these kings and queens. We invest them, the representatives of our parents, with our own templates. It can’t be easy for any actual monarch to carry such an omnipresent burden. As Charles will have begun to find out.