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My 13-year-old daughter got the news from her school WhatsApp group: ”Liz is dead.” I wondered if there might initially have been some confusion, with a few friends thinking our new prime minister had kicked off after only two days. But no, everyone knew it was the queen. I’d seen the pictures of her with Liz Truss on Tuesday and I’d never observed Her Majesty looking so frail. So this passing shouldn’t have been totally unexpected — the old workhorse was 96, after all. But her mother lived to be 101, so I thought maybe she had another five years herself.
I’m in my 6os and I’m a bit choked up about this passing. I wonder if the reaction might be generational, i.e., the older you are, the more upset you feel. Both my kids seem very nonplussed, apparent republicans when it comes to royalty.
I’d call myself a relative monarchist, i.e., it depends which relative it is. I have little time for much of the royal family — Andrew with his grubby sexual scandal and financial imbroglios, Harry and Meghan with their need to be left alone and on television as much as possible, complaining about money while accepting a reported $20 million tell-all book deal. Even the new king has had his own monetary embarrassments, with the police investigating one of his charities.
But I had tremendous respect for the Queen, her calm dignity, her gravitas. I was thankful for her address to the nation during the early days of our COVID-19 lockdown, which was more reassuring than anything Boris Johnson said or did. When she declared that “we will meet again,” the reference to the famous Vera Lynn song — practically a wartime national anthem to Brits — was clear and well-earned. As many of us know, the queen herself, as a teenager, had enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, working as a tank mechanic. The girl had game.
Likewise, when she appeared at her husband’s funeral sitting alone because of social distancing, she was more helpful, leading by example, than our then prime minister was. Boris Johnson managed to shred his credibility when it was revealed how much partying had gone on in Downing Street, contrary to his own government’s rules. (One raucous party occurred on the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral). The queen was largely above politics, though she apparently expressed her displeasure with Brexit by wearing, at the opening of Parliament, a blue hat artfully decorated with a circle of gold stars, mimicking the EU flag.
When she stopped appearing at these official events, due to health (always labeled “mobility issues”), it was noticeable, and I for one missed her presence. I’ve always been interested in history, so I liked thinking of her as a living connection with the past, a great-great-grand-daughter of Victoria, born in the middle of her grandfather King George V’s reign. Her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, was born in 1874. Her last, Liz Truss, was born in 1975. That 101-year stretch represents her historical range, and she started showing up in the news herself in the 1920s. Her first appearance on the cover of Time magazine was in 1929.
Charles has little of his mother’s gravitas, and he knows it. He bungled his first marriage and has the charisma of a store mannequin. But his mother was a tough act to follow, and maybe he’ll surprise us. I hope so. He of course is a historical connection to the past too, by virtue of being his mother’s son, born during the last minutes of empire (a year before Indian independence), and he takes over the family business (often called “The Firm” here) at a tricky time, with a cost-of-living crisis, a weak pound, and a restless nation. It’ll be interesting to see how he introduces this new series of the real-life Crown. And I’m looking forward to the new coins and stamps.
J.B. Miller is an American writer living in London.