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Literary Review

Not too old at 100

On a day of great ceremonial in London honouring the late Queen Mother, CHRISTOPHER HURST surveys her long career.

April 5, 2002.

IN the past few days everything that could be said about Elizabeth, the Queen mother has been said — almost. It was predictable that when the moment finally came to say goodbye, we would hear and read much that has been "common knowledge" about her for at least 60 years: that she made a man (and eventually a king) out of the diffident, stammering second son of George V; that when the Abdication of his elder brother Edward VIII catapulted her husband on to the throne it was largely her strength of character and extraordinary charm and social skills that enabled him to rise to the fearful challenge; that she was able to "look East Enders [the London poor] in the face" because Buckingham Palace, which remained the royal family's base throughout the war, was also bombed; and that she felt particular venom towards the Duchess of Windsor (Mrs. Simpson) for precipitating the Abdication, and so arguably shortening her husband's life.

I would only put a different construction on the last of these. First, I imagine that Elizabeth disliked and possibly feared the brassy American divorcee from the first time they met. Secondly, she was shrewd enough to perceive, through the mists of dynastic loyalty, that Edward would have made a disastrous king, with or without Mrs. Simpson, and that the Abdication (and hence Mrs. Simpson) had been a blessing in disguise for the nation. And thirdly, it is very hard to imagine that Elizabeth did not thoroughly enjoy being Queen and, later, Queen Mother.

Charles was reported in all the papers, soon after the death was announced, to be "devastated". Surely, I thought, this was a typical journalistic exaggeration — a man of 53 devasted by the death of a 101-year-old woman? But when I read his short speech about her, it became clear that theirs had been a relationship of great closeness and warmth, due to the circumstances of each as well as natural affinity, and I applaud him for being able to say it. A stiff upper lip is not among his endowments.

Two happenings in the immediate aftermath caused controversy. The first was utterly trivial. The BBC's star newsreader Peter Sissons donned a dark plum-coloured tie in recognition of the solemnity of the occasion, for which the Conservative press, led by the tabloid Daily Mail, accused him of disrespect, and the fact that TV studios keep black ties in the cupboard to meet just such eventualities but that Sissons failed to use one apparently made matters worse. ITV, the commercial channel, was canny enough not to make the same error. Sissons, as it happened, was in the hot seat on the day Princess Diana was killed, and handled that far more demanding task with admirable skill and sensitivity.

The other happening was the recalling of Parliament on April 3, solely for tributes to be paid by party leaders and others enamoured of the sound of their own voices. My instant reaction on hearing that this was to happen was a surge of republican sentiment, and the thought that a far worthier tribute to the old lady would have been to devote the special session to the Middle East crisis, preceded by a minute's silence and a eulogy by the Father of the House. This view was later expressed by a number of journalists and MPs (not Conservatives, of course).

In recent years the Queen Mother was criticised in the less deferential press organs for a number of reasons. One was extravagance. She not only had exclusive use of a palace in London and a substantial house in Windsor Great Park, where large staffs were employed, not to mention being a frequent guest at Windsor Castle, Sandringham and Balmoral, but she bought and restored another castle in the far north of Scotland. Like her daughter she was passionately interested in horse racing, and ran steeplechasers, with her own trainer and jockeys. Only the very rich can afford that. A few years ago, when the royal finances came under sharp public scrutiny, it became known that the old lady had a bank overdraft of £34 million. I am sure the reaction of most of the public was sympathy — and envy.

She was also accused of philistinism, particularly because of a remark she made at a private dinner party, disloyally leaked by a fellow guest. She apparently told how years before she and her family had listened to a man "who looked like a bank clerk" reading from a poem he had written called "The Desert", and that she and her daughters had disgraced themselves by getting the giggles. She clearly was thinking of T.S. Eliot, who actually did once work in a bank, and "The Waste Land" — and I do wonder if finding this scene, for a moment, irresistibly comical is really a sign of philistinism or of anything except being human. This apart, she added discerningly to the royal art collection and in his time had Osbert Sitwell as her literary adviser.

Finally, she was thought, rightly, to be politically conservative, though it was never openly expressed; they are well trained in discretion. The evidence always adduced is her appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with the King and Neville Chamberlain in September 1938 after that ill-fated Prime Minister brought back the agreement he had just made with Hitler — agreeing to Germany's annexation of Sudetenland, from which the occupation of the whole of Czechoslovakia, the attack on Poland, and war, soon followed. Only 20 years on from 1918, the public wanted peace at any price — and neither she nor the public could look into the future.

One reason why the royal family are criticised is that they seem to live in luxury and isolation at the public expense. The Queen Mother received a large Civil List income. What did she do to earn it? She did what all the senior royals do — review regiments of which she was Honorary Colonel, visit charities and institutions of which she was Patron, open new hospitals, schools etc. Work? Just smiling charmingly, delivering short anodyne prepared speeches, and saying sweet nothings? Leaving aside the effect of these appearances, she always made people feel better — what she did was indeed work. It was her job, and she did it with a professionalism that came from rigorous training and self-discipline.

I witnessed one example of this. In the 1980s I attended a church service at which she was present. She was ushered to a special seat at the front of the congregation, a large upholstered wooden chair. The service lasted about an hour, but for the entire time she sat bolt upright, and her back never touched the back of the chair. I was a few feet away on one side, otherwise I would not have been aware of it. Later I tried to do the same, but failed dismally; not only did I lack the physical strength, but I could not concentrate on my posture for more than a minute or two. No doubt such self-control had become second nature for her, but it emphasised to me that our senior royals are something akin to initiates in a priesthood. The Queen Mother went on working till she was past 100 (the normal retiring age for public servants is 60), and was already past 80 when I witnessed the incident just related. She should be adopted as a patron saint by all those of us who cannot be sacked from their jobs because they own the company or are self-employed. If we even go on working into our 80s we will be doing very well.

Today her coffin was borne through central London from a private royal chapel to Westminster Hall, where it will lie in state till the funeral in Westminster Abbey on April 9. It was followed and preceded by large detachments of soldiers, sailors and airmen slow-marching and there were three military bands in the cortege playing funeral music. The drill and turnout were impeccable. The male members of the royal family and Princess Anne marched immediately behind the cortege — it amused me that a Guards NCO in red tunic and bearskin cap close beside them was calling the step. The whole spectacle was profoundly impressive. A man beside me in the crowd remarked that this is something that we in this country can still do better than anyone else. I asked him if he had ever witnessed Beating the Retreat in New Delhi — to which he replied that the Indians learned it from us. To this I had to agree; but it is also a fact that we learned it in the l8th Century from Frederick the Great of Prussia.

Yet another cliché we keep hearing is that "the monarchy will never be the same" now the Queen Mother has departed. I am not at all sure this is true. Of one thing, however, I am certain: she thoroughly deserved her magnificent send-off.

Email: hurst1@atlas.co.uk

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