On 8 September 2022 the world received the sad news that Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, was no longer with us. Her passing ushered in the third Carolean era. Like Simba from The Lion King, the Queen’s eldest son had waited in the wings. Now he has taken on the role for which he has been exhaustively prepared: King Charles III.
All other dramas sidelined, Britain’s monarchy took centre stage.
Unsurprisingly, the Twitterati – so badly in need of a definition of free speech – came out in force. Many of those who posted tweets have valid, sensible reasons for espousing republicanism. When the time is right, this is a discussion to be had. Others, however, are unwitting puppets of the modern malaise of groupthink. And more still are mere opportunists, practised verbal snipers taking aim at the target of the day in the hope that their latest witticism will garner stratospheric likes – or, more likely, enable the spread of the current cult of divisiveness.
But the perpetrators of Twitter vitriol don’t speak for us all. The evidence for this is the immediate and instinctive outpouring of grief that gripped the United Kingdom and beyond in the aftermath of the announcement. The platitude that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone was instantly driven home. If the late Queen was, as some believe, a sticking plaster holding together a cherished but outdated institution, then she did so remarkably effectively. Like a sodden sponge, Britain was filled with tears. In the days following her death, grief-stricken crowds gathered outside Balmoral, along the roadsides as her casket travelled to Edinburgh, then queued with stoical patience – up to 25 hours – to pay homage to her coffin as it lay in-state at Westminster Hall. In the most British fashion, visitors even queued to join a queue. For Elizabeth II was a unique figurehead, who staunchly cohered her people from the days of ration-books to the era of the iPhone. And her mourners are not simply old folk, desperately hanging on to tradition: young, old, rich, poor, black, white – all and sundry united in grief.
The silent majority, so often drowned out by the volume and vociferousness of Twitter and the media, at last able to wordlessly shout out the real mood of the nation.
Quite rightly, most UK theatres made the decision to cancel shows on the day of the funeral (19 September 2022), designated a Bank Holiday. But strangely enough, when trying to define the magic that Queen Elizabeth II exuded, I find myself reaching for a character from musical theatre: Mary Poppins. This fictional favourite shares many of the qualities of our former Queen: efficiency, good-heartedness, a firm respect for boundaries, and the ability to dole out tough love. Inscrutable as she was, Elizabeth II somehow oozed these characteristics.
But it was perhaps her magical elements that most captivated Elizabeth’s subjects writ large. While Mary Poppins could slide up bannisters and use an umbrella as a parachute, the Queen had her own magical powers. Some of these powers could more rightly be described as privileges: as sovereign, she held the ‘prerogative power’ to fire the whole of the Australian government; she could drive a car without holding a license, or travel to a foreign country without a passport; she had dominion over all dolphins in waters around Britain; she had her own private cash-machine; and she was immune from prosecution. Yet her real power exceeded these birthright entitlements. The Queen’s trademark magic emanated from her mystique and her steadfastness. In a world where, as the saying goes, leaders ‘campaign in poetry and govern in prose’, she was exactly what she proclaimed to be. On her 21st birthday, when she was still Princess Elizabeth, she made a solemn pledge: ‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service’. Well, it turned out to be a long life, and one in which she never wavered from that promise made as a young woman so long ago. Her mundane solidity and anchored calmness were a brand of fairy dust that many of us took for granted, and now feel rudderless without.
As time passes, other dramas will surface. The argument for republicanism will again rear its head. The silent majority will again be mothballed. The world is changing, and will continue to do so. And as Socrates said, ‘the secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new’. So we have to accept that we have now lost something irretrievable. But, whatever happens – and even if it’s only through something as trivial as going to see Mary Poppins – the spirit of Queen Elizabeth II will endure.