Josna Rege

94. My Uncrowned Queens

In 1950s, 1980s, 2010s, Britain, Stories, women & gender on January 31, 2011 at 4:43 pm

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in London’s East End, 1941

As wedding fever mounts in anticipation of Prince William’s wedding to Kate Middleton, and The King’s Speech looks set to follow The Queen in garnering Academy Awards, the popularity of the British monarchy is enjoying a bump in Britain as well as around the world (where it has always found fascination, especially in the United States). But this has not always been the case; British public opinion on the monarchy ebbs and flows. As recently as  2002, polls showed 12% of Britons in favor of its abolition and another 30% in favor of retention, but with a radical overhaul. That’s 42% who wanted it abolished or drastically reformed. Even the November 2010 announcement of the Royal Wedding, which the British tabloids covered lavishly, failed to boost their sagging sales. The bank holiday that has been called for April 29th, 2011 may help make the British people feel a little more well-disposed to the extravagant event, but at a time when they are facing huge public sector cuts and austerity measures, one of the top wedding-related stories in the British press has been its projected cost to taxpayers and the call for the House of Windsor itself to foot the bill.

Today’s Daily Mail announces that, as the culmination of  a month of protests., “anarchists” are plotting to disrupt the Royal Wedding, but even if most would wish the high-flying young couple the best, nearly two-thirds of the populace  remains unenthusiastic about the big day, despite its having been declared a national holiday. Nearly thirty years ago, on July 29th, 1981, public support and TV viewership of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding was ensured not only by a bank holiday but also by lowering the price of beer in the  pubs. This time, although the pubs will be allowed to stay open until 1 am two days running, there’s been no mention of a soma holiday.

royal wedding street party 1981 (photo by Graeme Honeyball)

My mother has frequently recalled June 2nd, 1953, a day nearly thirty years before Charles and Di’s wedding (and a month before her own): the coronation of Elizabeth II, the current Queen of England, when London was absolutely jam-packed, with whole streets blocked off and traffic at a standstill. Mum was in the thick of it, struggling through the crowds, not for a glimpse of the young queen in all her regalia, but for a glimpse of her dear friend Dot and of Peta, her newborn baby daughter. In her telling, Mum had no interest in the pomp and ceremony, only exasperation at the disruption it caused, which made it nearly impossible for her to cross town to visit mother and baby.

This was in the aftermath of the Second World War, an ordeal that had demanded terrible sacrifices from the British people. My mother’s generation had had their schooling interrupted and lost irrecoverably a large chunk of their childhood. Nearly eight years after the end of the War, London was still bombed-out and food rationing ongoing. Mum and her friends, now twenty-something, were young bohemians, interested in everything—education, culture, politics, each other—and determined to take their lives back and live them to the fullest.  A cut-rate pint of beer certainly wouldn’t have tempted them to waste their hard-earned money in the pub or waste their precious time watching television—even then, when it was still a novelty. They didn’t have much time for royalty and found their role models elsewhere.

Elizabeth is my middle name, but my mother always made sure to let me know that I was not the namesake of the Queen or the Queen Mother but of my maternal grandmother, who passed away not long after the Coronation, just months before I was born. Dear Dot passed away a month ago, and is remembered and missed by her family and friends. My mother, my grandmothers, and all the women who have  helped raise me: these are my uncrowned queens, to whom I owe my life, my values, and my fealty. No amount of royal hoopla will make me feel differently.

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  1. Lovely one, Jojo! It makes me thankful all over again for the strong and loving women in my life as well! Thanks!

  2. Thank you, Marianne. You are one of those women in mine. xo

  3. Hi Jo,
    This is fascinating. For me, the royal family function as icons around which I weave an enjoyable fantasy that gives me endless pleasure. They are like a family of superheroes. I know in reality they are just flawed human beings, but I do understand and can feel why kings in history were touched for “the kings evil”-why they could heal. Some Brits still feel a touch of magic in royalty/aristocracy. (I have to admit this was enhanced for me when I found out my great grandmother had been a baroness who had my grandfather illegitimately and kept up an arms-length ambivalent relationship with him until he was an adult and she remarried…though denying him publicly she acknowledged him privately and wept tragically whenever she went to visit him.)

    My dad (uncle Bob to you) was a FANATICAL, and I do mean fanatical, foaming-at-the-mouth anti-royalist and so was I for a time. Then I had to be “self-honest” and admit I was starting to enjoy tv programmes about the royal family rather a lot. So for me, the queen in reality sounds like the mother from hell, but in my dreams and fantasies she is definitely a Great Mother figure- I mean like the Great Mother goddess of antiquity. I have radically changed my views on royalty and now I strongly believe we should keep them. They should pay their way more though, and I thought it was amusing when the Queen got forced by public opinion to grudgingly pay her taxes. I also found her grudging nod as the hearse of Princess Diana went by to be ungracious, and her speech about her daughter in law’s death insincere and laughable. Diana had stolen the thunder of the Royal family and the Queen just did not like it. Still despite the paradox, on some deep level I feel strong affection for the Queen, especially as when young she very much resembled my favourite auntie who was about the same age, and dressed similarly in the 1950’s. It’s weird, and probably delusional, but emotionally speaking, looking at photos of the royal family, especially from the 1950’s, feels very much like looking at photos of my own family.
    Barbara.

    • I love your comment, Barbara. I know what you mean about feeling affection for the Queen “on some deep level”. While public opinion about the monarchy may ebb and flow, I suspect that on some level, even many of those Britons who love to hate the monarchy still follow their comings and goings with fascination and still have paradoxical feelings of affection that they might not acknowledge as honestly as you did. The Queen is just a year older than my mother, never asked for the job, and has seen so many changes in her lifetime. I admire her steadfastness and she represents an era that is ending and that will take a part of me with it when it goes. And when you said that old photos of the royal family looked like photos of your own, I know what you mean, too, since I can’t help associating the photo of the young Queen Mother at the top of my story with my own mother. But I find myself identifying still more with the people in the crowds in both the wartime and the Coronation Day photos.
      One thing I’m completely unequivocal about: I’m had it up to here with the hype surrounding the latest royal wedding. I wish they could go to a registry office and donate the saved money to shore up the NHS!

      • Ah, I deliberately don’t read newspapers or magazines, and only listen to the news on the BBC radio 4 or world service, (with a bit of Bloomberg financial and CNN sometimes just to “cop a feel” of another culture), and “From Our Own Correspondent” on r4 for in-depth analysis of international stories, so mercifully I’ve missed ALL the hype! We will probably do something here to celebrate the wedding as a way to use the field and wildlife site, which we must continue to do, so any excuse. I believe you are right about closet monarchists. I think there are so few means of shorthand left for Brits to get a sense of ourselves and our Britishness, so the Royal family, I suspect, are one of the only things we have left to cling to. As such, I don’t see them being abolished any time soon! Also, it sounds as if there is more hooha over there than over here, from what you say. I’ve often heard it said that Americans are far more deferential to and awed by “our” Royals than we are, do you think that is so?

        • That may well be, Barbara. Even after having written this story I’m getting ads on my page with the world map selling “Royal Wedding gifts” like William and Kate the official range from Buckingham Palace (US delivery) and “Kate Middleton Ring replica–must see only $99.” x Jo

      • I do have to agree with your other reader that the NHS does waste a dreadful amount of money, though at the same time I agree it is the least worst option for us here in England.

        Do you know if the Royal family of any nation does anything like that? (I.E. forego celebrating a wedding or suchlike to donate to the people’s health care system). It would be interesting to know. The Bhutanese Royal family seem very enlightened,with their “gross national happiness” idea, but I have no idea if they, or any Royal family, contributes in the way you suggest. I suspect the British royals are not alone, and it doesn’t seem that that is the way society works, at least I haven’t heard tell. Communism did not seem to work very well either.

  4. That was a lovely post Jojo tai, especially the part where you figuratively crown all the women who raised you to be who you are today. I believe that we hold a strong affection towards people who chart the course of our evolution as human beings in one way or another. I’ve always felt that to a lesser or greater degree – that is what the British people feel towards their Queen. Of course the queen is somewhat of a distant and aloof figure; but the role of the royal family towards the development of democracy in the UK – while sometimes willing and sometimes unwilling – however can’t be denied.

    Having lived all my life purely in Republics, I can’t claim to be a monarchist of any sort; but in all fairness I’ve felt that the current queen has done an absolutely remarkable job in taking her country through so much. She’s had 12 Prime Ministers – the first one being Sir Winston Churchill; she’s sailed quite gracefully through the winds of change over a rapidly disintegrating British Empire and a rapidly changing social order. All through this she’s remained neutral, advised countless head of governments through their policies while all the same remained a symbol and an icon of Britain all over the world.

    The simple fact of the matter is that being a Royal is a 24×7 lifetime job and a responsibility – that no one seems to understand; Diana certainly didn’t and did irreparable damage to the Crown. Another reason why I am not at all fond of Diana.

    Now, as far as the economic aspects of the Monarchy go, the amount of money spent on the upkeep of the Royal family is a pittance compared to the amount of revenue HM govt generates because of tourism. The Crown being the single most important reason why tourists flock to the UK. That apart the abolition of the monarchy would mean disbanding the a thousand year old British institution, (also meaning changing the form of Governance – Prime Ministers are never heads of state), courting political instability and loosing endless revenue.

    Whatever one’s opinion of the Monarchy might be; I have to yet hear one decent reason – social, economic or political – as to why they ought to be abolished. Now as far as the House of Lords and the hereditary peers go…that is another matter.

    • Ah, Pinu, I might have known that you would have clear and well-developed views on this subject! So nice to receive a comment from you after a long time–I’ve missed you. You spur me to argue with you, too! No doubt the monarchy generates income for the country from tourism, but do you have evidence to support the statement that “the monarchy is the single most important reason why tourists flock to the UK”? I suppose it’s so remote from any of the reasons that motivate me that I find it hard to accept.
      One thing you and QEII (the personage, not the ship) have in common is a fondness for Cliff Richard.Didn’t she invite him to perform at Buckingham Palace? Thanks for writing and don’t be a stranger. J

  5. I’ve missed commenting on your blogs as well. It’s good to be back in hat. Surveys conducted by the British Tourist Authority have indicated that the Monarchy generates £500million of tourist revenue per year, out of a total of £4.6billion tourist revenue. VisitBritain has also indicated that British culture and heritage, ranging from theatres and galleries to pubs and football matches generated the residual revenue, but this revenue was inextricably associated and tied down with substantial tourist fascination for the British Royalty. The upkeep of Royalty and associated institutions cost the tax payer £41.5million each year (i.e 54 pence / tax payer / year) – a pittance compared to the enormous sums of monies spent by the Govt on wasteful ventures like the NHS. A recent leaked report revealed that he NHS spends up to £86m a year on thousands of websites that are difficult to find, badly designed and irrelevant to patient needs. Also compare that to $200m-a-day’ cost of Barack Obama’s trip to India – that we paid for. The Monarchy (apart Defence contracts and arms sales) might probably be the only profitable public institution in Britain today. The reason why most Politicians hate the monarchy is that Politicians come and go, but the crown stays. The British Head of state is apoliticial, neutral and above the day to day political banter. It provides a much needed continuity and stability to the nation – much more so than most would have us believe.

    The fact that the Queen is fond of Cliff Richard only increases my approval of her, after all she Knighted him in 1996, way before she Knighted any other Rock stars including Elton John, Paul McCartney and others. Also he’s the only person to be Knighted on his stage name – he’s Sir Cliff Richard, not Sir Harry Webb.

    • Salute to Sir Cliff Richard: check.
      Dissing the NH: on this I must firmly—though always lovingly—part company with you. The welfare state was the best thing to happen to the people of Britain after the Second World War. Life changed tremendously for the better for the ordinary people, and especially for the poor. The National Health Service is a national treasure that has been under attack by conservatives in Britain and, recently and virulently, by the American Right in their bid to prevent any national health system in the U.S. (who, by the way, have been spreading all sorts of outrageous untruths about it which I sincerely hope you will not swallow without first investigating for yourself). My cousin is a General Practitioner in a small practice, working tirelessly in the beleaguered NHS and providing incredible service to her patients and incredible value for the taxpayers’ money. The quality of care that the British people receive, and I can speak reliably on this, is far superior to the healthcare in the US, even, in many cases, the healthcare available to people paying top-dollar for premium health plans. Most British people have been happy to pay the taxes that fund the system because they get such good value in return—and such a feeling of security.
      I’ll never forget being in London one summer and Nikhil falling ill. I took him to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead and a lovely, attentive doctor ministered to him. When I went to the checkout with the prescription and asked for the bill, they said, “We’re the Royal Free: care here is free.” I then offered to pay for the prescription, but got the same reply: “Free” means free.
      Someone pays for that “free” care, I know, but my point is, there’s just about nothing else I would rather pay for. The peace of mind that comes with national healthcare is priceless. (We are way off-topic for this story, so if we carry on this healthcare conversation, perhaps we could do it via email.)
      Back to the monarchy, you are quite right that it brings in tourist dollars. To what extent those monies are helping in any significant way to fund programs that benefit the people, I am not well-informed enough to know. x J

    • Hello Pinakin,
      I don’t know you, but I agree with you that the Royal family are good value if they generate over £500million of tourist revenue per year, and cost the tax payer only £41.5million each year. Thanks for the figures, I hadn’t seen those for a while. 54p per year per taxpayer, that’s good for entertainment value alone- I’m not being flippant as my previous post attests.
      Barbara.

      • Barbara-Pinakin, Pinakin, Barbara. Barbara, Pinakin is my nephew–that is, my cousin Vidya’s son and Nikhil’s age. Pinu, Barbara is a dear friend and was our opposite neighbor in England in the late ’60s when we lived with my uncle for a year before coming to the U.S. x Jo

  6. I love the way you tie this all together at the end. Wonderful piece.

    When we lived in England in the late ’60s to early ’70s, I thought the monarchy was the most ridiculous thing in the world. I don’t know if it’s the creeping conservatism of middle age or what, but I now see it as overall a good thing, although I agree that they should pay taxes. For the historical connection, such a lineage is quite amazing, and purely on that score, it’s of value. I also think that QUII has done quite well in refraining from politicking and hope that this tradition continues. Imagine how much better off we’d be if we’d had King Ronnie instead of President Reagan, truly. It would have been perfect for him.

    Isn’t the top photo Queen Mary, the Queen Mum? Or am I missing something?

    • Thank you for your comment, Sarah. I think we share a similar mix of feelings about the institution and the current Queen. And yes, I realize I should clarify the caption: it’s Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and King George VI in the East End of London during the bombing. x Jo

  7. Queen Mum Elizabeth, not Mary, sorry! You’d think with a thousand years to use all those names, they could get beyond Elizabeth, Mary, and Anne!

  8. “Uncrowned queens”, what a great tribute to mothers and motherly women!

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