One day in February 1952 when I was thirteen, a man came into my classroom and said that he had an important announcement to make. “The King is dead,” he said. I cannot remember what else he said before he left, but that day has been fixed in my memory all these seventy years. I had known death before, when my beloved foster father had died when I was three and that sorrowful memory was etched too in my memory, especially when we used to visit that sinking mound of earth which was his grave.
Remembered also was where I was – Fulham Road in London – when I saw the newspaper billboard that announced President Kennedy had been shot. Next was the moon landing during which, in the last frantic seconds before Neil Armstrong descended the ladder on to its surface, I was adjusting the aerial on my home’s roof (I made it in time). Fast forward then twenty-eight years to 1997 and you had my young son at 6.30am on a Sunday morning when I got up early to keep an eye on him telling me that Diana, Princess of Wales, was dead. Finally, you had that surreal image set against a bright blue September sky of the Twin Towers billowing out plumes of blackened smoke, and people leaping from great heights to avoid being burned alive.
Now, the whole world – and not just the British people – stand in shock at sudden death again; not this time of thousands, but of a single individual, our Queen. For almost all of everyone’s lives, she had been a constant presence, almost as though she was one of the stars in the firmament. Now that star had not just faded, but suddenly vanished from the night sky. For seven decades she had been head of a still significant country which even in her grandfather’s time had been the superpower of its age. Just five years earlier, and she would have been Empress of India – albeit briefly – had she come to the throne then. The hard power which it had once exercised had been seamlessly inherited by a former colony which shared identical ambitions. That power valued its old boss’s support in the application of the unavoidable nastiness of hard power.
But Elizabeth’s country then set about the accumulation of massive reserves of soft power, perceiving that to be the only power that works in today’s world and does not garner opprobrium. It had the perfect vehicle to achieve this in the Commonwealth. Three centuries now of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora, with its universal language, setting the world agenda and reordering its workings has brought us to where we are now. All this is not lost on humankind.
Queen Elizabeth II was a very homely person who happened to enjoy – if that’s the word – a very exalted position. She was a shy woman brought up with old-fashioned values. She liked nothing better than that everyone should keep the peace, and that included her own family. She was a gifted mimic who could see the funny side of much that was around her, including pompous people who made a fool of themselves in their efforts to do the right thing in her presence. All of us in doing our job, however much we like it, eventually become jaded, but she never did.
More Scottish than English by ethnicity, she loved the songs of Scotsman Harry Lauder. One of his best known and loved was Keep Right On to the End of the Road. And that is exactly what she did. And this simple fact impressed all humanity.
Soon we shall see the greatest assemblage of its high and mighty that the world has ever witnessed; not for an Alexander or a Nobel Prize Winner who saved humanity from cancer, but for a very ordinary human being with a kind heart. Unnervingly for many, especially the old, we live in a fast- moving world which accelerates by the year, but our Queen seemed to embody those aspects of a lost world which we still pine for and hanker after. Like a permanent fixture for all people everywhere.