ON the day of her Platinum Jubilee, Queen Elizbeth II was sitting by the fireside working, signing papers with her officials. Not bad for a 95-year-old, the longest-lived of all the English monarchs, who has reigned for longer than any of them, surpassing even Victoria.
As well as all the ceremonial and formal duties, there have been many homely, amusing moments in her long reign. And in these the Queen has often displayed her ready wit.
In 1928 Winston Churchill visited Balmoral and saw the two-year-old Princess Elizabeth for the first time. He wrote to his wife: ‘She is a character. She has an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant.’
A year or so later, the Royal Librarian Sir Owen Morshead told of an incident at Windsor: ‘The officer commanding the guard strode across to where the pram stood and said, “Permission to march off, please, Ma’am?” There was the inclination of a bonneted head and a wave from a tiny paw.’
The Queen has the knack of deploying her wit to defuse embarrassing situations. Once, when she was in a teashop near Sandringham, a woman leaned forward and said: ‘Excuse me, but you do look awfully like the Queen.’
The Queen replied: ‘How very reassuring!’
Again, at a banquet she was served with asparagus and her rather pompous neighbour at the table watched her to see how she would deal with the stout, buttery, home-grown stems. When he came to be served, the Queen turned to him and said: ‘Good. Now it’s my turn to watch you make a pig of yourself!’
On another occasion. the Queen’s coach splashed mud over a woman pedestrian in Sandringham. She shouted something and the monarch answered her: ‘I quite agree.’
Prince Philip turned to the Queen and asked: ‘What did she say, dear?’
Elizabeth replied: ‘Bastards!’
Much later, at a public ceremony, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher felt embarrassed because she’d turned up in an outfit which closely resembled the Queen’s.
Afterwards, Downing Street discreetly asked the Palace whether there was any way by which in future Mrs Thatcher might know in advance what the monarch intended to wear. The Palace phoned back with a message directly from the Queen: ‘Do not worry. Her Majesty does not notice what other people are wearing.’
Does a modern nation really need a person to express the principles of governance and rule? Wouldn’t a committee do just as well and thereby get rid of a lot of fuss and paraphernalia?
When T S Eliot was asked this question, he replied: ‘You cannot expect continuity and coherence in politics, you cannot expect reliable behaviour on fixed principles persisting through changed situations, unless there is an underlying political philosophy: Not of a party, but of the nation.’
The Queen is the centre and guarantee of the nation. its embodiment. The poet Robert Graves, who met the Queen not long after her coronation, understood this point very well. He said: ‘The holy oil has taken for that girl: It worked for her all right!’