The first time I really met the Queen, she was in her bedroom. I must have been around 8, perhaps, and totally engrossed in The BFG, the scene where the BFG drops Sophie into the Queen’s bedroom so she can help them stop the evil giants eating all the children. Up until then, the Queen had been a sort of background figure, a concept that existed but had no real meaning. Now, she was a real person who could save children from evil villains (and she got breakfast in bed on a silver tray – very posh).
Then there were the coins. When I was even younger than 8, after school finished I would be taken to the secondary school where my dad worked to wait for him to finish so we could go home together. I would sit on the floor in the main reception area, in front of a large glass window (through which there was constant sun streaming; an unlikely story in the North East of England, so we’ll just accept childhood rose-tinted glasses and move on), and play with a selection of copper pennies showing the Queen’s profile at different ages. Each coin would be a different princess in some story or other that I made up as I went along. My favourites were the oldest pennies, where a very young Queen Elizabeth looked more like a fairytale princess than the practically ancient lady of later coins (bearing in mind this is the mid-1980s, so none of the images were more than middle-aged. This is a judgement I now regret).
Growing up in a republican household, I had a very conflicted relationship with the monarchy. Of course they were expensive, had no real justification and I couldn’t (still can’t) offer a logical and rational argument for their continued position; if anything, it’s even harder to justify the opulence and glitter after over a decade of austerity. However, my heart is stronger than my head and as well as having a genuine soft spot for the Queen, who seemed like a nice old lady and used to look like a fairytale princess, I secretly loved the idea of having a Royal Family, a King and Queen and princes and princesses. Add into that the love of Regency romance that developed as I grew older (all those Dukes and Earls. Damn you, Georgette Heyer) and the romance of the whole institution is my dominant feeling. If my parents ask, yes I totally think we should abolish the monarchy. Truthfully, though – no, I’d opt to keep them, on the whole.
Which means that over the past couple of weeks I have been entering into the national mourning as much as most people. I was very saddened by the news of her illness then death; I feel huge amounts of sympathy for the new King (both for his loss and his new job at an age when even now most people are retiring). We have joined in: visiting Durham to hear the Proclamation of Accession read; visiting Edinburgh to watch the procession of the Queen’s coffin, and being actually very excited to be within touching distance of King Charles as he followed it up the Royal Mile with his brothers and sister; watching the full funeral as well as a good deal of the news coverage leading up to it; and writing a message in the Book of Condolence in Durham Cathedral. And this has meant that we’ve really felt the communal loss as well – it’s brought to mind the loss of my own grandparents and my husband’s, as well as how lucky I am with my one remaining grandma, who is 98 and still going strong despite advanced Alzheimers and two bouts of Covid. The afternoon that the Queen was dying, and 24-hour news was trying to discuss it with very little real information, felt very much like when my husband’s grandma was dying. We and other family members were gathered at her side; we varied between tears and sharing happy memories. Took turns to visit the vending machines for yet another bag or crisps, and complained about the toilets being closed so you had to trek to the other end of the hospital, and all the while knowing what was coming. The afternoon of 8 September 2022 felt like this, but on a national scale. The grief was real, if remote, and shared. And now the funeral is over, and it’s that part where the guests have gone and you clear away the plates from the funeral do, and everyone is supposed to move on – but something imperceptible has shifted and cannot be replaced.
The Queen’s death doesn’t really affect my life at all. But she was always there, a stable, dependable entity in a country that is unravelling before my eyes; her death marks the real end of the century in which I was born and grew up. Things are changing and I’m not quite sure I’m really ready for it all.