HM at 80. Simply majestic

By Libby Purves (THE TIMES, 18/04/06):

THE QUEEN will be 80 this week, and it is not hard to predict an outbreak of mass fondness. There is grudging affection among even those who find it hard to visualise a monarchy beyond her lifetime; those who find it a positively useful part of British life are prone to love her with almost demented extravagance, simply because she has done it so well, for so long.

Some will hate every minute of the celebrations: the walkabouts, the cheering, the church services, the larky June party filling Buckingham Palace with noisy children and delighted actors sweating in foam rubber character suits.

Some claim that the monarch is just the apex of an invidious pyramid of class distinction, perpetuating privilege and snobbery. Some are too dryly rationalist to accept that position can be connected with birth (though the same people probably go misty-eyed when they meet a tenth-generation Tuscan farmer or Venetian glassblower).

A few, weirdly, are annoyed by the Queen’s devotion to bedrock values: a weekend commentator wrote crossly that the monarchy is “buoyed on the thermals of British self-delusion . . . the Queen is a mirror and designated image-maker to a people that prefers to see itself, however implausibly, as dutiful, thrifty, faithful, diligent and kind”. We are, she said, in thrall to nostalgia. To which I can only reply, Blimey! If duty, thrift, faithfulness, hard work and kindness are implausible nostalgic values, bring them on.

Speaking as an averagely idle, self-indulgent and chippy Briton, I rather like having a Queen projecting the dull old virtues, and at least making me wish I had them. Particularly if the alternative is watching politicians and media darlings (and indeed media) devoted to self-promotion, high living, dodgy money, freebies and spite.

But republicans and monarchists must agree to disagree. What has been occupying me is a meditation on the sheer oldness of the Queen. Eighty is a venerable age at which to be touring, shaking hands and welcoming obscure dignitaries whose names even professional journalists can’t quite place, not to mention inventing something polite to say to them.

One of the most awesome sights of the Jubilee, to me, was not the tiny figure on the balcony waving to two million on the Mall, but the earlier sight of HM working the room for more than two hours at the media reception at Windsor Castle. She would steam up to suspicious reptilian characters from hostile papers with a beaming “How nice to meet the press!” and chat resolutely about David Beckham’s sore foot. When I am 76, frankly, I do not plan to spend hours on end being nice to gawping strangers who have been writing spiteful things about my family for years.

Stability is not fossilisation. The Queen does us a favour by carrying on in much the same way as she vowed to do as a young woman, while maintaining an air of benign interest in change. HMS Britain weaves uncertainly through storms and rocks, with a series of stubborn or incompetent helmsmen and a crew prone to bouts of hysteria; yet her figurehead is bright and steady, cleaving the waves with unchipped, barely faded faithfulness. Monarchy may be in rational terms a daft job, but it is a comfort. It makes national life feel more like a journey than just a series of random upheavals.

The Queen’s age is starting to seem like an asset rather than a liability. After the war, with a country in need of literal and metaphorical reconstruction, it was good to have a young mother as Queen. In 2006, with a greying population and a wearying speed of social and technical change, it is good to have an old lady there.

Twenty years ago there was a sense that perhaps HM should abdicate and give us a younger monarch with a beautiful young Queen. One can only be relieved that it didn’t happen. Nor should it happen now. Jobs may be devolved on to the heir, but the longer Queen Elizabeth II reigns, the better. It ain’t broke; don’t fix it.

There is another reason for this. We are a greying nation, and need to be reminded of certain positive things about longevity. We need to remember that old people can do useful things, know useful things and offer advice and perspective — as the Queen does in her meetings with prime ministers. We can also note, by casual royal example, that septuagenarians can perfectly well adapt to innovations — texting, civil partnership, Tupperware, a multi-ethnic society — if they just bother to keep their brains alive.

We need reminding, above all , that as you get older there is no excuse for being curmudgeonly or resenting the young. This is a particularly useful thing at the moment, with the ghastly vogue for “Grumpy Old Men” (and women) that sanctifies the whingeing of spoilt, middle-aged baby-boomers who had free education, found jobs without trouble and never fought a war but now can’t bear call centres, informal manners and the way that kids say “like” and enjoy movies without Humphrey Bogart in them. I was watching Grumpy Old Men on BBC One the other night and noted with horror that one of them is only 43. Pull yourself together, man! Your monarch is 80 and still smiling at the world. Her consort is a famed early-adopter of techno-toys and cheerleader for adventurous youth. As a birthday card I offer them both the words of G.K. Chesterton: hope, he said, is not a characteristic of moody youth, but life’s last gift:

“The power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures . . . it is from the backs of elderly gentlemen that the wings of the butterfly should burst. There is nothing that so much mystifies the young as the constant frivolity of the old. They have discovered their indestructibility. They are in their second and clearer childhood, and there is a meaning in the merriment of their eyes. They have seen the end of the End of the World.”