By Germaine Greer (THE GUARDIAN, 15/04/06):
In February 1954 Queen Elizabeth II and her consort paid their first visit to Australia. We had been waiting for them with bated breath ever since the fairy-tale couple had got as far as Kenya on their way to Australia in 1952, when the death of George VI was announced and Lilibet had to return to England, to be acclaimed, get crowned and all that jazz. I watched the pomp and the panoply from afar, cut out every jewel-encrusted image from the daily newspapers and the Women’s Weekly, and pasted them up in a creaking scrapbook.
I knew every brooch, every earring, every tiara. I chose only the pictures where the Queen was smiling, a big-toothed slightly horsey smile that combined oddly with her narrow forehead, a bit George Formby, you might say. My grandmother had given me a book of the coronation of George V, a special supplement to the London Illustrated News I think it must have been, and I had learnt every trick of the ceremonial, the monarch in priestly white garment, the anointing, the conferral of the swords of spiritual and temporal power, the orb, the acclamation, all very theatrical and very, very high church.
The campery of it was summed up in a joke that Philip is said to have made as Elizabeth processed past him on her way out of Westminster Abbey, her delicate neck bowed beneath the weight of the imperial crown. As she tottered past, expressionless and very pale, he is meant to have sung out of the side of his mouth, just loud enough for her to hear, «Where did you get that hat?» It worked: the Queen giggled, the crown wobbled, and the anxious crowd saw for the first time that day the blazing royal smile.
I don’t know whether our school wasn’t invited because it was Catholic, or whether our school refused to attend because it was Catholic, but we didn’t get to participate in the big rally of schoolchildren who had treated the Queen to an exhibition of figure marching at the showground and got in return a stiff little speech beginning, as all the Queen’s speeches did, «My husband and I». So that we shouldn’t miss out altogether, my mother rather uncharacteristically decided to drive her three children to Exhibition Street, to get a sight of the Queen and her husband as they were driven past on their way to a state banquet. We arrived in mid-afternoon, climbed on to scaffolding set up for the purpose, and waited, clutching paper Union flags, for hours. It was getting dark by the time the motorcade appeared. The royal car was lit from inside, so that we could see a flash of tiara, a white glove moving back and forth like a metronome, an ermine stole. The duke was on our side; his face was strangely orange.
Before we could remember to wag our flags, we found ourselves staring at the rear lights of the Daimler. My brother was convinced that the Queen had been gripping a torch with her knees. «How else could we have seen her face like that?» My mother was certain that the Duke of Edinburgh had been wearing make-up, which was probably nearer the mark. I stopped keeping my scrapbook.
In those days, though many Australians were Fenians and even more felt nothing but contempt for the British officer class, we were all monarchists. As long as Elizabeth managed to convey the impression that she adored us, we were happy to adore her. With such a dainty little woman for a monarch, it was easy to love and honour the crown, even though none of us knew quite what it was.
Australia had been claimed for the crown; all of Australia that was not alienated as freehold was crown land, leased from the crown. In this spirit Robbie Thorpe, a veteran of the aboriginal tent embassy set up on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra in 1972 and still there, served notice on the Queen when she was staying in Government House in Melbourne during her brief visit to the Commonwealth games in March, calling upon her as the head of state to address the issues of «genocide, sovereignty and treaty within 28 days» or show good cause why she should not be arraigned in the international criminal court. What Thorpe was offering the Queen was an opportunity to defend British sovereignty over Australia and to put to rest the question of indigenous sovereignty once for all, or to be defeated and resign her position as head of state, leaving aboriginal elders in the same rather dubious and contradictory position as she now occupies. Elizabeth II will not rise to the occasion.
Elizabeth Tudor, who was otherwise as expert as Elizabeth Windsor in evading difficult issues, might have taken the rap. The morning after she received Thorpe’s challenge, she might have gone on foot to Camp Sovereignty, set up in King’s Domain very near to where I glimpsed Elizabeth Windsor all those years ago, stood in the purifying smoke of the ceremonial fire and spoken movingly to her black subjects of her passionate indignation at the extent of their suffering, embracing their cause and promising to redress their grievances, and thereby got them to acclaim her as their queen and their best ally in the fight against corporate Australia.
It was Elizabeth Tudor’s strategy to represent herself as a heroine in a sacred alliance with the common people against their oppressors. If Elizabeth Windsor cannot play her game, it is partly because she has inherited a class system so entrenched that, like her son, she could not stoop to put the paste on her own toothbrush. Elizabeth Tudor knew from her childhood that only extreme daring would see her through to a natural death. She was happy to have the chance to disguise her cunning as caprice and keep her enemies guessing. Elizabeth Windsor surprises and foxes no one; she does as she is told. It is a strange reflection that, though she is the commander in chief of the British (Commonwealth) armed forces, she may not direct their operations. On the contrary, she may not even express her opinion of the operations they have been involved in. In this she is less free than any of her subjects.
Elizabeth I fretted and fumed incessantly about the unremitting interest displayed by her courtiers in her sex life. Elizabeth II avoided this by marrying the man who had been chosen for her. The choice was astute. Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg, five years older than the princess, was her second cousin once removed, third in line in succession to the Greek throne, as well as tall, fair and handsome. As a descendant of Queen Victoria he was already a member of the Firm. He was educated at Cheam and Gordonstoun and was allowed to join the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth as a foreign national. It was there that 13-year-old Lilibet met him and set her heart on him, according to her besotted governess. Any fear that her marrying a foreign prince might prove prejudicial to the future of Britain was removed by persuading the young nobleman to renounce his Greek citizenship and his claim to the Greek throne. He converted to Anglicanism, divested himself of his foreign titles and took the surname of the principal mover in the business, his uncle, Louis Mountbatten. The engagement was announced in July 1947, and the wedding followed four months later.
The royal wedding was designed to raise the spirits of dejected post-war Britain, therefore it was necessary to convince the public that the princess’s marriage was a true love match. This was made easier by the obvious fact that Philip’s foreign family had been sidelined. His sisters had married within the pro-Nazi hierarchy, and would not be invited. Other European princesses would face difficulties caused by the wartime allegiances of their consorts, but not Elizabeth. Philip was seen by all, save a carping few, as British in all but fact. Over the years gossips have tried to detect Philip in infidelity, and they have all failed. He accepted the job of royal consort and he did it faithfully, but even so he was never accorded the title of prince consort. The Queen probably would have done as most wives do, and taken her husband’s name, if Queen Mary had not objected. As it is the family name is still Windsor; the sovereign’s sons are Windsor, and the eldest-born son’s eldest-born son is Windsor. Otherwise they are all Mountbatten-Windsor. All the names are fly-by-night, in that they were all invented as substitutes for German names.
Keeping the Firm in business has been tricky, especially because the Queen was unable to guide the matrimonial choices made by her children as cunningly as Lord Mountbatten guided hers. When she insisted, as in the case of Prince Charles, on heading him away from Camilla Parker-Bowles and toward Lady Diana Spencer, the outcome was catastrophic. The role played by the Queen in the breakdown of the relationship of her sister Princess Margaret with Group Captain Peter Townsend is still unknown, but her awareness of her sister’s heartbreak may have been one cause of the Queen’s and the duke’s failure to protect their other children from marriages that could not survive in the strange outmoded milieu of dynastic politics as theirs had done.
We have known since Michael Fagan hopped through the window into the queen’s bedroom in 1982 that she and the Duke of Edinburgh do not always share a bed. This is not worth remark; probably most 60-some-year-old spouses would sleep apart if they had separate rooms to sleep in. The reason for such apparent estrangement may be as simple as snoring. Ryan Parry’s revelations about the queenly lifestyle were sadder. Her Majesty watches telly while she eats, and she eats, apparently, five times a day, just like an old lady in a care home. Like an old lady in a care home, although she is given food at prescribed hours, she often doesn’t eat it. We are to believe that the fresh-baked scones from the newly modernised Windsor Castle kitchens are given to the corgis. The Queen watches EastEnders and The Bill, when she could watch absolutely anything she chose, but she does not choose. Just like my mother in her aged care facility.
In 1963 the then prime minister of Australia made a speech in London, in which he said of the Queen, «I only saw her passing by, but I shall love her till I die.» By that time the Australian love affair with the Queen was already over and Menzies’ speech was widely ridiculed. On her latest visit she was pretty much ignored by the Australian media, who were much more excited by the presence of Condoleezza Rice. They loved the fact that Rice gets up at 4.30am to run on the treadmill, works on her abs every day, can ice-skate and golf to championship standard, that she wears dominatrix outfits featuring short skirts, jack-boots and ankle-length coats, and that she has real, world-wide, kick-ass power. One deeply adulatory article was headed, «I only saw her passing by …»
The palace bureaucrats have now seen fit to reveal that in her 54 years on the throne, Elizabeth II has sent more than 280,000 telegrams to people celebrating diamond wedding anniversaries, more than 100,000 telegrams to centenarians, about 37,500 Christmas cards, distributed 78,000 Christmas puddings, made 259 overseas trips, sat for 139 official portraits, hosted 91 state banquets, launched 23 ships, and outlived at least 30 corgis. You won’t catch Condoleezza doing many of these chores, but the world according to Marm is a safer, nicer place than the battlefield presided over by Condi. Condi may run for president of the US and she may win, in which case many of us will appreciate the gentle touch of an elderly leader in pastel florals and a shady hat, who likes her gin and Dubonnet.
It is now 16 years since the Queen’s annus horribilis. She has weathered the storm in which it seemed possible that the British would ditch the monarchy, and has come through apparently unscathed. What seems certain is that the British will not ditch her now that she has assumed the mantle of her beloved mother and become the smiling and indulgent grandmother of the nation.
If she has inherited her mother’s longevity gene she will be around for another 20 years. She still speaks coherently, walks as erect as ever she did, and only wears spectacles for reading. She has proved to be much tougher than the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, who has been left by a series of strokes too frail to speak in public. The next crisis will come if Elizabeth’s subjects begin to suspect, as the faithful did of the previous pope, that she is gradually becoming senile. If then she should abdicate in favour of the heir apparent, who is as disliked by the people as he dislikes them, the monarchy will be once again in crisis. This thought is probably enough to keep her reigning over us indefinitely. Après elle le déluge.