God save the Queen. Elizabeth II is 80 today. The celebrations started even earlier. Two days ago she invited 99 other Britons who will be 80 today to lunch at Buckingham Palace, as the Guardian charmingly reported yesterday. Lilibet, as she called herself when she was too young to say Elizabeth, is beginning to show the common touch. When she visited Singapore last month, she dropped in on an ordinary Singaporean living in a housing estate whom she had last met here many years ago. Maybe she will become as popular as her mum, the Queen Mother, who lived till 101 and died peacefully in her sleep with her daughter at her bedside in the Royal Lodge at Windsor on March 30, 2002.
I always wondered why when April 21 is Queen Elizabeth’s birthday, her Birthday Honours List naming new peers and knights and dames comes out in June. Ah, that’s to mark the anniversary of her reign. She was formally crowned queen on June 2, 1953, in a coronation ceremony shown on black and white television. There was no colour TV then. But she has been reigning even longer. She succeeded to the throne when her father, George VI, died on Feb 6, 1952. She was then 25 going on 26, a young queen. Now, after 54 years on the throne, she is the fifth longest ruling British monarch. Only four have ruled longer than her: Queen Victoria (1837-1901), George III (1760-1820), James VI of Scotland (1567-1625) who was also James I of England from 1603 to 1625 after the "Union of the Crowns", and Henry III (1216-1272).
Mad George III lost the American colonies. James I’s belief in the divine right of kings led to the English Civil War and the execution of his son, Charles I, in 1649 when England briefly became a republic until the Stuart Restoration under Charles II in 1660. Henry III spent part of his reign under house arrest. Even Victoria, the most successful British monarch, spent most of her reign in mourning having lost her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861 when she was 41 or 42 years old and they had been married for 21 years. Victoria became queen at 18 and married Albert in 1840 when she was 20 or 21.
Queen Elizabeth has lost a daughter-in-law and an empire. Princess Diana perhaps looms larger in public memory today than the empire which slowly dissolved around her. Incredible as it seems today, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Ghana, Aden, Cyprus were all British possessions when she came to the throne.
Commentators at the time envisioned a New Elizabethan Age — not so much geopolitically perhaps, as the colonies were all expected to go, but in arts and culture and science. And Britain had a lot to be proud of. The English literary scene continued to shoot up new stars well into the 1960s and there was the "British invasion" in music spearheaded by the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
It’s a different story now. I don’t know about current music. Dire Straits was the last band I followed. But literature has certainly suffered. True Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, but he is in mid-70s now. Which current British writer is as popular as Graham Greene, leave alone Somerset Maugham or George Bernard Shaw? Sure, there is Rowling writing for children but no other superstar except John Le Carre, perhaps, but he is in 70s too and confined himself to spy novels.
The BBC and the Guardian and The Times thunder on and London is still one of the world’s greatest business centres and Britain still draws legions of foreign students. But it’s a shadow of its former glory. Britain counts for less and less. The Economist boasts it has more subscribers in America than in Britain. I read the Guardian and The Times not for British politics, which frankly doesn’t count for much in the world today.
But should auld acquaintance or auld rulers be forgot and never brought to min’ ? No. So, here’s to the Queen for auld lang syne. I remember her visit to Calcutta in the early 1960s, when my granny took me to see her drive past in a motorcade near the Mint. She looked elegant waving from an opentop limousine. It’s been a long time.
It’s kind of silly to wax sentimental about one of the world’s richest women who has never had to fix a dinner or look for a job or do any of the things people have to do these days. The monarchy is finished and Elizabeth could well be all that’s keeping it alive, writes Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian today. He calls her one of the most accomplished politicians. And endearing too. I remember reading recently that when she was offered a DVD, she said no, but could they send her a video please! Apparently, she’s still stuck with VCRs! Even I no longer use a VCR. Not that I have DVDs either.