How happy everyone was to see Her Majesty as she emerged from the Palace on to the balcony; the longest-reigning monarch in British history. How happy and relieved. There had been anxious rumours that the Queen might not be present to celebrate the 70th anniversary of her accession to the throne; later in the day, indeed, came the sad and worrying news that she would not, after all, be attending the Jubilee service at St Paul’s. (“Mobility issues” is Palace code for being 96 years old and increasingly frail, which she is reluctant to admit because our Queen is proud and does not think it seemly to show weakness.)
But the balcony, for Queen Elizabeth in London as for Juliet in Verona, was non-negotiable. She was never not going to make it, was she? If we know one thing about the Queen, it’s that she shows up for her people. In a way that is complicated to explain, but easy to feel, her story is our history.
When she first appeared on that balcony, the stage for our great national tableaux, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was one year and two months old. It was 1927 and the world was black and white. Her mother, then the Duchess of York, held the baby up for the inspection of the cheering crowds. The little princess was next to her grandparents, Queen Mary and George V (“Grandpa England”). She was never supposed to be Queen. Only a deluded uncle, who ran off with an American divorcee, opened the door to that possibility. How shocking it is today, after seven astoundingly successful decades have passed, to think that Princess Elizabeth was never Heir Apparent, only Heiress Presumptive, because she was only a girl. (They still hoped for a boy to come along.) What a girl!
Goodness gracious, how lucky we were. Seventy years ago, before her Coronation, a besotted Winston Churchill told Parliament: “A fair and youthful figure, princess, wife and mother, is the heir to all our traditions and glories never greater than in her father’s days, and to all our perplexities and dangers never greater in peacetime than now. She is also heir to all our united strength and loyalty.”
In an era of Kardashians and celebrity froth, it’s hard to understand that the Queen’s job for life was never about fame or power; it was a calling, a vocation. The sacred vow she took that June 2 was a holy trinity: continuity, duty, loyalty.
A promise she has never broken, and never will.
Her Majesty has seen hemlines and empires rise and fall. She has had 152 state visits, 14 prime ministers and 30 corgis. (She can probably identify the dogs sooner than the politicians, which is another reason why we love her.)
The Queen, though, remains the Queen. In 1977, when Philip Larkin was asked to produce a poem for the Silver Jubilee, he wrote, unimprovably:
“In times when nothing stood
But worsened or grew strange
There was one constant good
She did not change”
And, inevitably, amid the festivities there was a sense of an ending. This is our nation’s first Platinum Jubilee and almost certainly our last. The great, beaming throng surging down towards the palace, surfing a wave of joy, and the millions of us watching at home, were united in wanting to thank the Queen, to celebrate everything she means to us.
While there is still time.
Watching the Prince of Wales, pensive at Trooping the Colour, watching the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, stunning in white (cool as milkshake on a summer’s day). Seeing Prince George, Princess Charlotte (the Royal family’s most natural star since Diana) and then seeing the Queen dip down to gently point out the wartime planes flying overhead to little Prince Louis (Lancasters and Spitfires, which the young Princess Elizabeth knew when they carried real bullets and bombs) was to watch the baton being passed on. This is the way we replenish our national story. This is what we are.