Brave, decent heir to `a rocking throne'

Historical Notes
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IT IS now axiomatic that every American then alive, and indeed people throughout the world, can remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard of the assassination of President Kennedy.

But my generation had exactly the same experience when they heard the announcement of the death of King George VI on the morning of 5 February 1952. As I discovered, my reaction of disbelief, followed by shock, was universal. He was, after all, only 55, and, although it was known that he had been seriously ill, we were wholly unprepared for this. So, as it happened, were his doctors.

As he died over 46 years ago, it is not altogether surprising that he has been largely forgotten, although the astonishing vitality and longevity of his widow, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, provides a unique personal link with a man who should not be forgotten.

Although my book on the King's political role, and that of his predecessors, is not a biography, his personality is obviously a major element in his political vicissitudes and achievements, and my respect for him increased.

In many respects his is a romantic story. He suffered consistent ill- health as a child and young man, having to be invalided out of the Navy suffering from a duodenal ulcer after having served in HMS Collingwood in the Battle of Jutland: when recovered, he joined the fledgling Royal Air Force, and became a qualified pilot. He was ill-educated, shy and tense, and suffered from an appalling stammer and furious temper. But, as his father noted with admiration, he had "guts". The turning-point of his life was his marriage to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon; with her devoted help the dreadful stammer was mastered, although on public occasions never fully conquered.

He took a deep interest in industrial matters, founded the famous Duke of York's camps for boys from private and state schools, visited Australia, New Zealand and East Africa, fulfilled his public duties, and enjoyed the life of a countryman with his wife and small daughters.

Neither he nor his wife expected, or wanted, to accede to the throne, and certainly not under the bizarre circumstances of December 1936 when his elder brother abdicated to marry Mrs Simpson, leaving the new King George VI, in his own phrase, to inherit "a rocking throne".

He and the Queen not only stabilised it, but by their conduct in the war, and especially in the terrible period of mortal danger in 1940-41, won the admiration and affection of the British people. What was even more remarkable was that he totally lacked self- confidence, and his notorious temper could flare up over trivialities. But it was striking in the private diaries and letters of those who worked with and for him that their admiration for him never wavered. He was fundamentally a brave, decent, and kind man in a world that had gone mad.

A man who was not only respected but esteemed by such disparate people as Churchill, Attlee, Roosevelt, Bevin and Bevan - another stammer sufferer - was certainly exceptional. His influence became strong, and not least because he was so exceptionally well-informed - much better, in fact, than most cabinet ministers.

But the strains of war destroyed his health. An attempt to recover it by a visit to Southern Africa in 1947 had the opposite effect. By 1948 he was seriously ill with thrombosis which was to kill him - not with lung cancer, as has often been claimed - and also had to endure the loss of India, Burma, and Ceylon. But his vision of the New Commonwealth, espoused by his elder daughter and successor, has survived.

Churchill, in his tribute to the King in the Commons on 11 February 1952 described his demeanour in the dark days of 1940-41 as that of "a spirit undaunted". But it also fittingly describes his whole life.

Sir Robert Rhodes James is the author of `A Spirit Un-daunted: the political role of George VI' (Little, Brown, pounds 22.50)