how unlike the life of our own dear queen

It isn't just the Queen who celebrates her 70th birthday today. Geraldine Bedell meets Heri; Majesty's contemporary, Mary Leigh, whose life, though rather less glorious, has arguably been happier
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The Independent Culture
Once upon a time, two baby girls were born in the same hour of the same night. One, the daughter of a prince, made her appearance in a Mayfair mansion, surrounded by doctors. The other, the daughter of a coal miner and a woman who took in washing, was delivered by a midwife and a neighbour in a red brick two-up two-down, in a dense and soot-blackened terrace.

In time - for these babies were born 70 years ago today - they grew into girls and young women, learned history and geography, got married and had children. One became known all over the world. She owned racehorses, yachts, trains and planes, wore impeccable clothes and lived in elegant buildings filled with fine furniture. She visited all the most dramatic and beautiful places on earth. The other went out cleaning to make ends meet, and even then managed only one holiday while her children were young, to Butlins in Pwellhi. She never lived more than a mile from her birthplace, in a Northern town set in scrubby countryside and overlooked by slagheaps. The first lived in so many places it would be difficult to say quite which one was home.

The rich woman, however, married a man considered by almost everyone who met him to be a charmless boor and bully. She became a distant, unemotional figure to her children - so estranged from her eldest son that when he acquired a beautiful house in Gloucestershire, she never went to stay. Her daughter had to wait three weekends for an appointment to tell her she wished to get married.

The miner's daughter's life, on the other hand, was dominated by a passionate love affair which lasted until death and which still sustains her. It has been a life crowded with children, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, neighbours; a life of clannish commotion.

As these women sit in their very different homes today celebrating their birthdays, neither of them, it is probably fair to say, would wish to be the other. There are, inevitably, some similarities. They lived through the same depression, the same war. They were both, in different ways, influenced by the founding of the welfare state, by post-war affluence and by national decline. They have both had to wrestle with the claims of duty and loyalty, love, loss, and the constraint of their desires by circumstance. But the tone of their lives, the aspects about which they have most cared and by which they would most wish to be judged, differ more starkly even than their material circumstances. And so, reader, bearing all this in mind, which of these women would you have preferred to be?

Mary Connell's birthplace in the Scholes area of Wigan was condemned in 1968. Irish immigrants in search of work as miners and mill girls had settled in Scholes in the 19th century, in the narrow streets and grimy terraces around St Patrick's church. Mary still lives there, between the gasworks and the stadium, though these days she has a third-floor council flat in a large block, much sought-after for its quietness and safety. Wigan is both a cleaner and a bleaker town than it was, dominated by high- rise flats, speeding traffic and ring-road warehouses selling chipboard bedroom units and cheap three-piece suites.

Mary was the third of six children, and the only girl. Her Catholic family was "on lodgings" when she was born, renting the front half of a two-up- two-down from an unmarried mother who lived at the back. Her eldest brother lived with his grandmother round the corner; Mary, her parents and second brother occupied two rooms. There was no electricity, and sometimes, no penny for the gas, in which case there was nothing much to do but go to bed.

During the depression, when Princess Elizabeth was being photographed in jodhpurs with a tiny pony, or on her way to Westminster Abbey for a service for the unemployed, Mary's father was the unemployed. "My mother did her best, taking in washing and going out cleaning as well, and we never went hungry. I always had shoes for Sunday. The boys wore clogs all the time, and I did, except for church. But I never had a doll in my life."

Compare and contrast the King and Queen's return from Australia with three tons of toys for the baby princess, gifts from antipodean subjects. Perhaps though, the Australians felt sorry for the child: her parents had been on a six-month tour which started when she was nine months old, and had missed her first birthday.

Back in Wigan, Mary Connell had two younger brothers by the time she was six, and the family was offered a council house. But her mother thought it was too far from the open back yards of Scholes with their teeming Catholic families. She arranged a swap and moved into McCormick Street around the corner from St Patrick's church. It was a place of great happiness, where Mary and her husband would also later live, and where two of her children were born.

She went to St Patrick's elementary school, where she remembers being "pretty clever" at composition, sums, history, geography, sewing and drill (PE) - "But I think they like, divided up the children, took them that they thought could afford to go to the convent and tutored them a bit more."

She was not one of the more affluent pupils and, for whatever reason, she failed the scholarship and left school at Easter, 1940. She was 14. The war had broken out six months earlier, but, like the Princess, Mary was away from the action and relatively safe. Elizabeth was being tutored in the British constitution at Windsor; Mary was earning 18 shillings a week at Eckersleys cotton mill. "We heard the bangs from the bombs in Manchester and Liverpool, but we didn't get much of it here."

She had left school on a Friday and started work the following Monday as a spinner, getting the cotton onto reels before it went off to be woven. She gave her whole wage to her mother, and sometimes got a shilling back to go to the pictures.

It was around this time that she had her first photograph taken. (The Princess Elizabeth had of course already been endlessly photographed, appearing, for example, on the cover of Time magazine on her third birthday.) "We had a photo club in the factory. There was about 20 of us. You paid a shilling and when it was your turn you went to a studio and had your photograph taken. We had a perm club as well, to get your hair done."

Late in 1945, she went dancing at the Empress Dance Hall - actually a swimming-pool with a dance floor laid on top - and met Jimmy Brown. She was 19, he was 21. "I fell in love at sight with him," she says. "I went with him from just seeing him. He was lovely. Quiet. Everybody liked him." He was blond, good-looking, just out of the Navy, and he'd come back to Wigan to work in the mines. He was a Catholic, though from the other side of town, and effectively an orphan - his mother had died in childbirth and his father had remarried and lost interest in him. Mary's family adopted him.

"He bought a bicycle to start courting me, and my brothers used to ride it. They'd say to me, `Don't you fall out and lose that bike.'" But they didn't fall out. They married two years later, at Easter, 1948, a few months after Princess Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten, and lived for a while "on lodgings" before moving next-door-but-one to her parents. Their first daughter, Mary, was born in 1949; their second, Sheila, in 1951. The never-had-it-so-good era was beginning, presided over by Harold Macmillan and the young Queen (who came to the throne in 1953), but that had little impact on the Browns' finances. Jimmy earned pounds 4.10/- as a deputy foreman in the mines, which had risen to pounds 6 by the time he left in 1957 to become a roofer. Mary quit the cotton mill when she was pregnant with her first child, but went out cleaning for a few hours a day while her children were growing up. In the evenings she worked as a barmaid at St Patrick's social club, where Jimmy was the steward.

Despite grinding hardship, "those was very happy years. We didn't have much, but we did the best we could, extra jobs to have a little bit of spending money." And by the Sixties, things were starting to get a bit easier. Jimmy was no longer working nights down the pit. He bought a Vespa, and later a van, to get the roofers to work. And though he failed to persuade Mary to emigrate to Australia, they did go on holiday for the first time in 1957, to Butlin's. In 1960, the year Prince Andrew was born, they had a third child, Angela.

But in 1967, Jimmy became ill and was sick for two months. Cancer of the windpipe was diagnosed. The doctors operated, but he died at home three weeks later. "I walked out of that house and never went back. Well, I didn't like it to start off with. But I couldn't face it after. Our Mary had to go in. It had all happened so quick, see."

Mary returned to her mother's in McCormick Street with Sheila and Angela. Now a single parent, she did a mixture of jobs: a bit of clerical work here, some bar work there. When she and her mother were moved into the new flats, 29 years ago, she helped the caretaker with the cleaning.

Tommy Leigh was already in the flats when she arrived. He was a widower, whose wife had died when she was 39, leaving him to bring up their young son. "I'd known him all my life. We lived in the same street when we were children. His wife was in my class at school. He was very like my husband, blond, kind. A good man." They married in 1987, and since they have been together, Mary has had more holidays, to Blackpool and Lourdes.

Like the Queen, she has endured her children's divorces. Sheila and Mary both married young and divorced within two years. Both are now happily remarried - Mary to an equities dealer in a merchant bank ("They have two cars"); Sheila to a painter and decorator in Wigan. Angela went to St Katharine's College in Liverpool, and became an accountant. Mary has a daughter, Victoria, six; Sheila has a son, Mark, 26, from her first marriage. "When the babies were small," Sheila tells me, "Mum wouldn't trust us to bath them. She used to come round every day in her lunch break and do it herself."

Does Mary think there have been similarities between the Queen's life and her own? "Well, I don't think she went out mopping," she says. "And she hasn't had two husbands, though she might have looked a bit happier if she had. I sometimes think what would it have been like? I wonder does she like it?"

You have to strain, actually, for similarities. Both women are rather shorter than average. Both have permed hair and divorces in their families. And both have immaculate homes with balconies. And that's about it. Mary sits in her comfortably furnished council flat, round- faced and smart in her silky blue dress, among the fitted carpets and ornaments of a lifetime - a teapot, a tree made of semi-precious stones - and large studio portraits of her family. Though mentally fit, she is terribly slowed by arthiritis. Tommy has to do the housework - "which is bad because I've always liked cleaning": walking, and even sitting for a long while, have become painful. She is hoping for a replacement knee. "Well, something's got to happen. I can't go on like this."

Those two babies' lives, though played out against the same background of great political events, have been very different. But the decline of the monarchy in the second half of the 20th century has been less about the great background events than about the emotional foreground: the way that the values and responses that are the very fabric of other lives have been given no house room in royal palaces. The Queen has lived as if her emotions had, somewhere along the line, suffered a Chinese foot- binding. Her relationships, even in private, have been paralysed by etiquette. Her life has been dominated by a ceaseless round of dutiful formal engagements. Emotions, where they have intruded, have been forced into unnatural shapes and excrescences, embarrassing to everyone.

"I feel sorry for her," Mary Leigh says. "With all she's got, I wouldn't want her life. I don't hate them or anything. I've always voted Labour but I don't have strong feelings about politics, or the Royal family. They're just there. But I've had a happy life. I had a happy childhood, a happy marriage. I've got a happy life now." It is doubtful whether the Queen would ever see her life in this way, measure it in such terms. Happiness has not been her priority. !