Princesses come and princesses go but the Queen goes on for ever

The days when she spoke to us
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
At three o'clock in the afternoon of Christmas Day we would gather round the wireless (was it really shiny brown Bakelite, or have I been watching too many plays from the Fifties, the set carefully dressed to simulate my childhood?) to listen to the Queen's Speech. My mother, having just cooked and washed up the Christmas lunch, (roast chicken with sprouts and roast potatoes; Christmas pudding with silver sixpences; orange juice, even for my parents; a small cigar afterwards for my father, the only one of the year) - my mother's face would be flushed with triumph and relief, for she was not a natural cook. Few ordinary housewives were, in those pre-foodie days.

My father would compose his features into an expression of dignified respect, as befitted one of Her Majesty's subjects, a citizen of Great Britain, a diligent civil servant and, most important to us, the head of our small household. He would twiddle thecontrols to get rid of the crackle and wee would settle down for the deferential introduction: "And now, addressing her people all over the world: Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.." The chimes of Big Ben would ring out three times, sonorously , and I imagined the millions of families gathered, like us, to hear what She had to say.

My sister and I would be tense and a bit giggly with expectation, secretly impatient for the Speech to be over: for only then, at about 10 past three in the afternoon of Christmas Day, were we allowed to open our presents. It would have been (I assumed) disrespectful to open them before She had relayed her Christmas message. I know, of course, now that I am a mother of three and grandmother of four, that making us wait till after lunch for our presents was simply a form of parental blackmail designed tokeep us quiet and biddable. Aged 13 (as I was in 1953) and 8 (my younger sister) it seemed to both of us a reasonable tribute to our radiant young Queen, our beloved Sovereign, Elizabeth the Second. Did we really think of her in terms of such reverence?Certainly we did.

We would all sit very still and listen rapt as She began to speak in that high, staccato, nervous voice. Much later, when I was starting to question my parents' values, I learned to imitate her. "May Hesbend end Ay ..." I would enunciate clearly, and my father would frown . This was lese-majeste and he did not, he said sternly, find it at all funny. I was being thoroughly silly and childish. My mother and sister would hide their guilty grins encouraging me to go on daringly, " ... hev very much enjoyed our first journey to the Moon ..."

"Either be quiet and listen with the rest of us," my father would say, "or leave the room." I was 19 and at university by then, but I knew the voice of authority when I heard it. I shut up and listened to Her, as I had done all through my childhood, and would go on doing until I left home at the age of 21.

The Queen and my father were intermingled; the giants of my youth, figures who commanded awe and respect rather than love. I would not dare to question either of them. On the contrary, I listened to the Queen's platitudes with real anticipation, expecting ... what? She certainly never said anything like ""I may be a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a man!" or "When I die, they will find Calais inscribed upon my heart!" Nothing like that ever fell from her lips.

Instead, we heard vague generalisations about the great links forged between the nations of the Empire (or was she calling it a Commonwealth by then? Not that it made much difference: we thought of it as our Empire still). She would talk about white and brown, black and yellow, and tell us we were all one, far-flung as we were, under distant skies and on foreign shores. Amazingly, I think I went on believing all that well into the Sixties.

We never watched her on television. First, she didn't deliver the speech on television until 1957 and in any case, we didn't get a television until the mid-Sixties, by which time I had left home and got married. My father thought television was common. "Look at them all, glued to the gogglebox!" he would say scornfully, and my mother would do a little snort in sympathy. "Goggle-box!" she would echo dutifully.

Well, that was how I viewed the Queen, long ago, in the world we have lost. My father viewed her that way until the day he died. I don't think my children and I ever listened to the speech, but I still made them wait for their presents until 10 past three.

Comments