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The Queen: Majesty and modesty

It is 60 years since she succeeded to the throne – a reign in which her sense of duty and absolute retention of royal mystique has only deepened her subjects’ affection for her.
  • @johnhenrywalsh

The moment she became Queen Elizabeth II, on 6 February 1952, Princess Elizabeth was up a tree. As her father King George VI expired in the early hours of the morning, she was perched in a dendral hide at the Treetops Hotel, Kenya, from where she could watch rhino refreshing themselves at the waterhole below as dawn broke. Her position in the branches is a metaphor for how the monarchy used to be perceived by ordinary Britons: something exalted, aloof, exotic, out of sight, miles away and detached from "real" British life.

On Monday, she will have been our Queen for 60 years. It's not quite the gold medal for reigning. On 12 May 2011, she beat George III's record of 21,644 days, but she has some way to go to beat Queen Victoria (she'll have to continue until September 2015). What is beyond question – or record books – is that she has done more to humanise the monarchy than any King or Queen before.

The New Elizabethan Age coincided with the arrival of the Television Age, and has beamed her to billions around the world. But the Queen has spent 60 years putting herself about: traversing the globe, going walkabout in the Commonwealth and obscure Scottish farming communities, army barracks and Home Counties hospitals – meeting, chatting, smiling, enquiring, nodding, accepting millions of bouquets, being gracious, being queenly.

Her life is a relentless, unceasing meet-and-greet. She makes people feel bigger, prouder, bolder and more heroic from having the royal face (which can change, in a disconcerting instant, from grumpy scowl to dazzling smile) turn briefly to meet theirs. And when she isn't travelling, she's having people over to her place: not just heads of state, visiting royals, diplomatic missions and recipients of honours – including Fred Goodwin's, the Queen has dished out 404,500 honours and awards to beaming commoners in the course of her reign, and held more than 610 Investitures – but also the leading lights of professions or trades: lawyers, surgeons, artists, bankers, even journalists, invited to Buckingham Palace in their hundreds, because the Queen is interested in making contact with them as a body and assessing their collective identity.

What, though, of her own identity? In The Diamond Queen, one of several tie-in books published this spring, Andrew Marr makes the point that being "herself" is not an option. With foreign leaders, she offers small-talk "deliberately designed not to offend". If visitors talk politics, she pointedly suggests they chat about it to her foreign secretary. If controversial subjects arise, she uses the versatile royal silence to quell them. It doesn't mean she is herself bland. "She has strong views about people," says Marr. "It's just that her job means she has to hide [them]. Other people, celebrities and actors, are paid to have a 'personality'. She is required to downplay hers."

So what do we know about her? We know she was a quiet, thoughtful child who preferred horses to people. Constantly eclipsed by her vivacious sister Margaret, she was a shy teenager. "She didn't find social life at all easy," a young officer told the biographer Sarah Bradford. "I don't think she particularly enjoyed being a young girl... dances, all that sort of stuff. She quite enjoyed it once she could get going, but it didn't come absolutely naturally. She needed confidence." Everyone said she took after her father, King George, in being shy, dutiful and kind to people, with an additional calmness, reserve and inner toughness from the Queen Mother.

We know that she isn't a natural public speaker and still gets nervous before a microphone. We know she watched The King's Speech, "with interest and some pleasure", but not The Queen: she made a deal with Tony Blair that neither should watch Stephen Frears's film about their relationship. She favours Earl Grey tea, The Racing Post and wooden, rather than plastic, lavatory seats. She dislikes slow eaters, tedious talkers and unpunctuality. Not only is she herself never late, she never cancels an appointment; even when concerns were voiced over her trip to Ireland in May last year, there was never any question that it wouldn't go ahead.

She is famously non-intellectual – words like "nuance" and "dichotomy" are seldom, if ever, heard on her lips – but likes to be told things that are "interesting". The sleekly subversive dialogue ascribed to her by Alan Bennett in his play A Question of Attribution is widely held to be accurate. She can be acerbic, calling the famously pushy Princess Michael of Kent "far too grand for the likes of us". Talking to friends about her meetings with Cherie Blair (who famously refused to drop a curtsy), she said, "I can almost feel Mrs Blair's knees stiffening when I come in."

She has a charmingly playful side. When a past president of the Poetry Society turned the conversation to Rudyard Kipling, the Queen murmured, "Ah, yes, Kipling... exceedingly good poet." At a Palace garden party, a Birmingham businessman was nervously speaking to the Queen when his mobile phone rang inside his breast pocket. Conversation died as the "Mexican Hat Dance" warbled on. "Why don't you answer that?" the Queen dryly asked her mortified subject. "It might be someone important."

Exactly how important is she? She reigns but does not rule. She is powerless, but her influence is oceanic. Her weekly private audiences with prime ministers (she's had 12 from Winston Churchill to David Cameron) offer "friendliness rather than friendship", according to one source, but they have a serious effect. "She asks you well-informed and brilliant questions that make you think about the things you're doing," says Cameron. "I think you reveal, both to her but also to yourself, your deepest thinking and deepest worries... and sometimes that can really help you reach the answers."

It's in her foreign travels, and her role as super-ambassador, that her real importance now lies. Not just the myriad trading-partner trips organised for her by the Foreign Office, nor her travels to the 16 Commonwealth states whose constitutional Queen she is still. It's in her forging what seems like a genuinely close friendship with America (when the Obamas came to England, they were invited to stay at Buckingham Palace, as was expected. What was not expected was that the Queen would show them to their bedroom.)

It's in her visits to the Middle East, ostensibly to encourage investment from royal families there, but also to become part of the debate over the intentions of, say, Iran. It's in the hugely significant Irish visit – taking in landmarks of Irish suffering at the hands of the British from 1916-1921 – which encouraged both countries to "bow to the past but not be bound by it". The sight of this 85-year-old grandmother struggling to speak some words of Gaelic did more for Anglo-Irish relations in a minute than hours of diplomatic rhetoric.

As the Duke of Edinburgh reached his 90th birthday and suffered health scares, the Queen's subjects wondered how long she herself could keep going, with or without his company. If her mother's longevity is any guide, it could be 15 years, although few could seriously expect her to globetrot in her mid-nineties. But when she does leave the stage, it will seem like a wrench in the fabric of nature, a tilting of the world's axis. For through 60 years, from the aftermath of war to the digital dawn, she has been the nation's seraphic Holy Mother, serene, unflappable, concerned for our welfare, wryly amused by our follies.

"Have you come far?" she used to ask garden party guests. We have all come so far, our lives have changed so much, the monarchy has been rocked to its foundations, during her reign. But she has never changed. When Barack Obama called her "the best of England", he was inaccurate as to genealogy – but of course he was right.

A Life in Brief

Born: Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, London, 21 April 1926.

Family: The eldest child of King George VI and Elizabeth, she had one sister, Margaret (who died in 2002). Married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark in 1947; they have four children – Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward – and eight grandchildren.

Education: Educated privately at home.

Career: Became the British monarch and Head of the Commonwealth in 1952 after the death of her father.

She says: "Like all the best families, we have our share of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements."

They say: "There's no question you can ask, and no point you can raise, that she won't already know about – and have a better opinion about." Prince William