"Radiant", "gracious", "never puts a foot wrong", "fount of British common sense", "unchanging rock in a turbulent world" – these are just a few of the descriptions of the Queen on the airwaves this jubilee weekend. And that's before the BBC commentary team anoints her with its own verbal unctions.
You don't need to have a theoretical fancy for republicanism or, like me, severe qualms about the hereditary principle and its assiduous work on behalf of social immobility, to bridle when the royal groupies start cooing and the broadcasters produce programmes about as critical as a commemorative plate. Yet, recoil as one might from the Diamond Jubilee flummery, there's a feeling even among agnostics like me that this royal occasion is one time we're not being conned. If, in this land of monarchy, the genetic accident is queen, the almost absurd falling of the cards that dealt us Elizabeth II as head of state was a considerable stroke of fortune.
She was, you need to remind yourself, not born to be sovereign, as neither were her father, grandfather, or, for that matter, her great-great grandmother Victoria. She was the first child of the monarch's second son – the equivalent of Princess Beatrice today – and her parents could no more have expected her to succeed to the throne than for her to captain England at volleyball. At the time of her birth, in 1926, her grandfather, George V, was only 60, and his elder son and heir, her Uncle David, the world's most coveted bachelor. A handsome 32-year-old, he was fully expected to marry and produce heirs. Elizabeth was thus not quite of premier royal rank, and had an early upbringing free of pressure. She and her sister Margaret Rose, four years her junior, were educated at home by a governess.
Then came 1936. At the beginning of the year, she was destined for a future no more challenging than finding the right blue blood to marry, producing children, and fulfilling a round of charity duties. But, in January, her grandfather died, and in December, after less than 11 months on the throne, Uncle David, the uncrowned Edward VIII, abdicated. Her father became king (subsiding into sobs on his mother's shoulder at the thought of it all), Princess Elizabeth became heir-presumptive, and various sages were drafted in to give her education some constitutional rigour. Three years later, the country was at war, and she had to watch as her father grappled with his incapacitating stage fright when giving speeches.
Her teenage years coincided exactly with the length of the war, but she had already spotted the man who was to be her husband. Twice in her childhood she had met Prince Philip of Greece, a minor European royal of Danish extraction, and reportedly fell for him in 1939 when she was but 13. If ever there was a man made for a teenage girl's crush it was Philip: blond, willowy, and with looks that would not have been out of place on a film set. They were married in 1947, he 25, and she 21. With her father then 51, she could reasonably have expected to inherit the throne in her middle years. But he was an inveterate smoker, the latest in a line of royal males with short lives, and already ailing. In 1952, at only 25, and the mother of Charles, born in 1948, and Anne, in 1950, she succeeded to the throne.
She came with a record of blemish-free behaviour, and her accession set off effusive predictions of a New Elizabethan Age. This optimism may seem vaguely comic to us now, but in 1952, Britain was a country that not only still thought itself the centre of an empire, but where marks of respect for the monarch were part of daily life. Pictures of the Queen were commonplace in homes, offices, and schools, the loyal toast a feature of even informal social gatherings, and a recording of the National Anthem, for which all stood up, concluded every cinema screening. The attitude to the new Queen, therefore, was not so much one of conscious deference, as an inescapable expectation spurned at social peril.
She hadn't been on the throne much more than five years when these old certainties began to rub up against the post-Suez world of Angry Young Men, in which the likes of Beyond the Fringe were being incubated. There had already been an indication that the Queen and progressive opinion were barely on nodding terms when she was widely assumed to have vetoed a union between her sister and the man she loved – a divorcee, albeit a blameless one. Teenage culture was bursting into life, and yet here was a sovereign who, for all her youth, was decidedly more old guard than avant-garde. While the country was relishing Tommy Steel's Bermondsey vowels, Elizabeth was wishing it, in her first televised message in 1957, "a heppy Christmas".
And, indeed, it was her speech which was the subject of the first trenchant criticism. Lord Altrincham wrote an article that referred to her "high schoolgirl voice" and went on: "The personality conveyed by the utterances which are put into her mouth is that of a priggish schoolgirl, captain of the hockey team, a prefect, and a recent candidate for confirmation." Cue outrage, and an assault on Altrincham by an empire loyalist (sentencing him, the judge said he had struck a blow which every man in England would like to have aimed). But Altrincham's other main point – that the Queen was surrounded by types who would not be out of place in a P G Wodehouse story, hit home. Supported by her husband, a more professional, less fusty atmosphere began to prevail at what still called "court". Symbolically, in 1958, debutantes (posh young gels photographed in mother's pearls for the frontispiece of Country Life magazine) were no longer to be presented to the Queen.
Prince Andrew was born in 1960, Prince Edward in 1964, and then, in 1969, the Queen agreed to being, with her family, the subject of an hour-long television documentary showing them at work, at home, picnicking and so on. The idea was pure public relations, intended to make them seem more accessible to their subjects whose attitudes to authority had. by that time, been changed out of all recognition by the Sixties.
David Attenborough, then top man at the BBC, counselled against this lifting of the veil, but the Royal Family was stung by comparisons with Scandinavia's "bicycling monarchies" and their conspicuous frugality (itself something of an illusion), and the film was made and watched by 22 million people. Regarded at the time as a triumph, it came to be seen as a mistake, especially after the image of familial contentment was breached by the shenanigans of the 1980s. Princess Anne, who always gives the impression of being more crisply intelligent than her three brothers combined, has publicly admitted as much, and the fact that the Palace stops the wretched thing being repeated is an indication that this is the Queen's view, too.
As the Queen reached her fifties, the rumblings of distant domestic thunder began, and, as 20 years before, the cause was Princess Margaret. In 1976, she separated from her husband, Lord Snowdon, and her subsequent jaunts with Roddy Llewellyn, 17 years her junior, gave the red-top press its first taste of royal "scandal", which was to blight the Queen's life for the next 20 years. What followed between 1981 and 1997 is now a familiar catalogue of hyped-up "fairytale" weddings, separations, divorces, phone calls of excruciating intimacy spread over gleeful pages, soul-baring interviews, toe-suckings, public relations pratfalls, the negotiated acceptance of her income being taxed, and the death of Diana and the belated return from Balmoral.
The Queen was able to deflect much of the overwrought public angst with a deft broadcast, but the grooming and exploitation of Diana left a stain, and the trail of her children's marital misadventures suggest that something in her household was amiss. She has, to put it mildly, been a greater success as a grandparent than as a parent.
It's a phenomenon not unknown among those with demanding careers, and, even allowing for her considerable staff and resources, she has covered an awful lot of territory, made 261 official visits overseas, acted as patron of more than 600 organisations, and counselled 12 prime ministers. Yet what is remarkable are not such statistics, her longevity, or stamina, but something else. Throughout her reign, much, too much, has been written and broadcast claiming to reveal "the real Queen".
It, of course, does nothing of the kind, instead dispensing trivia of dubious provenance, such as whether she likes Marmite, relishes a good murder mystery, or favours silk or flannelette pyjamas. Fascinating as this may be to the plate collectors, any attempt to know her misses the point. The Queen's smartest move is that she lets no one, aside from prime ministers and senior aides, have the slightest idea of her opinion on anything that matters.
So, for all the trunks and cases which follow her when she travels, she comes without baggage, unlike any politician. In her duties, what she represents is not herself (because she has kept that to herself), but the state. She is the symbol of her country because she is the symbol of nothing else, and certainly not any personal hobby horses. This may seem to be damning her with faint praise, but her insistent self-effacement in public is her greatest quality. It is hard, even for a proto-republican, not to feel admiration, and even, in some absurd way, pride at a job done so well for so long. As genetic accidents go, Elizabeth II has been for Britain about as happy a one as the lottery of history is ever likely to allow. Can we be that lucky again?
60 years in events
1952 The Great Smog of 1952 envelops London from Friday 5 December to Tuesday 9 December. At least 4,000 people die as a result of the air pollution.
1953 Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay become the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world's highest peak, on 29 May.
1954 Britons celebrate the end of nearly a decade and a half of food rationing on 4 July restrictions on the sale and purchase of meat are lifted. Rationing began during the war in 1940.
1955 The first edition of The Guinness Book of Records is bound on 27 August and becomes a number-one bestseller in Britain by Christmas.
1956 Elvis Presley releases "Heartbreak Hotel" on 27 January. It becomes his first No 1 single in the United States and reaches No 2 in the UK.
1957 Egypt reopens the Suez Canal to all shipping in April. This follows the Suez crisis, triggered by President Gamal Abdel Nasser's decision the previous year to nationalise the canal.
1958 Seven of Manchester United's Busby Babes are among 21 to die in the Munich air disaster on 6 February. Player Duncan Edwards and the plane's captain die from their injuries a few weeks later.
1959 Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista flees the country on 1 January after rebels, under Che Guevara, win the Battle of Santa Clara. The Cuban revolution, led by Fidel Castro, begins half a century of frigid relations with the nearby US.
1960 A new ITV soap opera, Coronation Street, airs for the first time on 9 December. Ken Barlow (Bill Roache), who appeared in the first episode, is still in Weatherfield.
1961 Construction of the Berlin Wall, creating a barrier between East and West Berlin, begins on 13 August. The wall falls nearly three decades later, on 9 November 1989.
1962 The Cuban missile crisis begins on 14 October after a US spy plane spots Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. The stand-off finishes on 28 October, ending the immediate threat of nuclear war.
1963 A gunman assassinates US President John F Kennedy as he travels in an open-top car in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November. Lee Harvey Oswald is named as the sniper but conspiracy theories rumble on.
1964 The last executions are held in the UK on 13 August Peter Allen at Walton prison in Liverpool and Gwynne Evans at Strangeways in Manchester.
1965 A full state funeral is held for Sir Winston Churchill at St Paul's Cathedral on 30 January, six days after his death, aged 90, following a stroke.
1966 A beautiful moment in the beautiful game the Queen presents England with the Jules Rimet trophy after the team beats West Germany 4-2 in the World Cup final at Wembley on 30 July.
1967 Gay sex in private between men over the age of 21 is decriminalised in England and Wales, under the Sexual Offences Act 1967. The Bill receives royal assent on 28 July.
1968 Riots break out across the United States after American black civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King is shot dead at Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on 4 April.
1969 Neil Armstrong takes "one small step for man" on 21 July and becomes the first person to set foot on the surface of the Moon. Buzz Aldrin is the second.
1970 On 9 April, Paul McCartney reveals, in a press release to promote his first solo album, McCartney, that The Beatles have broken up. The Fab Four had formed a decade earlier.
1971 Britain switches to decimal currency on 15 February. The new money replaces the previous system of pounds, shillings and pence.
1972 British Army soldiers kill 13 unarmed civil rights protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland, on 30 January. Another man dies months later from injuries he sustained on Bloody Sunday.
1973 The UK becomes a fully-fledged member of the European Economic Community on 1 January. Ireland and Denmark join the same year.
1974 US president Richard Nixon announces his resignation in a television broadcast on 8 August. It comes into effect the next day and follows the Watergate scandal.
1975 Childhood friends Bill Gates and Paul Allen found Microsoft on 4 April in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with Gates as CEO. Microsoft Windows is introduced a decade later.
1976 Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne form Apple Computer in California on 1 April. The word "computer" is dropped from the name in 2007 to reflect its focus on other gadgets.
1977 The horse Red Rum wins a record third Grand National on 2 April following previous wins in 1973 and 1974.
1978 Louise Brown is born at Oldham General Hospital on 25 July, weighing 5lb 12oz. She is the first baby to be conceived by in-vitro fertilisation (IVF).
1979 Margaret Thatcher arrives at Downing Street on 4 May to take over from James Callaghan, after the Conservatives win the general election. The Iron Lady is Britain's first female prime minister.
1980 Mark Chapman shoots former Beatle John Lennon dead on 8 December at the entrance to The Dakota, the New York apartment building in which Lennon lived.
1981 On 5 June, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that five homosexual men in Los Angeles have a rare form of pneumonia. They are the first recognised cases of Aids.
1982 The Falklands War erupts after Argentina invades the Falkland Islands on 2 April. The conflict ends on 14 June in British victory. Thirty years on, tensions between Argentina and Britain are high again.
1983 In the biggest prison escape in British history, 38 Irish republican prisoners get out of the high-security Maze Prison in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, on 25 September.
1984 A year-long miners' strike begins on 6 March when the National Coal Board announces intentions to close 20 mines, which would cost 20,000 jobs. The strike ends on 3 March 1985.
1985 Live Aid pop concerts are held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia on 13 July, with TV coverage beamed across the globe. The event raised funds for famine relief in Ethiopia.
1986 An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on 26 April spreads a radioactive cloud. In the following years, some 350,000 people are evacuated from the areas of worst contamination in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.
1987 Church of England envoy Terry Waite is kidnapped in Lebanon while attempting to secure the release of four hostages. He is kept hostage from 20 January that year until his release on 18 November 1991.
1988 Pan Am Flight 103 explodes over Lockerbie in Scotland on 21 December, killing 270 people. Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who died last month, is later convicted over the terrorist attack.
1989 On 4 June, the Chinese army moves in to crush a student-led demonstration in Tiananmen Square, Peking (now Beijing), killing hundreds of unarmed protesters calling for democratic reform.
1990 Leading anti-apartheid campaigner Nelson Mandela walks free from prison in South Africa on 11 February after 27 years behind bars. He is elected as the country's president in 1994.
1991 The World Wide Web becomes publicly available on 6 August, when its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, posts a summary of the project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup.
1992 The Bosnian War, which lasts for more than three years, begins on 5 April as a result of the break-up of Yugoslavia. It is the most devastating conflict in Europe since the Second World War.
1993 Two 10-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, kill toddler James Bulger on 12 February after abducting him from New Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle, near Liverpool. They are convicted of murder on 24 November.
1994 The Channel Tunnel – linking Britain and mainland Europe – opens on 6 May. The Queen travels by Eurostar to Calais to formally open the rail link.
1995 Barings Bank, Britain's oldest investment bank, collapses on 26 February following rogue trading by employee Nick Leeson. His losses are more than £800m.
1996 Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, is born on 5 July. Created by Scottish scientists, she is revealed to the public the following year.
1997 Sovereignty of Hong Kong is handed from the UK to China, marking the end of more than 150 years of British control. The transfer ceremony starts on 30 June and ends on 1 July.
1998 The Good Friday Agreement, seen as a major development in the Northern Ireland peace process, is signed on 10 April between the Irish and British governments and most Northern Irish political parties.
1999 The first elections are held in Scotland and Wales on 6 May for the new Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales.
2000 Protesters angry at rising fuel prices in the UK block access to oil refineries, beginning on 8 September, causing disruption to petrol supplies. The protests end on 14 September.
2001 Nearly 3,000 people, including 67 British victims, die in the September 11th attacks in the United States after 19 al-Qa'ida terrorists hijack and crash four passenger planes.
2002 The euro is rolled out, with 12 European Union member states waking up to a new currency on 1 January. Currently, there are – for now at least – 17 countries in the eurozone.
2003 The Iraq War begins on 20 March. One of the main arguments for the invasion is weapons of mass destruction – none are found in Iraq. The war formally ends on 15 December 2011.
2004 An earthquake under the Indian Ocean results in a series of tsunamis that cause devastation in South-east Asia on Boxing Day. The natural disaster kills more than 230,000 people in 14 countries.
2005 Four suicide bombers strike on three Tube trains in London and one bus during the morning rush hour of 7 July, killing 52 victims and injuring more than 770.
2006 The former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is executed in Baghdad on 30 December for crimes against humanity. He had been sentenced to death by hanging by an Iraqi court on 5 November.
2007 Pottermania reaches its peak on 21 July when the seventh and final book in JK Rowling's magical publishing phenomenon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is released. It sells 15 million copies in the first 24 hours.
2008 Lehman Brothers bank files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on 15 September. It is one of the key moments in the credit crunch still being experienced across the globe.
2009 Barack Obama is sworn in for a four-year term as the 44th president of the United States on 20 January. He is the country's first black president.
2010 The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats form a coalition government after the general election on 6 May. It is the first coalition government since that led by Winston Churchill during the Second World War.
2011 Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali flees to Saudi Arabia on 14 January following protests that began in December 2010. Unrest spreads across the Middle East and North Africa during what becomes known as the Arab Spring.