Margaret Drabble: Defer to them or mock them, either way the royals have us in their grip

Even those who claim not to be interested, are as full of anecdotes as the most hardened royalists

Share
Related Topics

What a simple world we lived in 60 years ago! My generation remembers so well the tinned salmon sandwiches, the sherry trifle, and going down the street to watch the coronation with the only neighbours who had TV. It's become a universal folk memory by now. A friend recalls that his school in 1952 gave him a Bible and an orange ice lolly to mark the Queen's accession: a wonderfully bizarre conjunction. Our Queen is our social history, and we have measured our lives along with hers. We have dreamed about her – she is always so friendly and so natural in dreams – and when I was a schoolgirl and she was still a princess, a group of us wrote her a letter commiserating with her lonely and protocol-bound life, unable to hop on a bus or enjoy a shopping spree. We got such a nice letter back from an underling. We knew all about her, of course, from indiscreet governess Crawfie, and a lot of us were called Elizabeth or Margaret, although our parents would never have acknowledged the influence, and we weren't supposed to read Crawfie. It's subliminal, the influence. It lurks in the fabric.

Were we being sycophantic or cynical when we wrote to Lilibet? It's hard to tell the difference. Deference and mockery, as far as the royals go, walk hand in hand. They have us either way. We may pretend not to be fascinated by them, but don't believe those who claim they are not interested, for they are as full of anecdotes as the most hardened royalists. Sue Townsend, our most outspoken abolitionist, seems to know the whole family very well, and her riotously satirical novel of lese-majesty, The Queen and I, displays a wicked familiarity with all the characters of the Windsor soap opera. The satire and the comedy depend on our recognition of the stereotypes – a conscientious queen, queuing meekly for her benefits while remembering Crawfie's exhortations to retain self control; sulky Philip, mad in an NHS bed; Princess Anne, handy with the plumbing; and Charles, happy with his tomatoes in their growbag.

The Queen's personal popularity, in her Diamond Jubilee year, is higher than ever. This is a tribute to her survival. We congratulate ourselves for still being alive as we watch her smile and smile again. A few years ago, the Canadian press dared to make rude comments about her unsightly varicose veins when she graciously visited their land, and I found that very offensive. What did they expect, at her age, and with all that standing about? When I was presented to the Queen Mother, I noted that she had a large piece of sticking plaster on her leg. Again, this aroused in me not mockery but sympathy.

We honour the Queen for her capacity to endure boredom gracefully. It is true that she receives incorrect and ill-advised guests from time to time – murderous despots, polygamous heads of state – but think of the excruciating tedium of sitting through all those speeches and banquets. Like Victoria, she knows her duty. It cannot be possible that she enjoys these occasions. Does she, I wonder, manage to enjoy the food, of which the extravagant and patriotically sourced details are often released to her loyal subjects? Can the delight of agneau de la nouvelle saison de Windsor au basilic outweigh the tedium of the small talk?

Maybe the Diamond Jubilee will bring her some moments of fun, something more pleasurable than the relief of getting through public events without disaster. And the celebration of her 60 years will surely bring fun to others. Orange ice lollipops will be outdone by sausages, burgers, barbies, beer and champagne, and the upmarket parties will be vying to provide yet more exotic titbits. The Royal Academy celebration on 23 May (which I missed, alas, through a lingering virus) provided, according to my spies, little oriental delicacies on leaves and shells, an oyster bar, and "something purple on a bed of kale". No coronation chicken ice cream, though I gather that is now on offer in smart Soho.

We have come a long way, from the horror of thin Brown Windsor soup to frothy cappuccino of asparagus, from sardine sandwiches to lapsang souchong tea-smoked salmon, from austerity to binge and obesity. Maybe our insatiable appetite for curry was sparked by that startlingly successful coronation chicken recipe of 1953. We have become a nation of greedy, foodie, competition-obsessed voyeurs, a nation of virtual gourmets and actual gluttons, watching ill-tempered chefs showing off and insulting one another on TV and miserable amateurs attempting more and more ludicrous dishes in the eye of the camera and the heat of the kitchen. We love our humiliation. We watch eagerly, then we guiltily slope off to the supermarket to stock up with bangers and burgers and ready meals, or we reach for a mobile and dial for a pizza.

There were no pizzas or mobiles 60 years ago. I remember the first pizza I ate, in 1957, in Naples. It was crisp, thin, delicious. It was the food of the poor, but beautifully cooked. Now it is the food of the poor, baked in batches, and it tastes of hard raw burnt dough. In 1957, a home telephone felt like a privilege, a special instrument, hard to acquire, a status symbol. You had to queue for a new phone line in those days. You got one quicker if you claimed to be a doctor. We were, and remain, a class-ridden country. Is this the fault of the monarchy and the habit of deference? Melvyn Bragg thinks we've emerged into a class-free society, but I see no signs of that.

We may be in a double-dip recession, but the Diamond Jubilee marks an age of plenty, compared with the lean years of rationing after the war. We are still reacting to the war. When the Queen dies, the living memory of it will begin to pass away. She is our link. We know she was there and we can see it in her face.

My son Joe Swift met her at the Chelsea Flower Show. Her family spent nearly half an hour milling around his prize-winning show garden, as in a Sue Townsend scenario. She didn't venture in herself – she was nervous of the water feature – but she said she liked it, and that she liked watching Joe and Alan Titchmarsh on TV. My proud heart became royalist as I rejoiced to hear this. Joe thought it was all "a bit weird", but he was pleased to have his own royal anecdote now, he said, like everyone else. The magic still works, and Chelsea's flowers remain more innocent in spirit than masterchefs.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Housekeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is the holding company of an expa...

Recruitment Genius: Network Engineer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Setup, configure, troubleshoot,...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - Financial Services - OTE £65,000

£15000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Loan Underwriter

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: the SNP’s ‘fundamental problem’, says Corbyn, is that too many people support it

John Rentoul
An investor looks at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai  

China has exposed the fatal flaws in our liberal economic order

Ann Pettifor
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future