A constant Queen for a changing realm
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It is November 12 1963. The Beatles, who released their debut album earlier in the year, were due to play the Guildhall in Portsmouth but the concert has been postponed due to Paul McCartney contracting gastric flu. The very first episode of a new BBC series called Doctor Who will air in a fortnight. Parliament is set to have its state opening, traditionally overseen by the Queen, but the young monarch is pregnant and unable to attend. She will not miss another state opening of parliament for another 59 years, until May 2022.
Queen Elizabeth is now the longest-serving monarch in British history. But what exactly are we celebrating when we celebrate the Queen this weekend? One way to answer that question is to return to 1963 and consider Mohammed, a 30-year-old recently married father of two who had left his young family in Pakistan to come to Britain. While London swung and the Queen reigned, Mohammed worked on the production line of a car factory. He sent money back to his wife and family, and in the spring of 1974 they were able to join him in Britain.
I was one month shy of three years old when I arrived with my mother, Rasool Bibi Manzoor, and two siblings to join my father. Silver, gold, platinum. Metals can only convey so much. I prefer to reflect that my entire relationship with this country, a history that begins with my father arriving in Britain in 1963, can slip between the last two times the Queen has missed the state opening of parliament.
When Elizabeth was crowned it was her youth that was considered her greatest asset. Today it is her longevity that prompts admiration. Consider how much Britain has changed during her reign. The actor who first played Doctor Who in November 1963 was a 55-year-old white man. In the Queen’s platinum jubilee year the Doctor will regenerate from a woman to a young British black man of Rwandan origin.
The monarchy meant little to me growing up, and if the subject of the Queen ever arose in conversation at home it was usually my father reminding us how most of the jewels that adorned her crown were robbed from our ancestral homeland. He had a point. I grew up believing that the royal family were a reminder of how class-ridden this nation was and living proof that who your parents were would always trump how clever or hardworking you were. And then a curious thing happened. The older I got, and the longer she reigned, the more I came to admire the Queen’s devotion to duty. When Diana, Princess of Wales, died in the summer of 1997, my mother insisted I take her to Kensington Palace to offer flowers and sympathy. My mother, who had lost her husband two years earlier, empathised with the Queen. To grieve but to know you have to carry on, this was a world she understood.
My mother, who is only a few years younger than the Queen, is now living with dementia. She can hardly walk, her memory is ravaged. And yet even in this fragile state she remains essential because simply by being alive she connects me to my late father, to partition and to a generation fading from history. The Queen does for the nation what my mother does for me, and she helps bind my own family history, knowing that my late father, my children and I have all lived during the Elizabethan age.
The Queen has conducted herself with such dignity that it has delayed questions about the appropriateness of having a monarchy. This prompts the question of whether, after she is gone, we might start to feel that it is acceptable to ask why we celebrate or even tolerate something so anachronistic.
I grew up believing the monarchy ought to be abolished and then came to admire and respect the Queen. But the monarchy is of course something of a magic trick that can only succeed through distraction — and the Queen is a supreme magician.
Dame Helen Mirren, who has played the monarch on stage and screen, recently said of the Queen that she has “carried our nation. You have been at its heart, its drumbeat. You have given us purpose and when situations have been challenging, your hope, guidance and leadership have been unswerving.” Fine words but I cannot recall a single resonant phrase in any speech given by the Queen — except perhaps 1992’s “annus horribilis”, after the fire at Windsor Castle closed a year of familial unhappiness.
She has kept her opinions largely hidden and has never given an interview. She is one of the most famous women on the planet and yet remains reassuringly opaque. She has sat for hundreds of portraits and been portrayed on stage and screen and yet is still a blank canvas. Her contribution has been to simply be there for as long as anyone can remember. She has served her nation by remaining the one constant around which Britain has been slowly transformed, and the longer she has reigned the more we are reminded of what we will have lost when she is gone.
Sarfraz Manzoor is a journalist, screenwriter and the author of ‘They: What Muslims and Non-Muslims Get Wrong about Each Other’
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