Today even the most fervent republican can feel warmly towards Her Majesty the Queen as she celebrates 70 years of marriage. Here’s a human landmark rather than a constitutional one. We make heavy weather of her jubilees — and considering she hasn’t put much of a foot wrong since taking the throne, we do so with justice.
But to stay Queen for 65 years, in and of itself, probably isn’t all that hard. As an English monarch, unless you annoy your subjects so much they chop off your head, and as long as you keep a weather eye out for lampreys and American divorcees, it’s pretty much a doddle.
No, it’s the marital longevity that is the real achievement: one more fascinating, more entrancingly inscrutable, and one that more nearly reflects (or rebukes) the lives of her subjects than any of that royal folderol. Were Liz Windsor an ordinary pensioner, a harmonious, seven-decade marriage would be a stupendous achievement. As Queen, I think, it’s arguably greater. (I write as a civilian with less than seven years on the clock.)
Of course, Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh have had more help than most raising their children. They will never have fought over whose fault it is they went out without spare nappies, or argued bitterly over whose turn it was to get up in the night. And money worries — the commonest cause of domestic strife — aren’t present in quite the same way. You can’t imagine the Duke asking his wife pointedly if she must insist on spending so much of their civil-list allowance on new bloody hats.
And — very obviously — their marriage has endured among other reasons because for it to fail has been constitutionally close to unthinkable.But that public pressure on a private relationship surely makes things harder rather than easier. Marriage makes you less free, and we all chafe at unfreedom. They are more unfree than most. And this very old-fashioned union, between (as far as we know) rather old-fashioned people, has a pretty progressive arrangement at the heart of it. Her Majesty wears the trousers; her husband is her helpmeet.
It was revealed in a recent biography that Prince Philip stewed for years over the Queen’s refusal to take his name, at one point exclaiming: “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children. I’m nothing but a bloody amoeba.” And yet this amoeba loyally knuckled — if an amoeba can knuckle — under. There was argument, and there was compromise, and time smoothed it.
In the official portrait issued to celebrate the occasion, Prince Philip is standing behind and just to the left of the Queen, hands clasped behind him. She is in front, hands clasped before her. But there’s the lightest physical contact between them — her elbow against his sports jacket. He’s in her personal space. And both of them look at the camera — not at each other — with something like a look of warmth, or satisfaction. We can have no idea, none at all, what is between them, what is going on in their heads. There’s a public face and a private face. And in that respect the royal marriage is like every other marriage in the world.
Clarity isn’t always better than mystery
Last week I went to a St Paul’s Cathedral memorial service for the late Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear and Olga da Polga. It was a delightful occasion — speeches and readings from Bond’s daughter and grandchildren giving a sense of this seemingly very lovable man.
But one thing did bring on a Paddington-style hard stare. The reading from 1 Corinthians: 13 was in a modern translation. “I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal”, in the King James Version, was: “I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”. The KJV’s “whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away” was rendered, flatly: “But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end”.
Clearer in a literal sense it may be, but the mystery and poetry of the King James Version is absent. And the repetition of “come to an end” is beyond tin-eared. It’s not elitist or fuddy-duddy to prefer the King James Version. That, as I’m sure Olga da Polga would agree, is where the magic is.
Debbie’s Strictly turn lacks magic
Debbie McGee’s periwigged turn as Ginger Spice on Strictly was condemned by one viewer as “a drag act parody”. That’s harsh. I think “Catweazle tribute” just about does it. But I liked it. Not a lot, but…
* President Mugabe pulled what is known as a fast one yesterday. The world waited on his words, fully expecting him to announce his resignation… and he blithely announced that he’d be staying in power. Around the world, jaws dropped and palms hit foreheads. And among those in Zimbabwe who moved against him, we can imagine disarray: this wasn’t part of the plan. It’s a nice reminder of the power of oratory in our public lives: nations are spoken into being, careers made and broken with words uttered in public… and even when it looks like game over, you can still throw a last spanner in the works by refusing to say what you’re supposed to.