This week, in order to mark the death of Queen Elizabeth II, we visited central London. And, as per my children’s wishes, we largely spent that time in Sports Direct buying trainers. It wasn’t what I’d envisaged, but then, this week has been unexpected in many ways.
I’d like to say I saw the news and decided to hotfoot it to London just to show my children the pages of history as they turned. In fact, I already had train tickets for a day out, booked in a distant, golden age that I like to call “seven months ago”, when Ukraine was not yet in the news and Liz Truss was only just beginning to practise her curtsy.
On the train, my children did not, as I’d imagined they might, use the time to have memorable conversations with me about a once-in-a-lifetime event. Both of them snapped on tablets and headphones in a way that comes naturally to lockdown children.
I forgot. My children have had a life made up entirely of once-in-a-lifetime events. My youngest has spent a third of hers in a global pandemic. In 70 years, the Queen saw 15 prime ministers – my 11-year-old has seen five of them. My children have lost half a dozen family members in the last few years, some to Covid-19. The black suits of mourning are the white noise of their young lives.
They’ve accompanied me to vote in an election so often it’s become as unremarkable as a school closure, say, or a Partygate scandal. At this point, wild stories about new kings or mad presidents are accepted stoically, and with the same question about wifi access.
This wasn’t going the way I had thought. But then, how is history supposed to go? When the Queen’s death was announced, I was shouting at the dog in a vain attempt to stop him from crapping on the patio. I then enacted the formal protocol of texting my other half “omg Queen’s dead” – right underneath a text asking if it was bins night or recycling night, and above another saying “the person not the band” – while bellowing at the children to turn off a teen YouTuber called Sniper Wolf and put the BBC on.
I had imagined that the momentousness of the occasion would make this an easy choice, but what we actually got was several minutes of Sniper Wolf accompanied by a physical tussle for the remote with a now very excited (and freshly evacuated) dog.
Everywhere I looked, there were opinions. So many that, by the time we got to Swindon, I could feel my phone creaking with them, filling up with the hot takes happening on Twitter. “Whatever you think of the monarchy,” they all started. “Whatever you think of the Queen...”
Social media is a kicker in a crisis. Previously, we’ve only had a tiny number of people to take a snapshot of the nation. Now, future historians will get a 60-million-piece metaverse puzzle to assemble, holding ancient Facebook posts up to the light and speculating about a culture that believed the souls of elderly queens were silently harvested by Paddington Bear.
“What do you think about the Queen?” I asked my children. “Some people really like her,” they said. “Some people don’t. She couldn’t do what she wanted because she’s not really in charge any more.”
“The Queen was just a person,” I told them. “She was a great-grandma, and she liked dogs, and her family are sad that she died. She was also the head of a system that has made a lot of people sad for a long time – she didn’t work to dismantle that system, and she definitely benefited from it.”
“Maybe it’s hard to get rid of something bad when it’s really convenient,” my daughter replied. “Like Amazon.”
“Sure. Yup. Yes,” I agreed, and involuntarily visualised my online basket, currently containing an inflatable dinosaur outfit and a car-seat cover for a Ford C-Max.
“Can you think of any other English queens?” “Boudicca,” said my youngest, who is doing the Romans at school and identifies with women who raze cities to the ground. “Margaret Thatcher,” said my eldest, with a wry smile. She’s an 11-year-old socialist with a YouTube shorts history full of French-braiding tutorials and Mick Lynch making speeches on breakfast TV. My queens, I thought.
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In London, it soon became apparent that the new school shoes, like the PE trainers, were giving her blisters. With kids, there is no emergency like a shoe emergency, so we made a tactical decision to skip Green Park and – solemnly – seek out some fresh kicks in the sale. Besides, I heard that the Queen loved Sports Direct, never setting foot in a JD’s. It tells you everything you need to know.
Trying to see a bit of history, we took a taxi, and at 11am we were yards from St James’s Palace. I asked the driver if business was good and he said yes, since the day before, definitely. He gestured at clusters of people looking lost on street corners, holding bunches of flowers and peering at their phones. I asked what he thought about it all, and after a pause he gestured a flat palm at the crowds again, turned to me and raised his eyebrows. No comment.
Stuck endlessly in traffic just outside a Holland & Barrett and a Kingdom of Sweets – which did not appear to be having a transfer of power – the kids pressed their faces to the windows. We heard trumpets; it could have been the radio, it could have been for real. I hoped my children were gathering up some things to remember, so that whatever happened next, they could tell people they remembered the moment when we all, collectively, paused and drew breath.
And then, with the magic of extraordinary times, the traffic parted and our taxi rolled forward. “Look!” my daughter cried, grabbing her sister’s arm. “It’s a massive H&M.”