LONDON, ONTARIO – I don’t expect she remembered me from that sunny July afternoon in 1959 when my parents herded their four boys, all decked out in our Sunday best, onto the track-side loading dock of Canada Packers; a perfect royalty-viewing perch that our meat salesman father secured for us across from the old London Arena and not even two blocks west of the Canadian National Railway station. We waved to our yellow-dressed Queen (or was it pink?) and the Duke of Edinburgh who waved right back at us from their platform on the very last car of a train that was slowly pulling out of London en route to points west.
“I guess she’s off to Windsor for a family reunion,” my dad joked as the train rolled beyond our horizon and we turned back to behold one another again. My father’s remark flew over my head and had to be explained to me later. I could tell by the quiet chill in the air that my mother thought it was too disrespectful to laugh at. But if I didn’t yet know Queen Elizabeth’s last name, I did know that her reign began in 1952, just like I did. And, as is the way with seven year-olds (and, for that matter, seventy year-olds as well) I’ve always sort of cherished this chronological coincidence linking her reign and my life.
I mustn’t give the impression that Queen Elizabeth (1926–2022) was a major figure in my life. But my appreciation of her deepened considerably when I got married and came to understand how much she meant to my Scottish-born mother-in-law who was an even longer-lived near-contemporary of her monarch. I don’t think I’ve missed more than a handful of the Queen’s televised Christmas messages since getting married in 1977 and if ever I was stuck for a present to get Sheila Gerard Bentley Jarvis (nee Cranch) (1921–2019) another royal bio or picture book would fit the bill quite nicely.
Hearing those broadcasts, dipping into those books, I would often find myself humming that refrain of Paul McCartney’s which is often construed as a putdown – “Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl but she doesn’t have a lot to say” – but is actually, I have come to think, an admittedly comic commendation of the royal ideal. A country or a commonwealth does not want a symbolic figurehead who is going to harangue her subjects with partisan opinions or share her latest brainstorm about how to fix global warming or gross them out with the banal or sordid details of her private life. Dignity and discretion are key. And these Elizabeth II maintained throughout her long life.
As Roger Scruton put it in a wise essay from 1991 entitled, A Focus of Loyalty Higher than the State, in modern times an effective monarch “occupies a place in the heart of the ordinary citizen while remaining above and beyond the turmoil of politics; a court of appeal to which every faction, every ethnic group and every religious confession may address itself.”
This week I’ve spoken with a few people who never considered themselves monarchists but were nonetheless affected, and even shaken a little, by the death of a ninety-six year-old woman whom they at best dismissed and at worst reviled. I only hope that when her late majesty is laid to rest, these people don’t toss off the opportunity which Queen Elizabeth’s death provided to reconsider any other less-than worthy attitudes and assumptions they may be harboring.
Of course the Queen’s more committed detractors have been grousing all week about the near-global media focus on the elaborately detailed processions and memorial tributes leading up to Monday’s funeral. In the British epicentre of this mourning, sporting and entertainment events have had to be rescheduled and some business routines, medical appointments, travel plans and, in some neighbourhoods, even freedom of movement, have all been disrupted. Here in Canada, Monday will be a holiday on the east and west coasts and a more unofficial day of mourning everywhere else . . . unless, of course, you’re in the civil service; they’ll all get the day off with pay.
I’m sure the inconvenience has been exasperating for some people. But death always has been the great disruptor of routines. It happens when it happens, whether you’re ready to conveniently accommodate it or not. When a family or a close knit community is hit by it, you clear the decks of everything else and commit yourself to a week of mourning and paying homage and saying goodbye. I could just be a running dog lackey of the imperial order but it doesn’t strike me as particularly oppressive if once every seventy years or so – if you’re lucky and live in a great civilization with deep roots and a sense of history – you pause to pay tribute to a benevolent sovereign who has been discreetly advising your leaders for the entirety of her reign.
I happened to be the second reader at mass last Sunday at St. Peter’s Cathedral, which meant that I also led the congregation in the Prayers of the Faithful which culminate each week with a petition for the repose of the souls of the recently deceased. And there was Queen Elizabeth’s name in among the list of local parishioners who’d died. She was, of course, the head of the Church of England but she was equally the queen of Canadian Catholics and was probably the only name in that solemn list who everybody in our congregation knew . . . and in a somewhat sentimental way perhaps, loved. Walking back to my pew after the reading, I thought again about my father’s sixty-three year-old joke and recognized its deeper truth. Whether she was visiting London or Windsor or Medicine Hat, this ever-waving queen who also perfected the art of the more close and personal walkabout, did in a way preside at an awful lot of family reunions.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :