A constant queen for a changing kingdom
It’s November 12, 1963. The Beatles, who released their debut album earlier in the year, were due to play at the Guildhall in Portsmouth but the concert was postponed because Paul McCartney contracted stomach flu. The very first episode of a new BBC series called Doctor Who will be released in a fortnight. Parliament is about to have its official opening, traditionally overseen by the Queen, but the young monarch is pregnant and cannot attend. She will not miss another official 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 this question is to go back to 1963 and consider Mohammed, a recently married 30-year-old father of two who had left his young family in Pakistan to come to Britain. As London swayed and the Queen reigned, Mohammed worked on the production line at 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 a month shy of three when I arrived with my mother, Rasool Bibi Manzoor, and two siblings to join my father. Silver, gold, platinum. Metals cannot transmit many things. I prefer to reflect on the fact that my whole relationship with this country, a story that begins with my father’s arrival in Britain in 1963, can slip between the last two times the Queen missed the official opening of parliament.
When Elizabeth was crowned, it was her youth that was seen as her greatest asset. Today, it is his longevity that arouses admiration. Consider how much Britain changed during his reign. The actor who first played Doctor Who in November 1963 was a 55-year-old white man. In the year of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, the Doctor will regenerate from a woman to a young black British man of Rwandan descent.
The monarchy meant little to me growing up, and if the subject of the queen ever came up in conversation at home, it was usually my father who reminded us how most of the jewels that adorned her crown had been stolen from our ancestral homeland. . He was right. I grew up thinking the Royal Family was a reminder of how class-dominated this nation was and living proof that your parents would always trump your intelligence or hard work. And then a curious thing happened. The older I got and the longer she reigned, the more I admired the Queen’s devotion to duty. When Diana, Princess of Wales died in the summer of 1997, my mother insisted that I take her to Kensington Palace to offer flowers and sympathy. My mother, who had lost her husband two years earlier, sympathized with the queen. Grieving but knowing that you have to move on was a world she understood.
My mother, who is only a few years younger than the Queen, is now living with dementia. She can barely walk, her memory is ravaged. And yet, even in this state of fragility, it remains essential because, by its mere existence, it connects me to my late father, to the score and to a generation that fades into history. The Queen does for the nation what my mother does for me, and she helps to link my own family history, knowing that my late father, my children and I all lived in Elizabethan times.
The Queen conducted herself with such dignity that she delayed questions about whether to have a monarchy. It begs the question of whether, after he’s gone, we might start to think it’s okay to wonder why we’re celebrating or even condoning something so anachronistic.
I grew up believing that the monarchy should be abolished, and then I came to admire and respect the Queen. But the monarchy is of course a kind of 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 in his heart, his drumbeat. You gave us purpose and when times were tough your hope, guidance and leadership were unwavering. Fine words, but I don’t recall a single resonant phrase in any speech by the Queen – except perhaps the ‘annus horribilis’ of 1992, after the Windsor Castle fire ended a year of family misfortune.
She kept her views largely hidden and never granted an interview. She is one of the most famous women on the planet and yet remains reassuringly opaque. She has posed for hundreds of portraits and been portrayed on stage and screen and yet is still a blank canvas. His contribution was simply to be there for as long as we can remember. She served her nation by remaining the one constant around which Britain slowly transformed, and the longer she reigned the more we remember what we will have lost when she is gone.
Sarfraz Manzoor is a journalist, screenwriter and author of “They: What Muslims and Non-Muslims Misunderstand Each Other”.
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