Safe from harm while Nanny’s there


HRH Princess Elizabeth (aged 19) in the Auxiliary Territorial Services, 1945. Image from the Imperial War Museum cc

When I was still in the womb, my mother was keen on the idea that she and Elizabeth II would give birth on the same day. I made an entrance two weeks ahead of Charles, so whenever our birthdays roll around, I reflect on our status as 1948 babies, born on opposite sides of the track.

I did so chuckle at the meme on social media with a picture of Charles and the caption: ‘73-year-old finally gets a job’.

Like most people in Britain in the 1950s (and obviously even now), Mum was a royalist. There was much excitement upon the green and pleasant land and in neighbouring countries like Wales and Scotland ahead of the Coronation in 1953. I shall leave others to comment on Ireland.

As I recall (I was four), each household received Coronation souvenirs – a mug, a tin of Cadbury’s milk chocolate (it may have had the royal crest embossed on the chocolate but I can’t vouch for that). There were also flags and bunting. (Rule Britannia was one of the first songs I learned (the marmalade and jam version came much later).

The picture I’m painting here illustrates the genesis of the mass mourning which has accompanied the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8. The ABC dispatched Michael Rowland to provide daily updates to ABC Breakfast, which included vox pop interviews in London’s Green Park. The loyal subjects who wished to leave floral tributes, cards and letters were re-directed there after it was clear that soon you would not be able to see the Changing of the Guard behind the massive wall of floral tributes.

Ordinary folks were interviewed ‘Well, she’s always been there, inn it – she’s like our Mum’ and similar sentiments that demonstrated the depth of public love expressed in the memory of the 96-year-old monarch known fondly as ‘Nanny’.

My Facebook feed filled up with tributes by friends I might have assumed would be republicans in the true sense of the word. Greens leader Adam Bandt was rightly chastised for his too-soon statement:

“Rest in peace Queen Elizabeth II. Our thoughts are with her family and all who love her. Now Australia must move forward. We need a Treaty with First Nations people, and we need to become a republic.”

All the same, some of the emotional outbursts over the death of a woman in her 90s (that tends to happen), have left this Scots-born champagne socialist a little stunned.

The death of Lady Diana Spencer in 1997 sparked a similar, if more dramatic outpouring of what psychologists call ‘recreational grieving’.

In 2012 The Scotsman wrote about this phenomenon of mourning the ‘intimate stranger’.

“It’s an apt term for something that allows us to indulge in the ceremony of grief without feeling particularly upset. We mope, wallow and wail en masse, but we needn’t lose any sleep over our ‘loss’”.

The writer related how he ended up weeping in the shower while listening to Daydream Believer, after hearing that Davy Jones (of the pop band The Monkees), had died.

As he says, this is not a new phenomenon. When heartthrob actor Rudolph Valentino died in 1926, 80,000 people lined up in New York to file past his coffin. Just think back a few years to when we lost David Bowie, Prince, Robin Williams, Leonard Cohen, Amy Winehouse, John Prine and Mr Spock.

Although I am not a monarchist, there was much to admire about Elizabeth the Last (as poet Denis Kevans dubbed her). She worked with 15 UK Prime Ministers and 164  Commonwealth Prime Ministers during her rule. Her daily duties as Crown were never-ending, yet she never wavered (even during the furore that arose after her Australian representative sacked a sitting Prime Minister in 1975). (Still outraged. Ed.)

Much has been written over the decades about the concept of colonialism, inherited wealth and title. History would tend to suggest that the Scots, as one glaring example, should be the least likely people to be gnashing their teeth over a wealthy woman who only started paying tax in 1992. There have been sporadic reports of protests; people with placards saying: ‘Not My King’. One person carrying a sign that said ‘F*** the monarchy’ was arrested.

But they are a minority, as European correspondent Rob Harris explained in the Sydney Morning Herald:

“Thousands of mourners lined streets in Scottish towns and cities, as the cortege made the 281km trip from the Queen’s favourite Highland retreat to the capital. Her daughter, Princess Anne, dropped a curtsy as her coffin was carried into the palace (Holyrood House) in Edinburgh, where her mother had stayed only weeks before.

“From Aberdeen to Dundee and along the motorway verges around the River Forth, veterans, army cadets, school children and families stood quietly or applauded, clutching flowers and Union flags.”

As wakes go, this one is only getting started. Such is the level of staged planning going into this production, we run the risk of important domestic news being relegated below the fold. As it is, our parliament has been suspended for 15 days so PM Anthony Albanese can attend the funeral. Morris dancing sources tell me that, in the UK, all dancing will stop for as long as the royal wake lasts.

As a former newspaper journalist, I know full well that this is one of the stories of the century, akin to a Pope dying. Every section of the newspaper is allowed to exercise creative process and contribute to the story. Hence business writers confirmed that the $5 note, on which QEII’s effigy is etched, will continue to circulate. A new coin, with Charles III’s profile, will circulate in 2023.

By tradition, details of the Queen’s will remain private. Despite Buckingham Palace publishing details of the Sovereign Grant (what it costs to keep the royal machine ticking over), estimates of the Queen’s wealth come from outside sources. Forbes Magazine calculated Queen Elizabeth’s personal fortune in 2021 (investments, jewels, art, and real estate) at $US500 million. Most of the real estate will be simply passed on to the next monarch.

When living in Edinburgh in the late 1970s, I was astonished to find that the Palace of Holyrood House, just down the road from the Royal Mile, was used by the Queen for only one week a year, in summer.

People I met in pubs and at folk clubs told me about the homelessness situation in Edinburgh. You would not want to be sleeping on the streets in that cold and ancient city, summer or winter. Yet just down the road from the tourism mecca of Edinburgh Castle sat the (empty) 16th-century historic apartments of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the State Apartments. The palace at that time cost 368,000 pounds a year to maintain, according to a 1978 Hansard record.

The palace is open to the public (for tours) throughout the year, except when members of the Royal Family are in residence. While Historic Environment Scotland maintains the Palace of Holyrood House, it is owned by Charles III, King of the United Kingdom.

Almost seventy million pounds was spent maintaining the other seven royal palaces in 2021-2022, expenditure drawn from the aforementioned (annual) Sovereign Grant (102.4 million pounds/$A175 million).

I’m leaving the last word to the venerable English songwriter, Leon Rosselson. He wrote a caustic song in 1978 about the monarchy’s profligacy – On Her Silver Jubilee.

(Advisory: this song contains references to a person who has died and may offend monarchists.)

Oh, the magic of the monarchy, the mystery sublime; Growing gracefully and effortlessly richer all the time; She’s the rock of hope and glory in the quicksand of despair; For although the pound may tumble, although panic fills the air; Although governments may crumble, and the cupboard’s nearly bare; Though the stairs begin to rattle, and the rats begin to stare; She enfolds in mystic unity her subjects everywhere; And we know we’re safe from harm while nanny’s there.


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