Saturday, July 14, 2012

The New Elizabethans

Last month saw the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne of England. I know I’m late to the party in acknowledging this, but since I don’t have television here in Mineral de Pozos, I pretty much missed the whole hoop-la. Besides, I come from a family that is not, shall we say, big time monarchists. Our working class roots run too deep, our Irish blood is too thick, and we lean a little too much to the left to really get into the spirit of a royal wing-ding.

I’m not quite as vehemently opposed to the royal family as others. I tend to think of royalty as a bit like the English version of Disneyland: they bring in tourist dollars; they are efficient at putting on great costume parades; and they have it all over Disney in that they have real castles and princesses. I can’t help thinking England would be a lot drabber without them. It does cheese me off, though; that Prince Charles (above right with his mum), who was born the same year as me, hasn’t even started his real job yet while I’ve been toiling away for the last 45 years.

Eat it Disney!

That said; I am enjoying one thing that came out of the whole jubilee to-do and that is listening to a terrific series of programs on BBC Radio 4 called The New Elizabethans. They’re doing a 15-minute broadcast every day (I get the pod-casts) for 60 days about British and British Commonwealth people who impacted the world during the 60 years of the queen’s reign.  

They started with Sir Edmund Hillary, who reached the summit of Everest with Norgay Tenzing  at the end of May 1953, but the announcement wasn’t made until the morning of June 2nd, the queen’s coronation day.

The Queen may have gotten a crown; but Tenzing and Hillary got cool decorations from the Kingdom of Nepal

Others are from the worlds of the arts: Alfred Hitchcock, Laurence Olivier, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, and Francis Bacon, for instance.  Inevitably, they’re covering Lennon and McCartney, but more surprisingly, David Bowie. These are all people I know something about, but I’ve been really blown away by hearing about people I had no idea had affected the world in the way they did.

One is Richard Doll, who made the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Others are Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web; and Cicely Saunders, who founded the hospice movement.

Tim Berners-Lee: thanks, dude, wouldn't be here without you.

I’m a little alarmed to see Simon Cowell coming up later to the exclusion of people like Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon, who radically changed the way Brits (and the rest of the world) looked during this time. I’m sure Anita Roddick of The Body Shop is worthy, but why not Laura Ashley, who created a global clothing and decor empire? Probably everyone can come up with exclusions that irk them, but on the whole, it’s fascinating listening.

This all got me to thinking that my own life-span pretty much corresponds with the queen’s reign. She and her family have been background noise for as long as I can remember. One of my very earliest memories, when I was three, was walking with my mother in Salford, England, where I was born and seeing the little shops she frequented closed and with their windows covered in black crepe paper.  When I asked why, she told it was because the king (he of The King’s Speech fame) had died in his sleep the night before. I didn’t really grasp the concept, but I did get that something momentous had happened.

My memories from the following year, when the young queen was crowned, are inextricably tied up with my memories of us immigrating to Africa. We were actually aboard The Braemar Castle on the high seas between London and Cape Town on coronation day. But prior to that, we were caught up in the pre-coronation excitement. It was the tipping point for people in England getting television sets. Prior to the coronation, no-one in our blue-collar neighborhood had a TV; after it, almost everyone did. I saw it for the first time at a neighbor’s house just before we left (and since there was no TV in Africa, didn’t see it again for years). My last memories of our street were the red, white, and blue bunting strung from house-to-house.

This stock shot of a coronation party is on a street almost identical
 to the one we left from in Salford.

All my going-away gifts from friends and family were coronation related. Among other things, I got a picture book of the royal family, a little replica golden coach and horses, and a mug with the queen’s picture on it. Everything was lost during the many moves we made over the years.

I found a picture on Amazon of the very book I was given as a going away gift. Seeing it brough a flood of memories.

Naturally, the ship put on parties so the displaced Brits could join in the celebrations. I recall my mother getting ready for the ball. She wore a dress she had made with a silver lamé strapless sweetheart top and a huge “new look” style white tulle skirt that practically touched the walls of our little cabin. For the occasion, she pinned three red-white-and blue bows down the side of the skirt. She looked beautiful. Next day, we kids had a party with copious amounts of cake and ice cream and balloons. And they gave us all commemorative silver tea spoons. I’m sure I still have mine but I can’t find it.

The Braemar Castle docking in Cape Town after transporting us across the Atlantic from London

Does this allow me to call myself a New Elizabethan? It would make a welcome change from Baby Boomer, wouldn’t it? But, nah, I think not: it sounds kind of daft.

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