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Jubilee Thoughts


By John Sidgwick

LONDON, 8 June 2002 - The British royal family must be rubbing their hands in quiet satisfaction over the success of Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee celebrations. The public went increasingly mad over the four days of rejoicing and the crowd scenes on June 4th came as a stinging rebuke to all those people who just a few months ago were forecasting that instead of fireworks, we would be having damp squibs. As it turned out, there was jubilation all round.

Jubilees, in spite of appearances, are not in fact about jubilation as such. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (a reference book which is of such fascination that everybody should have it on their shelves) says: "In Jewish history, the year of the jubilee was every fiftieth year, which was held sacred in commemoration of the deliverance from Egypt. In this year, land that had passed out of the possession of those to whom it originally belonged was restored to them, and all who had been obliged to let themselves out for hire were released from bondage. The year of jubilee was proclaimed with trumpets of ram's horn, and takes its name from jobil, a ram's horn."

My own initial reaction to the present celebration of Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee was entirely subjective: "Will I be around for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012?" Well, I hope so. But if form is anything to go by - and the Queen spends a great deal of her time poring over the form books of race horses - she will almost certainly be on call for her Diamond Jubilee. She is endowed with a rugged physical constitution, she works hard, she lives a thoroughly healthy life, a great deal of it in the country, and she gives no sign of any inclination to stand down in favour of the heir to the throne, her eldest son, Prince Charles. Moreover, she displays not the slightest sign of mental stress or disorder, even though she confessed to the nation a few years ago that she had undergone an "annus horribilis", a reference to the marital troubles of her children. It is to be imagined that the Queen has to consult a doctor from time to time. But it is beyond the bounds of belief that she would ever have to call on the services of a shrink.

British subjects of my age (I am in my 74th year) have lived through the deaths of two sovereigns, two jubilees, an abdication and two coronations. All these events, except the abdication, which was a squalid business, were attended by splendid pomp and circumstance, the backbone of the British soul. Yet it seems to me that with the present jubilee, we are coming to the closing pages of an entertaining and eccentric historical novel.

The country over which the Queen exercises sovereignty is known as the United Kingdom. The full title is "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" ("Great Britain" on its own is a geographical and not a political definition). What a mouthful! Moreover, a citizen of this Kingdom has to describe himself as British, i.e. not as Scottish, Northern Irish, Welsh or English. At the present moment, this so-called United Kingdom is coming apart at the seams, not surprising in view of the fact that it was a cobbled-together institution at the outset, a typical example of the fudging which characterises the "English" way of doing things. Today, the Scots have become an institutional and political entity with the creation of their own parliament, as have the Welsh. It is perhaps better to say nothing about Northern Ireland, such is the tragic and offensive nature of the on-going situation there.

During the course of the fifty years of her reign, the Queen has presided over a complete transformation of her country into a multi-racial society. Successive waves of immigration, essentially from Jamaica, India and Pakistan have wrought vast changes in the country's demography. This in itself is something that none of the Queen's subjects in the 1950's could have dreamt of. But even more important is the fact that when the Queen came to the throne, the United Kingdom was still a country saddled with many colonial dependencies. The decolonisation process, which is now virtually complete, brought with it financial burdens that no other country in the world had to bear. As one minister wryly put it to me in the 1960's, "Granting independence to former colonies is like what happens with one's daughters: they cost you far more once they have become independent".

Another significant change has been in the eating habits of a small percentage of the country's population. In the 1950's, you bought olive oil at the chemist's; it was medicinal. Today, the shelves of supermarkets are weighed down with extra-virgin oils from Italy, Greece and Spain. Furthermore, the range of vegetables on offer has been widened beyond recognition. It should not be thought however that the food revolution has touched the population as a whole. Yes, they cram themselves with take-away Chinese meals and they pile into restaurants which provide Chicken Tikka. But their great faith is placed in the all-day breakfast provided by the "greasy spoon" cafés consisting essentially of fried bread, jumbo pork sausages, fried eggs, fried tomatoes and great dollops of baked beans in tomato sauce, accompanied by mugs of heavily-sweetened tea with milk. These breakfasts are surprisingly cheap, in the tradition of the policy on which the industrial prosperity of the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century was based: low wages for the workers, cheap bad food and cheap bad housing.

But to return to the royal family itself. It would seem that the bulk of the United Kingdom's population is not in favour of getting rid of them. There is a great deal of carping about their privileges, their wealth and about the behaviour of some of its members. But it is accepted, perhaps grudgingly, that they do give value for money in that they remove the representational burden that would otherwise be borne by government ministers and senior officials. They traipse around the country carrying out a vast range of thoroughly boring tasks, opening countless hospitals, shows, charitable ventures and the like: you name it, they open it. And on the whole, they do it with considerable grace and charm.

My own preference, however, is for the "quiet royals", i.e. those that get on with their lives in an unobtrusive manner. And amongst these, my two favourites by a long chalk are the Duchess of Kent, an import into the family, and Viscount Linley, the son of the late Princess Margaret. The Duchess of Kent, who has had a long history of distressing depression, has nevertheless fought against this courageously and has never shirked her responsibilities. She wins the hearts of people by her sheer kindness and dignity: few people will forget her consoling attitude and words to the tearful Jana Novotna, who had just lost a Wimbledon final that she should have won. She is a gracious patron of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition. As for Viscount Linley, his name will be remembered long after the institution of the royal family has disappeared into limbo, as it almost certainly will do one day. What is there so special about him? Quite simply that he is a designer-craftsman of quite exceptional skill and taste. His company provides profitable and enjoyable work for a considerable number of people and the furniture they produce under his imaginative guidance will be the antiques of the future. He has a small shop in London's Pimlico and any visitor to London could well gain a happy few minutes looking through the windows of this delightful establishment at the beautiful pieces on show.

I do this often enough myself.

John Sidgwick was for many years Agricultural Attaché at the British Embassy, Paris. He currently writes on music and culture in Britain and France for

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