For many of my generation around the world, especially those from the former colonies of the former British Empire, the death of Queen Elizabeth II was something that struck a chord. The vestiges of the British influence were still felt in many ways during my childhood and remained in their own ways.
The End of the Elizabethan Era
When Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, the world was moving towards a new dawn, and it was one filled with hope. She was only 26 when her father the King, died. As unready she might have been to take over the throne, her youth represented that hope of that era. Many of the parents of my generation still spoke reverently of the British monarchy then. And it helped too that she was such an elegant and pretty looking queen, too.
My earliest memory of her was her figure head on the stamps. As a kid, I collected stamps and had pen-pals. I wrote letters because I wanted stamps. One can get rather obsessed with trying to get all the different colours of the stamp. You see, the were very pretty stamps to keep. The colours had a mesmerising effect. The pastel coloured ones were especially nice.
Apart from the stamps, there were also the then ‘old’ coins of an age past which my friends and I would use to play in our version of the batu seremban (tossing the stones) game. On many of those coins, Queen Elizabeth II’s figurehead would often been seen. Till this day, some of my friends still wondered how we could play batu seremban using coins cos one wondered how we lifted up those flat coins in the game. But we did!
Many of us grew up admiring the Queen. It was difficult not to, for she was such a pretty queen. And the queen had Prince Philip, her tall and dashing prince. She was a fairy tale in real life. There is always something about queens and kings, princes and princesses that would capture the imagination of kids. Hence, it is easy to see why Queen Elizabeth II had so many ready admirers. It was natural that many of us took interest in the Queen and her family too. When Prince Charles married Lady Diana, the interest went up a few more notches. Who wouldn’t be caught up in all that fairy tale, right?
Queen Elizabeth II’s Legacy
I’m one of those millions who have known Queen Elizabeth II our whole lives. Why? Because 70 years on the throne is a long time. It is a time that spans more than 2 generations. Queen Elizabeth II became the only British monarch that everyone knows. This was so not only because she was around for so long, but there was also this rich heritage of history which we were so familiar with. It made the British monarchy perhaps the best known monarchy in the world. Of course too, the far and wide reach of the British Empire in the era before helped spread this culture and history.
However, while that helped, the popularity of the British monarchy is not just because of the heritage and history. A lot of it has to do with how the Queen won the admiration and hearts of many around the world through her dedication to her calling and how she changed the rigid monarchy into one that is able to connect with the present generation. She was an effective symbol in a changing world. A symbol that seems to stamp its mark on not just the lives of the British but beyond. A constant in an ever changing world. And I think that helps to find stability in times of turmoils.
However, I think it is hard for her to be a symbol for a country and yet at the same time, not be able impose her own will or wishes. It’s like being visible and invisible at the same time. I think that is hard to do because everyone has this desire to exert that at one point or the other. Yet she was able to do that, and at the same time live her life in a manner that won people over. We have only to look at her long reign to see this. Her approval ratings among the British never fell below 60%, more often than never, would hover consistently near 80%.
A Working Woman
She ascended the throne at 26 because of her father’s untimely death, but the youth that she carried with her to the throne when she ascended it captured the essence of the hope that young around the world felt at that time. Many of us watched her transformed from a young woman into a middle-age elegant lady and then into the grandmotherly image. We grew old with her. Through those times, she remained Queen who had the admiration and respect from all who knew her.
I find her transformation from role to role, a reminder of the journey that every woman can hope for. A queen means she was a working lady. She was sovereign of a country and she had a job to do. Elizabeth came from an era when women were just being emancipated from their traditional roles of being a ‘housewife’. But because she was Queen, we could see her working life unfolding before our eyes, and that man and woman can be equal. She might be seen as not possessing the steely nerves of the some of the women leaders like Margaret Thatcher but she had with her this immense ability to understand the change that was unfolding around her.
While many of us would often be caught up by the “happily ever after” fairy tales, I think she went through joys and pains like every mortal. Happy moments of the birth of her children, and the expanding family as each married and had their own offsprings. But there were the difficult times too, such as her 1992 “annus horribilis” year when everything that could go wrong went wrong. In retrospect, like everyone, she had her trials and tribulations and she showed the kind of stoicism that each of us would need to get through those hard moments..
But come what may, one thing that remained was even as we followed her life story, one thing stood out. Queen Elizabeth II personified the epitome of what women can become. She was born after one great war, went through the horrors of another great war and reigned over a preceding period of great transformation. Her reign would witness huge strides in technological advancement and social changes. And being such a public personality also meant that the her rule would see a different sort of archiving that was so detailed and graphic. Many aspects of her life and rule would be put under scrutiny with the emerging technology.
I don’t think historians will run out of materials to study about Queen Elizabeth II. There are just so many of them. From her earliest days into the world, to the final days of her reign, there were just so many records and each one could be verified from different sources. There are records of her in audio and video. There are even linguists trying to study her accent from the archive of recordings days after her death. There are also records by historians and commentators following her reign, and even accounts from common folks, far and near of her influence in their lives. When put together, you have history as never compiled or written in this manner for a monarch. I don’t think any monarch in the world would be able to match that. And Queen Elizabeth II had 70 years of records and more!
There are many monarchies in the this world today. But I think, it would be hard to find another king or queen who was so respected and admired by that many. The adoration of Elizabeth by her people is not hard to miss in the days her body lay in state. It’s mind boggling to see the long lines of people from all walks of life, snaking more than 10 kilometres; I wonder if it would be replicated elsewhere. Or perhaps this is another one of the those British peculiarities? It makes one wonder too if the traditions and beliefs of the realm that she was Queen, are the pillars that draw people together for something like this too.
The age of internet enabled us to see the Queen’s lying in state live. It is not hard to see that Queen Elizabeth II has the affection and admiration of her people. The scenes of the multitudes waiting to just catch a glimpse of her as she made her final journey is in itself hard to describe and explain. So many wanted to just be there cos she was their Queen.
The British has a very long history that is steeped in tradition. Watching the Queen Elizabeth II in her final entry to London, in a way filled one with a sense of wonderment too, as images of people lining to just catch a glimpse of her coffin, some tearing up, others mouthing the phrase, “Thank you, mam.”; they are enough to make you admire the life that she had lived. It felt like a mourning in unison, by the thousands, and millions.
Funerals contain many lessons that we can draw upon. One of the lessons is found in the people who show up to pay the last respects. Funerals are not just about paying respects. It is also a show of affection and respect. It is also about the adoration of those who come, have for the dead. In Queen Elizabeth II, it is hard to miss the affection and admiration, and even gratitude. And the most heartwarming is perhaps this, that they were not compelled by any other reason to be there except that they wanted to be there. As insignificant their presence might have been, they just wanted to be there. Makes you realise that her rule was relevant for her people.
Elizabeth was a Queen who came to throne in a different era. Yet she was able to understand that change is the only constant in life and she embraced it and changed with it. And perhaps in these two videos too – Queen Elizabeth II and James Bond and the video above with the Paddington Bear and Marmalade Sandwich we can see HRH Queen Elizabeth II’s knack in capturing this essence of the inevitability of change.
I think that is what made her such a remarkable queen. I don’t think anyone who was in her service at the beginning of her reign would have imagined the Queen approving of those videos! History stopped with her passing on. Elizabeth declared that she would serve her country when she turned 21 and she did just that. For those of my generation who have known her all our lives, this is one of the inevitable changes that she understood so well. A change of a world without Queen Elizabeth II.
Farewell Queen Elizabeth II, 1926 – 2022.
Update 19/9/22: This journalist’s article sums up what it has been like to be in London, for those who went to pay last respects and also to many in the world. The enigma that we are beginning to see she is.