Saturday, June 12, 2010
Queen Elizabeth celebrated her “official” 84th birthday yesterday – her actual birth date is April 21, but all British Monarchs observe a ceremonial birthday on a Saturday in June, when the weather is expected to be good and parades and such can be held.
When Queen Elizabeth celebrates her birthday – or the fact that she celebrates one at all – has no concrete relevance to anything in my life. I’m not British. I’m not especially interested in any monarchies -- save that of King David, of course, but that’s a different matter entirely.
It’s really just a matter of nostalgia. Her coronation, on June 2, 1953, sticks in my mind so clearly I can recall parts of it as though it happened yesterday. Not that I saw it – or not really, anyway. But whatever the actual quality was, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth was the first thing I ever “saw” on television.
The truth is, we didn’t really “see” it, but we tried. I grew up in Buxton, North Dakota, a metropolis of maybe 250 people, a windy little prairie town without much to distinguish it from any of the other little farming towns that dotted the landscape. My father owned the village general store at that time, run by a series of resident managers, while my dad spent most of his time in his law office upstairs. My Uncle Corky, married to my mother’s sister, owned the town’s hardware store, which seemed to me at the time to be a far more entertaining enterprise. It was as owner of the local hardware store that Corky was in a position to be the owner of the town’s first – and only – television set.
The television set itself was a monstrously heavy thing with a tiny screen that maybe measured 12” or so – diagonally. There were no rooftop antennas at the time, but instead Corky spent most of the time trying to adjust a set of ‘rabbit ears’ on top, moving them an inch this way or that, trying to “pull in” whatever images were being broadcast.
Not that it worked. After weeks of anticipation – Would the television arrive in time? Would it work? What would it be like? Our two families gathered late at night to sit in the window of the hardware store. That’s where the bulky television set was, and no one was about to try to move it – or maybe someone thought the reception would be better if the set was placed near a window. My mother and father were there and of course my aunt and uncle. I was nine years old, my cousin Craig would have been about five, Becky would have been a baby, and most likely (although I can’t quite remember) Lorry wasn’t born yet.
We sat on folding chairs or crates but I remember wanting to sit on the floor so I could get as close as possible to the tiny screen, even though both mothers insisted we kids would ruin our eyes if we got too close. As was the tradition in those early days of television – mimicking a movie theater, I guess – we sat in the dark, waiting to see this vast spectacle that would be shown – live, as it happened! – from far-off England. What a miracle!
We couldn't see or hear much of anything. The images – such as they were – were little more than vague outlines in the “snow” that covered the screen. The only thing that came through clear enough to actually be identifiable was an image of the golden carriage that carried the Princess to her coronation at Westminster Abbey.
The audio part came and went in waves, so at some moments, we’d hear the commentary, and then it would fade out to nothing but static. I’m not sure how long we sat there, straining our eyes to see something – anything -- but it must have been several hours. Everyone agreed that this was a historic occasion, something we’d remember forever – and in that assessment, at least, we were absolutely correct.
It was a miracle, certainly, and although it would be many years until we had a television set of our own, that night heralded a historic change not only in my life but in the world as a whole. Even so, for whatever reason, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II ended up as a profound disappointment – not just that we couldn’t see it. But later, probably in some magazine like Life or The Saturday Evening Post, I saw color photographs of what it had been like, and there, for the first time, actually saw the 26- year old Queen Elizabeth.
No one could say that she wasn’t an attractive young woman – dark haired and conventionally pretty, a worthy Queen. But I was expecting something much more along the fairy-tale lines of a Cinderella. I wanted a fairy princess, blond and exquisite, probably waving a magic wand with a twinkling tip that could turn mice into horses or a pumpkin into a golden coach. Nothing less would do.
Yet today when I read the traditional oath that Queen Elizabeth – a young married woman -- took, it seems awesome in the extreme. Certainly much more awesome than I understood at the time:
The Archbishop of Canterbury asks: "Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?"
Then, "Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgments?"
Finally: "Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? ……”
To all of which, the Queen answers, "All this I promise to do. The things which I have here before promised, I will perform, and keep. So help me Gd.”
Whew! As Jews, we’re reluctant to take oaths or make vows of any kind, but who, in their right mind, would pledge – ‘So help me Gd’ -- to do all the things the young Queen’s oath required? Of course today the monarchy is essentially ceremonial in nature with little raw power – but the oath she took makes no mention of that. Nothing says, “This is all for show. It’s just what we do. It’s just words -- don’t worry about it.”
I don’t know – sounds scary to me. But Queen Elizabeth seems to have survived it. She’s aged gracefully, in spite of not just one but several "annus horribilis". She’s been a refined and elegant ruler who -- if nothing else – seems to understand the limits of her power and acts accordingly.
One wonders if – and when – the slightly foolish Prince Charles is ever crowned, will he be as wise?
Probably not. Just a few days ago, Prince Charles, in an hour-long speech to scholars at Oxford’s Center for Islamic Studies, urged the world to follow Islamic ‘spiritual principles’ in order to protect the environment. Among other things, he argued that man’s destruction of the world was especially offensive to the religion of Islam and suggested inter alia, that the followers of Islam were the planets greatest protectors.
Would that protecting the environment were Muslims greatest objective.
I have few doubts that the day will come when we will all most profoundly wish for a return to the relatively placid days of Queen Elizabeth II. Long live the Queen!