Authors: Michael Paterson
Michael Paterson is the author of several history books, including
A Brief History of Life in Victorian Britain
, also published by Constable &
Recent titles in the series
A Brief History of Roman Britain
Joan P. Alcock
A Brief History of the Private Life of Elizabeth II
A Brief History of France
A Brief History of Slavery
A Brief History of Sherlock Holmes
A Brief Guide to Angels and Demons
A Brief History of How the Industrial Revolution Changed the World
A Brief History of King Arthur
A Brief History of the Universe
J. P. McEvoy
A Brief Guide to Secret Religions
His Finest Hour: A Brief Life of Winston Churchill
A Brief History of Witchcraft
To my god-daughter, Isobel Macauslan
Constable & Robinson Ltd
55–56 Russell Square
First published in the UK by Robinson,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2011
Copyright © Michael Paterson, 2011
The right of Michael Paterson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any
form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library
UK ISBN: 978-1-84901-581-3
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
First published in the United States in 2011 by Running Press Book Publishers, A Member of the Perseus Books Group
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US ISBN 978-0-7624-4279-9
US Library of Congress Control Number: 2010940977
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Digit on the right indicates the number of this printing
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I thank my wife Sarah, who by constantly asking: ‘Haven’t you finished that book about the Queen yet?’ galvanised my efforts. I am also
most grateful to some very dear friends: Jurgen and Irene Erdmann, and Astrid and Detlef Stollfuss, for most helpful conversations.
She is a bit late, and you have been waiting for long minutes. A message came through that she is held up in traffic, but now there has been an announcement: ‘Right,
everyone! She’s on her way! Places please!’ and the subdued conversation ceases among your neighbours. They are standing stiffly, patiently, in a long row, not fidgeting.
You know she has arrived when you hear the sirens, faint at first, then loud enough to fill the street outside. Beyond the distant glass doors you are aware of lights flashing. There is the
gunning of motorcycle engines, the crackle of police radios. And there is a flurry of movement at the entrance. Then silence. Somewhere at the far end of the receiving-line she is being greeted,
talking to her hosts, having the evening’s event explained to her even though she has known for more than a year that she was coming here tonight. The others, like you, are probably going
over what they will say and do when they meet her. There are certain rules that have been explained: when introduced, address her first as ‘Your Majesty’, after that as
‘Ma’am’. ‘Ma’am’ to rhyme with ‘jam’, not ‘marm’ as in ‘marmalade’. Women may curtsy, men may bow from the
neck. These gestures are not compulsory. It is, apparently, no longer necessary to make them if you prefer not to. But most still do, as a courtesy toward a lady who merits respect,
and out of a sense of occasion. If you don’t, she will certainly give no indication that she minds. You have also been warned not to grab or squeeze her hand when it is offered. And you may
not initiate conversation; that is her privilege. Wait to be asked something, and do not give lengthy replies if asked a question. Presumably, if possible, ‘Yes, Your Majesty’ will
suffice. It is, after all, more polite not to disagree.
And now a group of people is coming slowly nearer. You cannot see her from the corner of your eye, because she is hidden behind the large man who is making the introductions. You glimpse a
woman, but it is someone else – a lady-in-waiting, perhaps. If you cannot see her, you can at least hear her. The quiet murmur of conversation, the interrogative tone as she gently asks a
question. There are pauses as she listens. You catch the quick movement, along the line, of ducking heads and hands thrust out. You can hear the rustle of expensive dresses as ladies curtsy. Odd
phrases are audible: ‘Oh!’ ‘Really?’ ‘Is it?’ Some distance away, she seems to be genuinely interested in talking to someone. She asks them several things. The
exchange lasts a whole minute or so, longer than she is supposed to want to talk to anyone on these occasions. But it comes to an end. ‘Well . . .’ she says, in a manner that suggests
finality, and the little procession continues.
When presentations are made she does not, as Prince Philip or Prince Charles would do, produce some jocular observation that would provoke polite laughter, perhaps making a detail of a
person’s clothing or accessories the basis for a quip. Nor, like them, would she laugh out loud at something said by others. When they meet the public, they are friendly. When she meets them,
she is reserved. She is not here to entertain, so she is quiet and serious, polite but definitely not convivial. The point about what she says is that it is always safe, never opinionated
or controversial, even though this may make her seem both uninterested and uninteresting. Did her husband not once say that people would rather be bored than offended? The murmuring
increases, you hear her host muttering the name of each person, the questions and responses. ‘Had you been there before?’ she asks. ‘Really?’ Although she takes in what is
said, she does not react to it, and her tone remains neutral, unemotional, unexcited. She is now on the edge of your vision. You have an impression of a long white dress, and see the shimmer of
jewellery. She appears to have a halo but it must be a tiara, glinting with reflected light. She looks pleasantly at those she greets, and her tight smile broadens into a grin when someone mentions
a country she has recently visited. When making small talk with strangers, such details can be a godsend. ‘What were you doing there?’ she asks, matter-of-factly. ‘Had you been
before? Were you? Yes, beautiful.’ Now she is next to you, and then in front of you.
At five foot three she is small, but perhaps not as small as you expected, for in the media she is often pictured standing next to men who tower over her. Recent American presidents, for
instance, seem to have been particularly lofty. She is a-dazzle with diamonds. Her hair is very white and her eyes are very blue. Her complexion is legendary for its purity, and this is still true
though she is in her eighties. Her posture is as straight as that of her Guardsmen. Her high-heeled shoes are gold and so is her handbag, which is hung from her elbow so that her hand is free. Her
smile – a polite baring of the teeth – is hesitant but warm. It is sometimes complained that she does not smile enough but in fact she does so often, especially when listening. She is
told your name – there is no reason why she should need to know, yet she frowns slightly as if memorising it – and what your reason is for being present. You look sharply down at your
toes, then up again. She offers her hand – a limp touch of gloved fingertips. She holds out only four fingers, not the pinkie. Her voice is low and slightly husky, her speech slow,
her diction precise and her accent that of the pre-war upper class. She asks something and you reply: ‘Yes, Your Majesty.’ Her expression acknowledges this. But your answer
was a conversational cul-de-sac. There is nothing further to say. And in any case, you sense your time is up. She knows just how long to spend with each person. She nods and moves on, as do the
gaggle of people that surrounds her. She is already talking to someone else: ‘Was that the first time you’d been there?’ You let out a long breath, thankful you made no mistakes.
It does not occur to you, even though you had heard that she finds small talk difficult, that she too might feel relief when such an encounter is over.
Were it not for her jewels and the entourage that follows her, she could have been the benign, retired headmistress of a girls’ school. There is about her just that element of what the
army calls ‘command presence’, more than a hint of a brisk and businesslike personality. Nevertheless because her personal reserve is palpable, there was a sense that she was making a
particular effort to talk to you, and that is very endearing. You wonder why she has this. After all, she once had Khrushchev to tea, and the Ceausescus to stay. If she could deal with
why would you and your colleagues present a challenge? But it is not the same. With world leaders there are gifts to give and receive and exclaim over, palaces to show them round, important topics
to discuss, and there is opportunity to get to know them. Here, there is barely time to exchange greetings with people she will never see again. Yet she does it diligently, sincerely, as if it
matters to her.
And then it dawns on you: this is not really shyness anyway. After all, she looked you straight in the eye, and clearly does not lack self-possession. It is a reticence that is carefully
calibrated, a well-drilled economy of speech and emotion. There is about her a studied professionalism – after such a long reign you would expect no less – in which dignity,
graciousness, interest and friendliness are commodities she measures out and deploys as needed.
Some people would like to see in her public manner more warmth, more humour, more animation. They may even assume, if they know little about her, that the seeming lack of
these is due to a cold and formal personality. She is not short of humour, or opinions, but what she cannot afford is to say or do anything controversial. She is well aware how easily any remark or
even expression could be misrepresented, misquoted or seen out of context by the media. She will therefore not disagree with anyone, voice strident or even firm views or look in the least
disapproving. She is not, in any case, running for office so she does not glad-hand, slap backs, laugh at others’ jokes or pretend an interest she does not feel. Politicians do all that,
because they must. She does not need to.