April 21, 1926 was not a year most of us remember well. Me? I was minus 19 at the time. My parents had still to meet.
The year that Queen Elizabeth II – and Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I – was born may be wreathed in mist and fading memory now. But it lacked for nothing in event.
George V was king, Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister and Calvin Coolidge the US President. The National Grid was established. Red telephone boxes appeared – but Agatha Christie didn’t. John Logie Baird first demonstrated something called a television. And Hugh MacDiarmid published his long poem in Scots: A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.
To the extent the year registers to most of us at all, it was less because of some tranquil progression to the modern world than a premonition of its turbulence: the year of the General Strike, of buses driven by volunteers and martial law declared.
For anyone to have been born in that year and still living through all the tumult that followed is cause for cheer. But for a reigning monarch it is cause for special celebration.
I have never been an avid republication, but neither a slavish devotee of the monarchy. Like most of my age, I have done my fair share of fun poking and mocking of the Queen, and not least over those bland and stilted Christmas TV messages.
Yet even for the most hard-hearted of republicans this is not a day for carping, but for the recognition of a singular staying power. The Queen is both the oldest and the longest reigning monarch. And these two facts bring me to the first of five distinctive and positive characteristics of her life: longevity.
What makes longevity so special? Its very fact provides a reminder of our island history, that what makes us and helps explain who and what we are is more than the present day and far longer than we can ever hope to remember.
The Queen, in her personal capacity and in her ceremonial role and duties, forms part of our long national story. And for that reminder alone we should be especially grateful when we are too often treated as if we were born yesterday.
Our culture, manners, values and beliefs are a molten lava flowing insistently from a past that may be forgotten but never lost. Longevity is a check on the vanities and self-importance of the present day. We need to be reminded more than we are, and more than ever when business moguls, celebrities and prime ministers (we might even say especially prime ministers) can act as if the past means nothing: they can often govern with a cavalier disregard for history and the wisdom it bequeaths.
Second only to longevity is service – a concept that has fallen dramatically out of fashion. It is barely rated as once it was as an inspiring motive for action, occupation and behaviour.
Here again, few have cause to criticise the monarch for the multitude of duties she has performed and all the demands that these have made on her energy and stamina. Openings, unveilings, remembrances, duties civil and military, obligations as head of the Church, meeting and greeting world leaders, diplomats and dignitaries, parliament openings, briefings with prime ministers, commonwealth responsibilities, overseas visits to cement trade and diplomatic ties, attendances and duties at all manner of events and with no retirement in sight.
In all this she has been an exemplar. Little wonder Prince William struggles to match this constant, unfailing activism – one fears he always will. No-one can accuse her of an indolent life.
Running a close third has been a lifelong discretion – another value savagely diminished in a yammering age of social media when we all must have voices and all opinions must be broadcast.
This discretion, the foundation of a public neutrality, has been a singular characteristic of her life. It has sustained a vital characteristic of a modern monarchy – that it is seen to be above politics.
This is not at all the same thing as having no opinions. I am quite sure the Queen has opinions. But it is a remarkable feat to have kept them so private, a training (or instinct?) from her early age - and certainly since she became heir presumptive at the age of ten.
The questions that have formed over the eligibility of her eldest son Prince Charles for the role of king is not over any perceived lack of duty or commitment to the national good, or indeed a widespread objection to the opinions that he holds, but that he has voiced them so openly. Modern architects, for example, have drawn a tongue lashing. We may agree with his opinions on modern buildings. But it compromises a vital principle of modern kingship that the incumbent is seen to be neutral and approachable by all. Discretion is the fanfare of a studied neutrality.
And then there is decorum. Most regard this as having to do with dress and clothing style. But it has a broader quality, extending to composure, demeanour and manners. In myriad public appearances over a lifetime it has never once failed her.
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As for her choice of clothing I cannot make any professional or expert comment, other than to say she has seemed at all times immaculately turned out. I am told she sends her shoes for repair rather than just buying new, but that she has more than 200 handbags. I have noticed women to be reluctant to part with handbags though they are all too often changed.
I am also told her handbags have especially long handles so that the bags do not get in the way of all that hand shaking. I myself use a handbag round the house but it is a Stanley tool bag for carrying pens, pencils, note book, the mobile phone, pipe, tobacco pouch and B&Q customer card.
I am sure the Queen has limited need for these. But I have never quite understood why she needs a handbag at all. Surely she has no end of courtiers to rush forward with the pocket tissue, powder puff, or handy little notebook and pen? However, I do understand that a Stanley tool bag might not cut it as a matching accessory.
Finally, I would cite continuity: that silver connecting thread through all manner of turmoil and tarnish. She has overseen many constitutional changes – including our own – the dismantling of empire, the decolonisation of Africa, a world war, a US presidential assassination, the collapse of communism, a succession of prime ministers, countless downturns and recessions, the loss of mother, sister and daughter in law - and a profound change in the social composition of the UK over which she presides.
“Some people”, she declared, “feel that their own beliefs are being threatened. Some are unhappy about unfamiliar cultures. They all need to be reassured that there is so much to be gained by reaching out to others; that diversity is indeed a strength and not a threat.”
For that alone, Ma’am, happy birthday.