At the time of the general election of 1997, it was strange to realise that teenagers as old as 18 had lived their entire lives under the Conservatives, mostly with one Prime Minister: Margaret Thatcher.
I know that the rules of the game are constitutionally different, but how extraordinary it is that the great majority of us, pretty much up to those now in retirement, have memories of only one monarch. We have never witnessed the death of a ruling monarch or a coronation, but we have lived through one jubilee and have the bunting poised halfway up the ladder for another. Meanwhile the Queen, in her 60th year on the throne, has had weekly meetings with 12 prime ministers.
Even in an age where we are getting used to the idea of greater longevity and the concept of working longer, the Queen sets a corking pace. Being Queen is a vocation like absolutely no other. However, it surely takes a certain sort of character and mindset to keep on doing the same job for so very many years with no sabbatical taken or, even further back, no formal time off for babies. The rhythm of her years never changes: June is always Garter Day and Royal Ascot; July is Holyrood week. Her whole year is fixed to the point where we can only guess and hope that she likes it that way. As a nation we are truly blessed that she has the steadfastness, sense of duty and stiffness of spine that she never seemingly falters, rolls her eyes or longs for a week barefoot on Mustique.
I was three years old when she came to the throne and so was fed a diet of Coronation pictures from very early on. I had a crowned and sceptred image of her firmly stamped on my mind. This was abruptly dislodged when I was introduced to her, aged about nine. She was staying nearby and her weekend hosts brought her over to my parents’ house in Sussex for tea.
There was a distinct excitement in the Soames household: my mother even bought a new tea set for the occasion, which I thought rather unnecessary when all we really needed was a puppy. We children were dressed in our Sunday best and lined up by the front door as two cars crunched across the gravel, spilling out dogs, humans and some strong, silent policemen.
When the Queen walked through the door I was aghast that she was not wearing a crown but a headscarf tied at the chin like all mothers wore at that time. I hope grave disappointment didn’t show on my face or in the curtsy that I had been practising for days. I remember the Queen in that scarf to this day and I’m absolutely sure that pretty much everyone who has ever seen her in the flesh will also remember every detail of the event many years later.
So when the Queen goes on her frequent walkabouts, which she does so visibly in her brightly coloured hats and coats, she is laying down vivid memories for the thousands of children who see her up close. But I hope they don’t expect her to turn up in her crown.
I enjoyed the spat between the distinguished historian Mary Beard and the acerbic writer and TV critic A A Gill, who accused her of being too ugly to appear on television. Mary Beard does not follow the convention that women TV presenters adhere to: smart clothes, immaculate make-up and good haircuts. She is one of that breed of academics who put content, clarity and intellectual rigour first, unlike we shallow thinkers with vainer concerns who keep beauticians and barbers purring with prosperity.
I greatly admire La Barbe for her uncompromising stance, but I would be dishonest not to add that I also found her appearance immensely distracting and immediately rang the hairdresser to make a long and expensive appointment.
Four years ago we ran an article in Saga to mark the launch of a campaign to raise funds for the long overdue Bomber Command Memorial, which will finally be unveiled with great fanfare in Green Park at the end of June. As a result of our piece, we were thrilled that the campaign received an amazing 80,000 letters of support and £2 million towards the £7 million target. Now we have an opportunity to help to finish the job.
A further £2 million is required to set up an endowment fund to care for the memorial in perpetuity. To raise this sum, the campaign is organising a sponsored drop of poppies from an RAF Lancaster on the day the memorial is unveiled: £5 will buy a handful of poppies and I’m sure many of you will wish to help fill the skies of Central London with poppies in memory of the 55,573 Bomber Command men who fell in the war.
You can make donations online at bombercommand.com or send a cheque to the Bomber Command Association, c/o RAF Museum, Grahame Park Way, Hendon, London NW9 5LL.
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