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Best of 2022: The generation of 1926


My mother often reminded us that she was the same age as the queen. Admittedly, Mum had not dealt on a regular basis with fifteen prime ministers although the local member did once knock on her door. The queen met more people than mum although mum never felt constrained to keep her opinions to herself. In 1996, I stood with mum at replicas of the crown jewels in the Tower of London. Rubies the size of golf balls and diamonds bigger than kidney stones. ‘She’s got some good stuff,’ said mum, sounding as if she was admiring the crafts at a fete. For mum, a hat was something you wore in the garden and a horse was something that people with rocks in their heads lost money on at the races.

They were worlds apart. Yet mum loved the queen and let us know that the two of them tended to be pregnant at the same time, almost as though they were sisters. Mum knew the correct way to address Her Majesty if she ever did knock on the door. The generation of 1926 was made of sturdy timber. It included both Marilyn Monroe and David Attenborough.

My mother and the queen shared more in common than a preference for scones. For both of them, duty always came first. They were unflinching. I can recall the queen not following her own mother’s hearse to its burial because she needed to entertain visiting dignitaries. Mum made those kinds of choices. They were both stoic to the point of being difficult to understand. There was never any doubt that, living by their lights, they would spend every breath doing what they felt called to do. Self-indulgence was hardly part of their vocabulary; along with that, they didn’t indulge others much either. In her memoir, This Much is True, Miriam Margoyles writes an hysterical account of being presented to the queen and losing her nerve. Margoyles was so starstruck that she didn’t even use the F-word, a rare omission for her. The queen was non-plussed.

People always looked for a fine crack where the private queen met the public queen. It seemed hard to find. Some years ago, I interviewed Mark Donaldson who won the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan, the first Australian to achieve such an honour for forty years. Part of the deal was meeting the queen in private. He described her as warm and lively and just like one’s own granny. Soon afterwards, he encountered her in a formal ceremonial context. She had become a different person. It was as though she had turned to stone. Duty didn’t just call. It shouted. My sister-in-law, Kerin Fielding, remembers as a twelve-year-old girl guide being asked to present the queen with a flag in Ontario, Canada. The queen was exceedingly proper. But there was enough of a wink in her eye for Kerin to feel that she had met a kindly human being.

Once I sat at a dinner beside an eminent priest of the Church of Scotland whose name I shall withhold. Apparently, the queen was the head of the church of England when she was in England and the church of Scotland when she was in Scotland. Not everyone gets to be the head of two churches. Even the pope only has one.  

I gathered that the queen occasionally invited a Scottish priest to take the Sunday service at Balmoral and, as part of the deal, to stay overnight with her and Prince Phillip in their private quarters. The priest was not much of a monarchist but was curious enough to accept. Besides, he lived in an austere community and was looking forward to a hearty meal with fine wines and the best of everything. His mouth was watering at the prospect. He was taken aback on the Saturday night when, sitting in their modest unit, the queen suggested to the prince that it was time to eat. The prince rose from his chair and went to the kitchenette. He boiled some spaghetti, drained it and stirred through it a jar of pasta sauce. That was the banquet.


'Her words were so simple yet exactly what needed to be said. While others were preaching ideological and cultural division, the queen spoke about working together.'


There were times when the queen struck me as being so locked in a narrow view of the world that she missed out. She indulged her son, Andrew, and didn’t understand her daughter-in-law, Diana. In both cases the results were costly. Yet she could also be brilliant. When 22 people died at an Ariana Grande concert in 2017 as a result of a suicide bomber, the world was up in arms. People were baying for blood. The queen visited the hospital in Manchester which was caring for the injured. She said that it was wonderful that so many people were working together to ease the suffering. Her words were so simple yet exactly what needed to be said. While others were preaching ideological and cultural division, the queen spoke about working together.

Only a few weeks before she died, the queen sent a message for the opening of the 15th Lambeth Conference, a gathering of bishops from the Anglican communion. She said:

Throughout my life, the message and teachings of Christ have been my guide and in them I find hope. It is my heartfelt prayer that you will continue to be sustained by your faith in times of trial and encouraged by hope at times of despair.

My mother would have made an excellent monarch but the position is never advertised. At the queen’s coronation in 1953, the reading from Matthew’s Gospel was ‘render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and render unto God what belongs to God.’ The words remind us that we all share the same humanity and walk the same earth and that none of us walk it forever. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.





Michael McGirr’s most recent book is Ideas to Save Your Life (Text).

Main image: Queen Elizabeth II  on the balcony of Government House, Melbourne, during her tour of Australia, March 1954. (Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images). 

Topic tags: Michael McGirr, Queen Elizabeth II



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