The queen: fifty years and bearing up

Posted: Jan 24, 2002 12:00 AM
LONDON -- Feb. 6 will be a very big day in the British Commonwealth because Queen Elizabeth will have been queen for 50 years, a golden jubilee. By coincidence, that is also the birthday of Ronald Reagan (his 91st). Fifty years ago, he was a Democrat, though now that seems a very old affliction, whereas the British monarchy really doesn't change all that much.

In anticipation of the great day ahead, a reporter for the Daily Telegraph of London was given continued access to the queen for several days, reminding her subjects (and progeny of her ex-subjects) of what it is that she does for her keep, a straitened life of arduous work but, reporter Gyles Brandreth lives through it, and so do the Telegraph's readers. And so can anyone interested in foreign manners, and curious to contemplate domestic versions of alien protocols.

We are told that for this meeting, the beginning of the royal tour under observation, the queen is seven minutes late, which put her in a bad mood because she does not like to be late -- she considers it just plain "bad manners." That protocol, punctuality, had no effect on President Clinton, who was routinely late. Not, one suspects, because he intended to display bad manners, but because he indulged his inclinations in whatever he was doing, and since presidents are always doing something, the next thing up has to wait.

A problem the queen has is common to all celebrities whose life requires sustained exposure. Adlai Stevenson once remarked that a very special strain in public life was the need to smile. Smiles come naturally when there is an incitement to smile -- somebody tells a funny story, or you are surprised by someone's coming into the room, or something reminds you of something pleasant. Running for president, Adlai Stevenson would find himself needing to smile for three hours running, waving at crowds he'd pass by.

"It's really very exhausting having to keep up a smile hour after hour," we are told. "When she gets home some nights her face really aches." And the queen is not running for anything, so that if she chose, she could presumably be as dour in mien as her great-great-grandmother Victoria.

On the other hand, there is always occasion to smile. The endless train of foreign eminences who come by to record their arrival in Great Britain are given 12 minutes. Her own subjects receiving honors average 20 seconds. Although everyone is prepared, there are mix-ups. One senior judge, slotted for a few seconds' royal presence in order to receive some honor, "was so overwhelmed by the occasion that he curtsied right to the floor."

On a famous occasion, incoming U.S. Ambassador Walter Annenberg, asked by the queen how things were going at the embassy, answered nervously, "Very well, subject to certain elements of restoration and rehabilitation." No doubt the queen met the occasion with her kindly sangfroid. Last week, on a visit to a home for autistic children, the kids cried out ecstatically, "Queen! Queen!" She replied, "I'm pleased to meet you." "She does not hug them," the reporter advises us, "as Diana would have done, or the Duchess of Kent might. That's not her style."

On the other hand, her style equips her with useful stoicism. One night, in the record of the Telegraph, she attended a theater benefit. "The first act closes with the finale of 'The Full Monty,' the Broadway musical version of the hit film. The Royal Box affords a clear and uninterrupted view of the male dancers as they complete their striptease. In the Royal Box there is not a flicker of reaction from the royal couple. They have been to Papua New Guinea. They have seen it all before."

It isn't that nothing changes for the queen. At the intermission of that program she was present at the bar with all the other celebrities. "The queen is mingling happily. A generation ago this would not have happened. For the first 23 years of her reign, divorcees were not presented to Her Majesty. Now here I am saying to the queen: 'Do you know the Lloyd-Webbers?' and here is Her Majesty shaking hands with Andrew's third wife and trilling: 'Of course, it's so lovely to hear those tunes.'" And of course if the queen were not hospitable to divorced people, she would be very lonely at home, having survived what she referred to back then -- the crumbling marriages of three of her children -- as an annus horribilis.

But she is a comforting presence, as chief of government, and manifestly bears up well, and bears well.