Sunday, April 23, 2006

A Toast to Your Majesty

Byline by MJ Akbar: A Toast to your Majesty

It’s Friday the 21st of April in England, the sun is jesting with the rain and a faint chant rises from the television screen: "Two ... four ... six ... eight ... who do we appreciate? The Queen!" It is Queen Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday and we are all children now, staring at Windsor Castle.

Sky News, the tough TV channel, has an "exclusive" interview with the Queen’s younger son, Andrew, the Duke of York, and he takes us to an exclusive tour of the mailbox he made when he was nine, and which has been preserved, possibly because it was the most useful thing he has done. A man wearing a paper Union Jack hat tells us breathlessly that he has spoken to the Queen for the 114th time since 1982. He must be the royal version of the English cricket team’s Barmy Army. A schoolgirl who offered flowers to her monarch reveals, once again exclusively, what the Queen told her: "Are they from the garden?" Even the child sensed that there might be something less than adequate in the quote. "And that’s all," she added.

The Queen’s minders were politically correct. Once upon a time, many history books ago, the monarch of Great Britain had all the colours of the world among her subjects. The Queen of Britain still has all the colours of the world among her subjects, but they all live in England instead of across the globe. The sun definitely sets upon the British empire these days. A black girl in a pretty frock curtseys and presents flowers; children of South Asian origin, on holiday from school, line up among the 20,000 or so who have come to cheer their queen. There are gun salutes at the Queen’s various residences. Since we see them on the small screen, there is a feel of toy guns on doll grass booming across Lego ramparts.

Prince Charles, who has been teased by the cartoonists in the morning papers as the long-suffering heir of the Eternal Mother, pays an impressive tribute, but the theme is mother rather than queen, reinforcing the maternal and bringing the Queen into every mother’s heart. He recalls the child who waited anxiously for mama’s phone calls from exotic countries, a crackle travelling at pre-computer pace and a Marconi tremble. He mentions a vignette: before her coronation Queen Elizabeth tried on her crown to check its weight and size. One doesn’t want to be surprised, even by a crown.

It’s sycophancy, but it is endearing and it works. There is no logic to it, but that is obviously its strength. Does the British monarchy work precisely because it is powerless? Yes, of course. People cannot hate anyone without power, and the British royal family wisely edged away from politics before it could become politics’ victim. Instead of power, it has influence, and it would be foolish to underestimate the depth of this influence.

If only someone could convey this simple fact to the foolish man who pretends to be a king in Kathmandu.

We discussed the mysteries of the charisma over a jolly lunch at a Scottish fish restaurant across the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. My friend of thirty years, Alexander, was dressed with the careful scruffiness of the British upper class. His elder brother John, who is 78, buys rare books (which he buys from the widows of Cambridge dons) as a hobby and sells them for a modest living, offered a loyal toast. John then explained how to recognise a voice on the telephone that had been outsourced to Bangalore. It was the only one, he pointed out, with a proper upper class British accent.

Last week Alexander was at the funeral of Lady Heskett, widowed at 25, but lived to a grand old age as owner of one of the greatest homes in Britain. Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave the funeral oration and told a charming anecdote. When Edward Heath, a bachelor, became Prime Minister, he often asked grand Conservative ladies to be official hostess at his weekend retreat when he had important guests. Mrs Indira Gandhi had come to dine at Chequers, and was being very critical of the British Raj. When Lady Heskett, her hostess, could take it no more, she pointed out that there was at least one thing that Mrs Gandhi could be deeply thankful to the British for. What was that, asked Mrs Gandhi. "We abolished suttee, didn’t we?" said Lady Heskett.

Doubtless the conversation moved to other topics after that.

Class always wafts on wit. John wondered if I remembered the old Aga Khan, mentor of the Muslim League in pre-partition India and as rotund as wealth can make a potentate. My knowledge of the Aga Khan is theoretical, but John recalled a delegation of British Members of Parliament who went to visit India before independence. There was the usual obligatory visit to the Taj, along with intense political consultations with leaders of all parties. When the delegation returned to Britain, a reporter asked a Labour MP what had been his most memorable experience in India. "The Aga Khan by moonlight," replied the Labour MP.

Enough said.

My own encounter with the British monarchy has been, fortunately for me, limited. Queen Elizabeth and her German-blood consort Prince Philip were visiting India, and I was one of the small crowd invited to the reception at the residence of the British High Commissioner in Delhi. Dress was formal. I wore a long silk kurta, which was about as formal as I was inclined to get in those days, and since the Gurkhas at the gate didn’t frown, I thought I had passed the formality test. I joined the queue to receive their majesties. Everyone got a perfunctory fleeting smile, which was nice and gracious. Prince Philip paused in front of me, took a second look at my kurta, standing out among the suits, and wondered what manner of native dress I was wearing. Irresponsible by desire and irreverent by professional ethics, I suggested that the natives were in charge now, weren’t they? There was steel in Prince Philip’s subsequent fleeting smile.

Both Britain and the British monarchy are must improved by loss of empire. Britain is no longer in the colonies, but the colonies are now in Britain. That seems fair and equitable. "Your Majesty" is still in business. A toast to the Queen, Alexander and John, on her 80th birthday, but may it remain your majesty rather than mine.

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