Wednesday, July 04, 2012
Whenever someone back in the US finds out that I live in London, they immeadently want to know one thing:
“Oh, have you met the queen?”
I used to think that this was an example of our Anglophila at work. England still brings up dreams of castles and glass slippers. All very Walt Disney if you ask me, but Disney built his own empire on it so I suppose I can’t really be suprised by the appeal. Then I began to realize that sometimes their questions had a sort of sneer about it, as if the idea of living in England deserved cynacisim and spite because all I did here in the UK wait for Prince Charming and watch mice clean my room. Now I hear the question asked with a whole range of tones, each with its very own subtext and assumptions. But the words remain the same.
Up until last month I would reply that I’ve seen her in a variety of circumstances, driving by in a car mostly, and she looked like just about any other grandmother in the world just with a handbag and a hat that matches.
And then came last month when she walked right in front of my bedroom window.
She was going down to the end of our dock, to inaugurate a new boat, the Gloriana, which would carry her down the river during her Diamond Jubilee Celebrations. Why they chose our little run down and slightly dilapidated dock I’m still unsure. I love Greenland Dock as its the place where I board the Clipper to commute into town everyday. But it never really struck me as a place for a queen to board a gilded vessel.
The night before she was due to arrive, the boys at the pub were buzzing with discussions. Many of them are professional photographers and thus the discussions turned to who was bringing what lens and would it better to bring an SLR or just keep it digital. You get a certain amount of alcohol in these men and they make their views about the royals very well known, but not now. Tonight, even their combative behavior is stifled and they seem to be like small boys preparing to meet someone very great. Their eyes sparkle.
“You’re coming, right Athena? We need to use your chair as a tripod. Saves me from having to carry mine.” The Queen of England walking down my street? I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
By the time Her Royal Highness rolls down my neighbourhood street we’ve been waiting in the rain for about an hour. I joke with another American that, didn’t we fight a revolution to avoid freezing our bums off in the cold? But then the royal Land Rover pulls up in front of my building (I had no idea Queen Lizzie liked SUVs so much) and first tumbles out Prince Philip looking just a tad confused, and then the queen gracefully puts one foot on the street and then the other. For a moment all I can see are her shoes, red pumps, and then she steps out from behind the car door.
Instantly I become a sort of camera tree, my friends looping and throwing their Nikons and Cannons over various bits of my wheelchair. Their lenses follow her from the car, to the dock, to the waterside, where the burgundy boat trimmed in gold and propelled by forty men rowing awaits her. She is perfectly measured in her steps, holding herself with a sort of serious restraint and being careful of even where her eyes landed.
“She’s coming back,” one of my friends says as he removes the gigantic telephoto lens from the camera. I look at him, slightly stunned because, as far as I know, this was never part of the plan. “She has to be leaving by car. If the queen was being rowed away from Greenland Dock to Greenwich it would be a very public event. She’s walking back up to the pier I promise you.”
Sure enough, a few minutes later, the boat pulls away and she’s coming back to the top of the dock. Much of the crowd has disappeared at this point and its a few locals in the neighborhood who’ve stuck around in the miserable rain to chat and review the photos they’ve taken. Out of the greyness of the day, a small girl appears, about five or six years old, holding a bouquet of brightly colored tulips. As she approaches the queen, my friends grab their cameras again. She holds the flowers up to the woman, unaware really of who this queen is, what she has seen in the past six decades, or the pressure it takes to be a head of state. Instantly there is a change that comes across the queen’s face. Many of the cynics will say the gesture was rehearsed and that it is easy to receive flowers from a child. But, in that moment, being handed vibrant colored flowers on a grey day, the queen looked like a woman. Her face lit up the way any woman’s face changes when she is presented with an item of great beauty.
The is an inherent grace that any woman has that isn’t dependent on status or upbringing. Rather, it is the ability to recognize beauty in just about any situation, that gives women the ability to suddenly shine brighter than any birthright or lineage. The transition I saw was that from head of state, to a true queen within the simplest of moments, and yet the alteration was greater than any amount of wealth or breeding could bring on.
Within a few seconds she was in her car, doors closed, and being driven away, making the whole thing seem very surreal. In my mind I could hear the echoes of the question I get asked all the time in the states either out of spite or a genuine yearning.
Yes, I have met the queen. If you look hard enough,you’ll come across queens everyday.