Anyone who has listened to the public reactions over the past few weeks could not fail to come to the conclusion that this visit is all about us, not about her majesty.
Before making any comment, people feel the need to announce that they don’t like monarchies. Transpose that into private life, and it would mean that we would start greeting dinner guests at the door by saying “I wouldn’t be into accountants, myself, but you’re still very welcome.”
It doesn’t quite fit with the self-belief this country has that, no matter what our own circumstances, we welcome and concentrate on outsiders when they choose to visit us. Precious little evidence has surfaced, thus far, of us concentrating on the queen as a human being. She keeps getting categorised. As royalty. As a demographic (“Well, she is an 85-year-old woman”). As a symbol of 800 years of oppression, of whom public apology is expected. As a marketing tool for our tourist industry. As an annoyance limiting movement of people in our cities. Or, in the case of Gerry Adams’ nuanced posturing, as the instrument of a visit whose time has not yet come. God love her.
Would you wish that assortment of projected self-interest on your worst enemy? And the curious thing is that Queen Elizabeth II is nobody’s worst enemy. Analysis of any decade or any individual year in this woman’s lengthy high-profile imprisonment reveals not only no crime, but no misdemeanour, despite public and private provocation.
Because of the current parity-of-poverty frame of mind in Ireland, we don’t think of her as a prisoner. Rolling in money, she is. No bank is going to take Buckingham Palace or Balmoral out from under her.
Yet, as a camera sneaked into one of her homes a couple of years back established, this woman’s incarceration is lived out in less than luxurious circumstances, with heating provided by single bar electric fires and her cornflakes left on a tray in a Tupperware container overnight, while her days are divided between attending infinitely repetitious public events and watching soap operas at home.
Even those who ostensibly share her life sentence have more freedom than she does. She was married off to a man who has never let his public role interfere with his self-expression. The Duke of Edinburgh may have spent his life walking the requisite three paces behind his wife but he has, at the same time, managed to deliver himself of public observations ranging from the idiotic to the frankly racist. She, on the other hand, has been as silent as the grave, delivering scripts written by others in that archaic diction, and only once in more than 60 years coming close to a complaint, when she mentioned that the previous year had been an “annus horribilis”.
Access to a diamond tiara or two is a poor payoff for that enforced silence. Her sister, Princess Margaret, straddled public and private life, taking a hefty salary and perks from The Firm while swanning off whenever it suited her to a private Caribbean island with a bunch of raffish friends and as much in the way of drink as any of them fancied.
As a result, for many a decade, the younger sibling was the darling of media, in much the same way Princess Diana later became such a darling. Poor Margaret had to give up the love of her life because he was a commoner, so the British public and American palace-watchers alike decided she was a heroine filled with a self-sacrificing sense of public duty, and long after she was a raddled, rarely civil dowager, continued to present her as the more glamorous of the two sisters.
The reality is that Queen Elizabeth II is the living embodiment of a sense of public duty made manifest over more than half a century. As a child, nobody expected her to succeed to the throne, and so when the crown landed in her lap, it must have been about as welcome as a dead skunk, particularly when the teenager known as “Lillibet” was steeped in family legend about how her mother, first asked to marry a prince, had rejected the offer on the basis that she wanted a normal life with the freedom to speak her mind. From her early teens, then, the clouds of a life in posh house arrest were gathering over the young princess.
She never fought, never rebelled, never ran away. Instead, she took on each duty (including learning to be a motor mechanic as part of the home front efforts during the war) with dogged professionalism and exemplary discretion. She lived a life shaped by the expectations of a previous century, including that of mute obedience to orders and traditions. In many ways, she was a soldier, never questioning, never arguing, never seeking credit. Just doing the job.
For a time, that was publicly admired. But as television stripped away the distance that had given monarchy a patina of mystery and respect, replacing it with intimacy and contempt, and as she moved into an unglamorous middle age, admiration died on the vine. She soldiered on, coping with the problems most women of her age had to cope with as the certainties and accepted dishonesties of the past fell away. Central to those problems were the marriages of her children, which failed, one after the other.
THE headline-grabber, of course, was the marriage of the Prince of Wales to Diana Spencer. The queen — the first monarch to appreciate and cope with television — watched as Princess Di became an international celeb, surrounded by paparazzi, reading her own coverage every day and feeding media judicious leaks. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say injudicious leaks, because Diana, buoyed up on sound-bites and cover stories, never quite grasped the fact that you can buy bits of mass media, but they never stay bought.
As the Charles/Camilla/Diana disaster happened in front of her, the queen was relegated to also-ran status as a throwback, an anachronism beaten into the background while Diana became “the People’s Princess”. When the “People’s Princess” was killed in a tunnel, when her widower remarried, the queen kept doing the day job. Few biographies were written about her, because what publisher wants to bring out an account of someone who does what they are paid to do and who keeps their mouth shut about any miseries or personal resentments they have?
Media always maintains that the public wants “the real person behind the famous figure, but the public doesn’t want to know a real person who is not emotionally volatile, who is not prepared to parade their vulnerabilities, and who, even when a mentally-disturbed stranger breaches her security and invades her bedroom, copes using common sense”.
This is a courageous, competent public -spirited professional. The least we should do is ensure that she gets the break of a lifetime this week.