The sixth of February 1952 was the day King George VI died and his daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, became Queen. It was a school day. We came back from our morning break – or ‘playtime’ as it was called – and our teacher, Mr Russell, who was something of a martinet, sat us all down even more solemnly than usual. Then he told us very quietly that the King had passed away in his sleep. We children sat in shocked silence, then came a muffled sob, and then another. I remember the choking feeling in my throat, as the tears squeezed out of my eyes. The girl sitting next to me was trembling. We were ten or eleven years old, had never met or seen the King and Queen, who were mythical figures to us, and yet we were as shaken as if one of our grandparents had died. That is my first memory of grief, of mourning.
Our grief was real, born of affection for a man who was respected, admired and loved by our parents. The Monarchy still had a certain mystique at that time, which is difficult to explain to anyone who has grown up in the last forty years. And yet we loved our King, not as some remote godlike figure but as a man with all his human weaknesses, and we grieved when he died. We would never hear his voice with its hesitancies speaking live to us again. We were children with vague memories of the war – we were no more than four when it ended – and had seen many changes in our short ten years of life, but the death of the King was a watershed, marking the end of an era. Perhaps, young as we were, we sensed that?
This was the start of the “New Elizabethan Age” full of promise and optimism. Almost eighteen months after her accession, our young Queen was crowned amid great jubilation on a rainy day in June 1953. Practically everyone had Union flags left over from the War, or if they didn’t, they bought or made bunting. Everything was red, white and blue. Just one family in our road had a TV set, a large wooden cabinet with a tiny screen shaded by small cupboard doors, because you could only watch TV in the dark in those days. Black and white, of course. The curtains were drawn; all the neighbours squeezed in, children cross-legged on the floor, to watch the proceedings, which were all very exciting. Cups of tea and glasses of pop were handed round. And the excitement was heightened (excuse the pun) by the news of the ascent of Everest. I have vague memories of a children’s street party organised by the nearest pub, which must have been the following day.
Some time later, our entire school of 600 pupils plus staff marched in a long orderly crocodile a mile down the High Street to the local cinema, for a special showing of the Coronation film in glorious Technicolor, as well as the Everest film – or perhaps we went twice? I don’t remember if it was a double billing or not.To mark the occasion, every pupil was given a tiny leather-bound dictionary with the Queen’s portrait on the clasp. The Queen’s portrait fell off the button on mine long ago, but I still have my little French dictionary and fond memories of peeping into it surreptitiously beneath my desk – it was the ideal size for a quick cheat!
Things have turned out very differently from what people imagined and hoped for sixty years ago, some for better and some for worse. After Diana ensured such a bad press for the House of Windsor, support for the monarchy became unfashionable; but how we have all enjoyed wallowing in our nostalgia these past six months! Vivat Regina!