Ave Atque Vale, Britishness, Culture, Family, History, Life, Loss, Quote of the Day

We Saw Her. We Believed. And Now She’s Gone.

“I have to be seen to be believed”–Queen Elizabeth II

The only British monarch of my lifetime died today.  She was crowned in June 1953, slightly more than a year before I was born.  I was named after her, “Elizabeth,” and–for my middle name–after my grandmother who was to die when I was only a few months old, “Louise.”  When I was very young, Elizabeth’s face was everywhere–on coronation memorabilia: teacups, tea towels, teapots (I’m sensing a theme here), biscuit tins, plates, spoons, lapel pins, souvenir medallions and plaques.  On  stamps, money, postboxes. In the garden (the glorious pink Queen Elizabeth rose was introduced in 1954).

And in government offices, in Dad’s office, in portraits on the wall.

Everywhere.

After the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle said of his young widow: “She gave an example to the world of how to behave.”

The same could be said of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

In 1956, a young Queen Elizabeth and her husband visited Nigeria.  As usual, Dad took copious notes.

He was struck by how young she was, how petite she was, with what dignity she conducted herself, and how much presence she brought with her when she entered a room or was the focus of an occasion.

And while he didn’t include in his memoirs a story he told often, about how the Queen of England went back to the catering rest house after standing all day, either in moving Land Rovers or Rolls-Royces, or in reviewing stands as thousands passed by on parade, kicked off her shoes, poured herself a drink and fell back into a chaise-longue while remarking, “Cor, it’s nice to put yer pins up” (“Lord, it is nice to elevate one’s feet), there are a couple of stories either directly or peripherally related to her visit.  Here they are:

For months, everybody in the North had been agog at the prospect of the forthcoming royal visit, due in February 1956. In Idah there was an old soldier named Umaru Idah who had started his soldiering in the Royal Niger Company’s Constabulary and who had fought in the Bida War of 1897. He had all his medals, including the East and West Africa, and those from the first World War and he was without doubt the oldest living ex-soldier in Nigeria. I found him quite by accident and we used to have long chats together. During some of them, he expressed great admiration for his Queen, and it was clear that he longed to see her when she visited.

I was determined that the old man should come with us to Kaduna to see the Queen in some style and when I explained the circumstances to the United Africa Company District Manager in Enugu, not only was Umaru fitted out with two handsome riguna (gowns) and other clothes, but the UAC also gave him a grant of cash as well. The only snag was his medals, cobbled together as they were, on bits of frayed ribbon and string.

Then I had an idea. I sent a long telegram to Sir Otway Herbert, General Officer Commanding in Chief, in Accra, Ghana. I told him of my problem and asked for assistance. Nine days later, an Army dispatch rider from Accra turned up on his motorbike at my house in Idah, with half a yard of each medal ribbon and full details of which medal they were for. Kay made them up for Umaru on a bar which I had made by the Public Works Department and Umaru Idah went in the Igala contingent to see his Queen, to whose great-great-grandmother he had first sworn allegiance over seventy years before.

I did have a little trouble with the Atta (the traditional ruler), who said that he thought Umaru to be too inconsiderable to go. Although there was absolutely no way that I could have forced the issue, I said if Umaru Idah didn’t go, then I would see to it that the Atta didn’t go either. We compromised eventually by the Atta agreeing to appoint the old soldier as an honorary bodyguard to himself for the duration of the visit. Anyway, we all went off to Kaduna to see the Queen, and as our hosts were largely running the entire show, we got some very good photographic opportunities.

The professionals had not brought enough colour film and had almost run out of all of it by the time they came North, so I have some shots on 8mm cine‚ that nobody else has got. The only shot I regret not having taken (when I could have) was when the royal couple were going back to Government House in their open Rolls-Royce and the engine stalled on the level crossing close to us, where the census office had been. Moreover, the Rolls wouldn’t restart!

It was a joy to see Prince Philip stand up in the back and, facing the crowd, encourage them to give the Royal Rolls a push to “jump” start it! No press photos of that episode ever appeared, but we witnessed it.

There was one other story about the visit that is worthy of mention. The North had made a great effort in organizing its Durbar, in which several thousand horsemen, from every Province were going ceremoniously to greet the Queen in the manner fitting the traditional acknowledgment of a supreme Chief. Many of them had started their journey in the previous year to get to Kaduna in time. (The Royal Visit took place in January and February of 1956.)

Then, as soon as the royal party arrived, word was circulated that Her Majesty would not be wearing formal clothes at the Durbar next day. This was, indeed, a shock and would have been a huge disappointment to the populace, who set great store in the trappings of ceremony and chieftaincy and loved to see them on full display.

A skillful and sophisticated plot was therefore very hurriedly hatched.

Miss “Bobo” Macdonald, the Queen’s dresser, naturally had to remain at the airport for some time, supervising the collection of the royal luggage. A very presentable, diplomatic and able young Administrative Officer was therefore detailed to remain behind to assist her, in full uniform, sword and all. He was also told to take her to Government House by way of the Durbar camp and past the serried ranks of the thousands of horsemen who were lining the route. They, for their part, were told that the last car would have a very important personage indeed travelling in it.

As was hoped, the reception that Miss Macdonald got was quite outstanding. As she got out of the car at Government House and turned to thank her handsome, uniformed, escort, she said, “Mr Roundthwaite! I think we shall have to wear our best clothes tomorrow after all.” And so they did!

And one more anecdote from shortly thereafter, in which Dad wasn’t personally involved, but which was told to him by one of the participants:

To turn back, for a moment, to the Emir of Kano. He had only been given his knighthood the previous June and one of the reasons for him coming to the Constitutional Conference in London was so that he could be dubbed by Her Majesty, who in the course of the recent Royal Visit [mentioned above] had been escorted by him in Kano, as she left the country.

The Emir had decided that he wished to converse with HM only in Arabic and had asked the Governor, Sir Gawain Bell, to interpret for him. Sir Gawain, for his part, was concerned that the Emir’s command of conversational–as opposed to religious–Arabic, might not prove up to the occasion. With great difficulty, therefore, he persuaded the Emir to agree that instead of himself, he should be accompanied to the Investiture by the Head of the Civil Service, Tim Johnston, whose command of several languages was impeccable.

Came the great day and the two were taken to the Palace for a Private Investiture that afternoon. This is the story which Tim Johnston related to me a couple of hours after the event:

“The Emir was clearly most impressed both by the grandeur of the surroundings and the solemnity of the occasion. Before Her Majesty arrived, he was rehearsed in the procedure and when all was ready the Queen entered the room and the Emir was brought forward and dubbed a Knight of the British Empire.

“When that ceremony was over, the Queen (who seemed to have a little crib sheet in the palm of her left hand) remarked that she and her husband had the most vivid remembrance of their visit to Kano, a sentiment which Johnston duly interpreted into Hausa.

“The Emir, however, was determined on upholding his intention to address his Queen only in the Language of Heaven and he replied ‘Alhamdulillahi, Alhamdulillahi, Alhamdulillahi,’ whereupon Johnston said ‘Ma’am! The Emir says ‘Praise be to God!’

“The Queen then said ‘We were very impressed by the magnificent array of four-thousand horsemen with which you greeted us, as well as by the even greater number that we had seen only a few days earlier at the Durbar in Kaduna.’ Again, Johnston duly interpreted this and again the Emir replied ‘Alhamdulillahi, Alhamdulillahi, Alhamdulillahi,’’ whereupon Tim once more said ‘Ma’am! The Emir says `Praise be to God!’

So it went on, until, finally, Her Majesty observed to Johnston, sotto voce ‘He isn’t much of a conversationalist, is he?’ and drew the proceedings to a close.

I shall miss my Queen.

Every so often, on Ricochet, someone writes a post asking us why we write, what we write for, or what we like to write about.  My standard response is, “I write to recreate worlds that I have lost.”  I don’t do it (I don’t think) because I’m a pathetic old fool who’s stuck in the past (not too much, anyway). I do it because sharing that past, and bringing it forward to the present day is–for me, and I hope for a few others–a way of taking it forward with us into the future. So we don’t forget.  And perhaps sometimes we learn a thing or two along the way.

Elizabeth II, an icon of a world we’ve lost, also somehow managed to stay current with this one.  The most famous excerpt from the speech she gave on her twenty-first birthday in 1947 is:

I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.

Boy howdy, did this young woman–who grew up with no inkling that one day (thanks to Uncle Edward and the “woman [he] loved”) she’d be awarded the grand prize of “Queen for a Lifetime” with no option of refusal–keep her word, or what?  Seventy-five years later, she died with her boots on:  Only forty-eight hours previously, in her last official act, she was seeing Boris out and Liz in.

But there’s another outtake from that young woman’s speech, one which might be more germane to her nation in its present day:

Most of you have read in the history books the proud saying of William Pitt that England had saved herself by her exertions and would save Europe by her example. But in our time we may say that the British Empire has saved the world first, and has now to save itself after the battle is won.

May she rest in peace.

God Save the United Kingdom.

God Save the King.

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