It's been a good time to be a tourist to the UK these past few days, what with pageantry, parades, multiple gun salutes, the lighting of commemorative beacons and all manner of sights to see. The reason is, of course, the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II.
After 64 years, 2 months and 14 days on the throne she has become so much part of the fabric of Britain as to be virtually synonymous with it – and thus thoroughly deserved all the pomp and circumstance she duly received.
Like many of her subjects, my impression of the Queen is largely predicated on little more than images of her on TV and in the papers, with the occasional glimpse of her in person, waving from the window of some passing motorcade, just to prove she’s real, which is exactly as it should be.
In an age when the private lives of world leaders are under scrutiny as never before, Her Majesty has somehow managed to retain both her mystique and her dignity. While many of her most illustrious predecessors can be conjured up in a few visual short cuts – Henry VIII with his girth and inelegant table manners, Elizabeth I with her chalk white visage and starched ruff, Victoria with her bustle and dyspeptic countenance – Britain’s reigning monarch remains intriguingly opaque, and 60 years on we know little more about her likes and dislikes than we did back in 1953. And therein, surely, lies the secret of her constitutional longevity.
Take, for example, last Thursday evening, when in front of the gates of Windsor Castle, her eldest son and heir to the throne, 67-year-old Prince Charles, paid tribute to her in front of an adoring crowd.
“Your Majesty,” he began in sober tones, before adding mischievously, “Mummy”. Whatever she made of being referred to in such starkly intimate terms in public we will never know, for her face remained an inscrutable mask throughout his speech.
During her reign she has presided over 12 British prime ministers, innumerable economic and political crises and profound changes both in the Commonwealth and in the world at large. Only once – in the autumn of 1997 – did it seem that perhaps her position, indeed even the future of the royal family itself, might be under threat.
This was of course in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car crash, when, for a few brief days, Her Majesty appeared to have lost her touch, choosing to remain sequestered in Balmoral Castle despite a tumultuous public clamour for her to return to London and join the unfolding emotional meltdown.
But return she did, and with her a sense of calm was restored. Yet if she misjudged the moment, who can blame her? I happened to be at a reception the day after Diana’s funeral attended by the then-prime minister Tony Blair, who confessed that recent events had passed in a blur, one in which he had only his instinct to guide him. “There was no manual to consult back at 10 Downing Street” was how he put it at the time. Nor, one suspects, at Buckingham Palace.
Twenty years on and the royal family are now as popular as ever. Despite her advanced years the Queen still attends nearly 300 official functions a year, and although she prefers flat soled shoes to high heels and is rumoured to find stairs a little more challenging than she once did, there’s precious little evidence of her slowing up. There’s been the inevitable speculation as to whether she might one day abdicate in favour of her son, but it seems unlikely. Abdication is neither in her nature nor her vocabulary.
Hers may indeed be a rarefied existence – the rumour that she once asked one of her attendants why it was that everywhere she went always smelt of fresh paint may not be entirely apocryphal – but it would be a brave punter who’d bet against her celebrating her 100th birthday a mere decade from now. In which case, I wonder; will she send herself an official telegram?
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer in London
On Twitter: @michael_simkins