Most Italians I know are currently fuming at the idea that public money will be spent this weekend on two events: a parade to celebrate Republic Day and the papal visit in Milan.
They are, quite rightly, outraged that at a time of harsh economic times – that have seen cuts to jobs and public services, a raise in tax as well as two earthquakes demolishing part of Emilia Romagna – the government has chosen to spend money to celebrate the army and the head of the Vatican church, one of the richest states in the world.
Switch to Britain and, on this same weekend, despite a horrible weather forecast, months of recession, and a government threatening to privatise most public services (ups, I meant “modernise”, of course) the whole country is in a frenzy waiting to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
Four days of street parties, parades and pageants including 1000 boats floating along the Thames in honour of the 60 years of reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
My fellow Italians and most non Brits people fail to understand such devotion to an old woman in pastel dresses, who seems to be doing nothing other than waving gently and smiling in silence, living in fairytale luxury at the expenses of her “subjects”.
But after years living in London I am beginning to understand the British people’s relationship with their Queen.
They can’t give a toss about their prime ministers, that’s for sure. They don’t wave flags at soldiers like the Americans. Generally speaking, they are more likely to feel embarrassed than excited in front of patriotism. However, they love old Betsie.
This is what playwright David Hare wrights today in “The Guardian”:
“…Today’s festivities coincide with the worst economic crisis for 80 years, brought about, we should remember, by the failure of the political class to offer the country even a modest degree of protection from a rampantly destructive City of London… At the centre of these celebrations will be a woman who, since the Theatres Act of 1968, it has been legal to impersonate. This may well be because the Queen is herself an actor, and an extremely accomplished one…. But it is also because we tend to project on to her very inscrutability attitudes of our own which we no doubt wrongly assume she shares. In drama as in life, the secret of her power has been her silence. If she has seemed by her unelected glare to express her contempt for the elected – her irritation with the present crop of seedy parliamentarians seems obvious – then the Queen’s mood has indeed matched our own. As democracy’s fortunes have fallen, hers have risen….
… The Queen is perceived today to be where we might all wish to be – floating some way above the stink. And for that reason the young woman who was phoned on safari in Kenya in 1952 and told to come home immediately is 60 years later overwhelmingly popular. We are grateful that there is one British citizen who is not at the mercy of market forces and shameless profiteering, nor of a government which lacks the philosophy, the intellectual equipment or the will to control them. What was in happier times the Queen’s greatest weakness – that she does not in the circumstances of her life resemble her subjects – has paradoxically, at this point in our history, come to be her greatest strength…. The vestigial idealism which has recently settled on the Queen’s shoulders is a parallel instinct to that which demands television programmes not about rubbish and a publicly funded health service, where the fit pay cheerfully to help the sick. God knows, that public idealism has few enough other places to go.”
I believe Hare is 100% right. Yes, the Queen is privileged, yes she lives in a palace paid by her subjects’ taxes, yes she has no real power and therefore apparently no real use, but exactly because of all this, and because of her life (not her children’s, hers) being so private, so discreet, so dignified, so far from the horrible society the politicians, the banks and the TV and media moguls have created, she can be seen as a beacon of stability, old fashioned dignity, and self respect.
Prime ministers and presidents come and go, but Elizabeth has remained, for 60 years, comforting and smiling like a Madonna.
Her children and grandchildren have sold their soul to the devil and become celebrities posing in designer clothes, getting drunk in funky bars, giving interviews about their private lives, and generally choosing a lifestyle more similar to a footballer’s than a fairytale character’s.
There’s nothing more cringe-worthy than a filthy rich, privileged, uber famous person complaining about their life. “Oh, all those paparazzi, it’s a nightmare… And the responsibility of being a role model…” Oh please!!! Would you prefer to be a bus driver or a hospital cleaner? Give us a break!!
But Elizabeth, like our grandmothers and all those women who grew up through the war and were inculcated the idea of self sacrifice and of embracing their duty in silence – whether housewives or queens – never for a second protested for being given the responsibility of being an icon.
We don’t know what she felt when her father died during her honeymoon and she was called back to London to become “The Queen”. We don’t know if she’s ever wanted out. We don’t know what she feels for that weird husband of hers… We don’t know and we never will because she always knew better than lowering herself to the role of celebrity talking about her private business.
This is no world for old queens. And the only way to stay one is to become a flag. A symbol, not a person. A fantasy character embodying an ideal. England. She is England as England has probably never been but would like to be remembered as, in the year 3500, when Earth will be a region of an inter-galactic Union: discreet, noble, quietly self contained, a country in pastel colours.
I’m a feminist and from a personal point of view I have more sympathy for revolutionary rebels covered in dirt than silent queens in ivory towers.
But if you choose to be a queen, old Betsy’s is the only way to be.
So let her float along with her 1000 flotilla along the Thames tomorrow, surrounded by waving wet crowds.
The Pope and the army in Italy can only wish for such a triumph