I think I remember the day well: early February 1952. It was the spring term of my first year at Cambridge and I was attending an economics lecture. Suddenly, an official entered the lecture hall, approached the lecturer with a message. He then turned to us all and delivered the news: King George VI was dead. There was an intake of breath: we were shocked. News was slow and remote in those days and the royals another world. The lecture came to an abrupt end and we all piled out into the streets to meet others similarly dismissed. In my memory – though the timescale may be wrong – we all surged towards the Senate House where heralds in red uniforms and city worthies proclaimed the new monarch. We heard the phrase “God save the Queen” for the first time: How odd it sounded, “Queen” . . . a woman on the throne.
Only two colleges provided for women in those days – Newnham and Girton; every other college was exclusively male. Back in Newnham’s Peile Hall we were excited by the idea of a queen, especially one called Elizabeth II. “We must be the new Elizabethans,” someone suggested and was quickly hushed up and told “not to be so soppy”. The newspapers were soppy, though, and there were soon journalists from London asking around about who was likely to be a high achiever.
As I recall, we were too high-minded to engage with such chatter. We were serious young women loving our studies, enjoying the new freedoms that had come with peacetime (the war was only six years over) and resolved to make the world a better place.
A year later, and the coronation loomed. By now I had transformed from a reticent adorer of the establishment into something of an outraged anarchist. Television was relatively rare at the time, but Newnham had a single television set in the junior common room where students would watch transmission of the day-long broadcast. But I was not to be one of them. I had more serious things to attend to. Not my economic studies, but the play we were currently rehearsing. I belonged to the Mummers, one of the university’s drama groups. Not the prime one, the ADC, where members tended to have a theatrical career in their sights and where Peter Hall was emerging as the presiding genius. The Mummers were serious, but not that serious. And we thought the coronation was a frivolous distraction. So we rehearsed all day, emerging only in the evening to join celebrations at the Eagle, which, like other pubs, had an extension of licence. Even so, I had to be back in college by 10pm.
In the days and months that followed, versions of the coronation were rebroadcast, so I hadn’t missed out and I was keen to catch up with what everyone else was declaring a national triumph. I faced then what turned out to be a lifelong paradox. I might disapprove of monarchy in the abstract but I was intrigued by the soap opera of the royal lives. After all, as a teenager, I had cut from newspapers pictures of Princess Elizabeth in her gorgeous wedding dress: she was the epitome of glamour at the time, with access to a seemingly endless parade of fashionable clothes, while we were still stuck with the drabness of austerity. Being royal then bestowed on her a kind of religious magic; we believed she was in some way unlike other mortals, a feeling that was widespread until the 1969 documentary Royal Family opened up the Windsors to the plebeian gaze and showed that in certain respects – shopping, cooking sausages – they were really quite like us.
When the living is easy
For decades, the Queen has lived a life that follows carefully scheduled and delineated lines.
It differentiates her entirely from the rest of us. Primarily, the Queen is never late. It follows that she must never be in a hurry, never trying to cram too much into the day. So I imagine that, apart from the headline family crises, her daily life has been consistently stress-free. Not for her the headlong rush to pack school lunch and get the children off to school before dashing for the bus or Tube, scattering notes hither and yon for those deputed to repair this and see to that. Nor the hasty shop on the way home, the lunge into the kitchen and the evening meal. I am not one for envy but sometimes the smooth running of her life does look like some sort of idyll.
It was wonderful for us that she became Queen at such a young age. It gave a certain lightness to the nation. Perhaps, we began to think, decisions about life need not rest solely with solemn old men in suits who seemed far more remote than this smiling, happy young woman. She and I have lived through the greatest social change of modern times – the emergence of women into freedom and power. It is still going on. And so are we. I marvel at how she accepted so willingly a destiny governed by protocol and restrained by tradition. Whereas I and other women of my generation have been increasingly free to make a patchwork of our lives, much to our own choosing. My anarchist instincts are long gone, though I would still like to change the world for the better. But I make the effort today from within one of the most persistent parts of the establishment: the House of Lords. How odd life turns out to be.
Joan Bakewell is an author and broadcaster