When a Queen, stepping out of a limousine, glances up briefly, surreptitiously, to a rooftop, what does it mean? What is she looking for? Why is she concealing her glance?
We all live in many worlds, none more so than heads of state whose public appearances are complex, carefully scripted public relations events. What we don’t see can be as important, or more so, than the speeches and soundbites.
Danger is often part of the equation, but it is carefully stage managed. We expect the police escorts and military pomp, but what of the actual danger itself? And what is the toll it takes on these public figures we may idolize or vilify, depending?
The Queen and Prince Philip visited Nova Scotia in August 1994. One morning they would perform a ceremony on the Dartmouth waterfront. Max Brennan, publisher of Silver magazine, and I were working at Atlantic Progress magazine in Dartmouth at the time. We took the two-minute stroll down to the waterfront and waited for the Queen to arrive. Her motorcade pulled up and the Queen stepped out of a long black limousine.
As she did, her eyes moved quickly to the tops of the surrounding buildings. I followed her gaze and saw several black-garbed figures holding rifles, crouched mostly out of sight, part of the security detail, but mostly hidden from view.
I looked around and didn’t see anyone else following her gaze. In that instant I realized that she had lived much of her life under unrelenting scrutiny and not a small amount of danger. It came with the territory.
I had grown up with the Queen, so to speak. Her photograph was in the schools, the post offices and other public buildings. We sang God Save the Queen at school. She was a beautiful woman whose intelligence, poise, and wisdom radiated out from the images. We took her for granted – and also the stability she represented.
Whether you approve of the British monarchy or not, it’s hard to deny that Queen Elizabeth II lived most of her life defined by a very old-fashioned concept that seems almost quaint today – a sense of duty.
While she enjoyed wealth and a certain limited power and the lifestyle perks that came with it, the pressure to represent her largely ceremonial status as head of state was unrelenting. Over the decades she performed more than 20,000 official functions.
All this was not possible without a lot of self-discipline and self-sacrifice. She was always well informed in current affairs, with a long list of prime ministerial advisers going back to Winston Churchill, with whom she did not always agree.
Indeed, her fate was entwined with Churchill’s, the man who warned of the danger of Hitler as far back as 1932. No-one was listening. In fact, fascism was popular in many circles, including the upper classes, and it is back in vogue today. Democracy, the fragile handmaiden of freedom, is in danger everywhere you look.
Elizabeth saw leading figures on the world stage come and go. As head of the Commonwealth, she supported an end to apartheid in South Africa, a modern humanist view of equal rights that Prime Minister Thatcher, among many others, did not share.
As the decades passed, the eras she lived through telescoped, with Britain and the world transforming again and again through wars and revolutions, social and technological changes, and now, ecological devastation that is showing just how linked we are on this lonely planet.
This morning I spoke to Yogi Yogendra Mishra in Rishikesh, India after our zoom meditation session. Flags are at half-mast here, he said. Although India became independent in 1950, it remains part of the Commonwealth.
England brought many benefits to India, said Yogiji: an international language, improved education, irrigation, the end of feuding among all the small kingdoms. The Queen herself was well loved in many quarters.
He paused. “Let’s have two minutes of silence to help her soul move on.”
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David Holt is the editor of Silver Magazine.