Today (June 2) in London History – 70 Years

The Queen was crowned on June 2, 1953. That signal event – and its 70th anniversary – is the subject of this Today in London History podcast.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Storytime. History time.

Chewy diphthongs. That’s how I describe my American accent.

Came over here all those years ago to read an English author – Charles Dickens. And write about him. A doctoral dissertation. 

That experience – and the several preceding years of feasting on English Lit in various and sundry university courses and seminars that the big degree provided the finishing touches to – that experience – I suppose – I hope – it sharpened up my reading skills. What professionals in that field call “close reading.” It’s what I did – amongst other things – for seven years or so.

And I still sometimes take a stab at it.

Like today. Close reading.

I’m looking at a pair of Evening Standard headlines. A main headline and a sub-headline.

Main headline reads: “London will come together to honour our Queen.” It’s got quotation marks – inverted commas, as Brits say –around it. Though it’s not clear who said it. Reading down through the story it looks as though it might be a summation – so, sort of a quote, I guess – of remarks made by Boris Johnson. So, close reading point Number One gives rise to a question: namely did the Standard journos working on the story intentionally obscure or uncouple or distance or bury the name of the author of those remarks because Boris Johnson is so divisive, not to say toxic at the moment? Would linking his name with the Queen and her big celebration in a sense devalue or besmirch the occasion?

One yardstick for getting the measure of this is the press’s handling of Tony Blair’s paying tribute to Princess Diana 25 years ago – his famous “people’s princess” speech. The timing of that speech was perfect and his remarks and delivery were so well-judged – it in effect pulled the House of Windsor’s chestnuts out of the fire. There’s no question but that speech had double-billing – it obviously was about the late Diana, Princess of Wales – but Tony Blair shared centre stage with her. A hugely different cup of tea from the press’s “positioning” of the current prime minister in relation to his remarks about the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Close reading point number two: I notice that possessive adjective “our” as in “our Queen” – it of course shades the meaning ever so slightly from the valence it would have had if he had designated her as “the Queen.” “Our Queen…the Queen.” “The” Queen distances her ever so slightly. And perhaps even more to the point, it distances us – not just from the Queen but from each other. “Our Queen” says “we’re all in this together, we’re part of this.” It speaks to that really powerful, basic human urge to belong, to be part of something bigger than our individual selves.

And then we come to the sub-title. It’s also a quote – and, yes, again, the speaker of the quote is subtly distanced. The subtitle reads: “PM: Capital will unite to pay tribute to an unprecedented 70 years of service”

That PM – here it’s the acronym for Prime Minister – that PM is very easy to miss – or for that matter easy to misread. It could be “PM” as in the afternoon. The capital in the afternoon of the Platinum Jubilee. 

The Evening Standard’s not coming very clean about attribution. 

They’re being a little bit cagey, a little bit shy about naming names here. Earlier this week the distinguished political columnist Andrew Rawnsley described Alex Pfeffel Johnson as our “party animal prime minister” and I’d say the Evening Standard has been at pains here to socially distance his brand from the Queen’s brand.

So all of that is mildly interesting. 

But I really stubbed my toe on that subtitle: “the capital will unite to pay tribute to an unprecedented 70 years of service.”

Let’s apply the close reading test.

First of all, will the capital unite? Well, millions will. But certainly not everybody. There’ll be people who aren’t interested or who are bored with the whole thing or who have other things to do. There’s a small but noisy minority contingent of anti-monarchists. They want to see the whole show go into the dustbin of history. They won’t be uniting. Moving on, the close reader in me had a good soak in that word “service” – an unprecedented 70 years of service. 

I think it would have been more accurate to say an “unprecedented 70-year reign.”

Here’s why. The word “service” was originally a French word. It jumped ship just over 900 years ago – round about the year 1100. And here’s the toe stubber – the French word it comes from meant “act of homage, servitude, service at a table”. And if you probe deeper you find that that very old French word derives from the much older Latin word servitium, meaning “slavery, condition of a slave, servitude.”

It’s surely a bit of a stretch to see that set of conditions as being in any way applicable to her Britannic Majesty.

I turned this over and over in my mind today and in the end I concluded that if it is hugely important for us – and it appears to be – if it is hugely important to us to feel that we belong to something bigger, that we’re a part of the whole, well then a service is being provided. I just can’t help but wonder though – this is maybe the American in me – is the whole phenomenon empty calories, so to speak. A momentary bit of feel-good that actually has precious little to do with us in any real sense.

It occurred to me that that phrase “pay tribute” is also a hand-hold in this particular exercise. Johnson means it in a vague woolly sense here – but of course there is a sense in which it is literally the case that we pay tribute to the royal family. It can be calculated in pounds and pence. What’s called the Sovereign Grant Accounts says the Royal Family costs each of us about £1.30 a year. So for my family of five that works out at about £6.50 from us. It’s actually more of course because the figure assumes that all 66 million Britons are each chipping in £1.30. Which is patently not the case – two-year-olds aren’t having to dip into their piggy banks.

And Sovereign Grant Accounts is a conservative estimate. The campaign group Republic says the full annual cost of the British Monarchy is at least £345,000,000 million a year – which works out at about £5.23 per person. Or £26 a year for us as a family. Again, that has to be pro-rated – pro-rated up – because two-year-olds are not being hit up for £26 a year.

So, I suppose it’s everybody’s individual call whether they’re getting value for money. Empty calories or otherwise, it if makes people feel better – even temporarily – because it pours balm on some deep-seated need to have a sense of belonging – an instinct or need to all march one way – as Shakespeare put it – well, then it probably is value for money. And a lifetime of graciously meeting millions of strangers – that I think is probably a form of servitude. So service might be the right word. Providing it’s understood that the other side of that same coin is inconceivable wealth and privilege. 

In perhaps the most telling phrase in her new book, Serious Money – a book that is chock-a-block with telling phrases – Caroline Knowles says, “I try to imagine a person who expects to get exactly what they want, when they want it, and what it would do to them to always have these demands met.”

Well, be that as it may, here’s a corollary thought – anonymity is the crown almost all the rest of us wear. And it might be a better deal than the crown Her Britannic Majesty wears. For me personally, the thought of 70 years of strangers pawing at me – the thought of a lifetime in which there’s not even one instance – I’m choosing my words carefully here – not even one instance of “going out” that’s not a “public appearance”, what an insupportable thought. What a form of servitude. If that last reflection didn’t hit home, maybe rewind it and put the phrases “going out” and “public appearance” in inverted commas. That should do it.

And the phrase “strangers pawing at her” – it’s obviously not literally the case – though “reaching out” to her when she makes a public appearance isn’t too far off that mark. But psychologically that’s what it must feel like. Multitudes of people pawing at her. And that can’t be a good feeling.

Ok, the Queen was crowned on June 2, 1953. So that’s our Today in London History selection for today. 

I’m not going to join the mighty chorus here, not going to put out the party line.

We’re London Walks so we’ll do something a little different. Give you something you won’t get anywhere else. In this instance, talk about a bottle of whisky. For Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee ten years ago the distiller Johnny Walker produced its Johnny Walker Diamond Jubilee edition. It was whisky that had aged 60 years. The distiller only produced 61 bottles. Each of them was a dramatic crystal decanter with a sterling silver collar set with a single diamond. Accompanied with a pair of hand-engraved crystal glasses and a personalised leather-bound artefact book, all housed in a bespoke cabinet made of wood from the Balmoral and Sandringham estates.

The Queen was given the first edition. The remaining 60 bottles were made available for private sale. At £100,000 each. That was ten years ago.

What I’m wondering is: has the Queen cracked it open yet and had a tipple? If there’s some left – well, it’s aged a further ten years now. Time to raise another glass? And the bean counter in me would like to know what the price tag would be today? And how many swallows of the stuff are there in that decanter? What’s it work out at? One swallow, how many thousands of pounds is that slipping down our throat? 

And you may have just heard the most exquisite, the most gracious usage ever of that possessive adjective “our” – most exquisite ever because it doubled as a royal “we.”

And on that note, here’s your Today in London recommendation. The rebel, the rogue in me is tempted to say – go on, get away from it all, go for a wander far from the madding crowd. A walk on Hampstead Heath, for example.

But no, there won’t be another chance in your lifetime – head on in and unite with the rest of the capital. Get yourself some bragging rights – I was there.

And that brings us to sign-off time.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The London Walking tour company that, uniquely, fronts its walks with accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that journalist put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *