She does not look like a woman who has undertaken more than 260 state visits, launched 23 ships, shaken millions of clammy hands and suffered at least one annus horribilis. If anything, as she greets guests under a hot sun at her annual Buckingham Palace garden party, Queen Elizabeth II, 86, looks crisper than wilted subjects half her age.
You might think of her as the hardest working monarch in show business. In the months leading up to this weekend’s Diamond Jubilee, celebrating her 60 years on the throne, the Queen and Prince Philip, 90, have undertaken a gruelling trip around Britain, with glamorous highlights such as “lunch hosted by Swindon borough council.” In Liverpool, they gamely rode something called a Yellow Duckmarine, which is essentially half tour bus, half boat.
At the garden party – 8,000 people scarfing an average of 14 tiny cakes and sandwiches each – the Queen does what she does best, which is to pretend that there’s nothing she’d rather be doing than making small talk with an accountant from Nottingham. Wearing a lavender skirt suit and hat (always fastened with three pins, according to the royal milliner), she stops to shake hands with bishops and ambulance drivers, mayors and Scout leaders.
“I’d just like to know what she’s on,” says Sheila Fitzpatrick, 85, who sits with a group of war widows picking delicately at a tray of Dundee cakes. These women are the Queen’s contemporaries, and like her they carry the frugal gene of the wartime generation.
“She’s steadfast, she never changes,” says Irene Giles, 89, a war veteran. “She’s a good Christian lady, and proud of it. She’s a wonderful symbol for Britain.”
“For the world,” adds Mrs. Fitzpatrick.
Indeed, the Queen’s implacable forward momentum seems to have restored the lustre to “brand Windsor,” which was so badly damaged by divorce and scandal in the 1990s. A recent poll suggested that 80 per cent of British people wanted to keep the monarchy, with only 13 per cent favouring a switch to a republic. In Canada, a survey earlier this month showed that 51 per cent of respondents want to keep the Queen as head of state, though that figure drops to 24 per cent in Quebec.
This relentless image-polishing is the work of many hands operating behind the scenes: The most popular young royals, Princes William and Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge, are all being sent on goodwill tours to the far corners of the Commonwealth. To mark the jubilee, the two young princes gave Katie Couric an interview about their grandmother: “She’s set an incredible example to me,” William said, admitting that it was “terrifying” to contemplate following in her footsteps.
Meanwhile, in the country where the Queen has given out 78,000 Christmas puddings and has 15 bridges named after her, a massive four-day party is planned. Stores are filled with Diamond Jubilee tat – what the British call kitsch. One may purchase toilet paper and dishwasher tablets wrapped in the Union Flag, as well as corgi cake stands, and special edition chocolate bars (the Brit Kat) and Marmite (Ma’amite, which comes with the slogan, “One either loves it or one hates it”).
On the official side of things, this weekend brings an all-you-can-eat buffet for fans of royalty. There will be a vast river pageant, a concert at Buckingham Palace and a ceremonial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, with the Royal Family in attendance. Keenly aware that this might seem like overkill in a recessionary time, palace advisers have quietly been pushing the message that the Queen does not want the Jubilee celebrations to be a drain on the public purse (the $16.7-million river pageant is being privately funded).
As well, the advisers insist that the Queen does not want to force anyone to celebrate. Scots appear to be taking this to heart, since fewer than a hundred street parties are planned in Scotland, as opposed to more than 6,000 in England.
But, as the Buckingham Palace garden party proves, the Queen’s fans are found in the least likely parts of her realm. “I’ve wanted to meet her my whole life,” says Shirley Hawkes from Omagh in Northern Ireland, a city most famous for a devastating Real IRA bomb that killed 29 people in 1998. Ms. Hawkes entered a draw at work to win an invitation.
Is she the only royalist in her neck of the woods? The feathers on Ms. Hawkes’s hat flutter as she shakes her head firmly. “You’ll hear people say they’re against the Queen, but they’re really not. How could they be?”