What a week!
It started on a high with the publication of my latest book – Have You Eaten Rice Today? on September 6th. The launch came and went with laughter and champagne, a reading and the start of reviews trickling in.
Then September 8th brought the mind-numbing news that Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II had died. I, like much of the world, spent the day in tears – a part of me surprised at the intensity of emotion. Messages flitted through the ether to and from friends around the world as we shared our grief at the death of a remarkable woman.
I’ve been thinking about the words used to describe her in the press, from the public interviewed at the gates of Buckingham Palace, Balmoral, Windsor Castle, at the memorial service at St Paul’s. Words like fortitude, dignity, honour, duty. Powerful words. Words that to some might appear intimidating and yet beneath all the accolades trickles a wonderful sense of humour.
Think of her role at the London Olympics with James Bond – the filming, by all accounts a secret kept from even members of her family. Think of her now famous Paddington Bear skit – that charming twinkle, the twitch of her mouth, which hinted at a delighted guffaw. The unconditional joy her Corgis and horses gave her.
How many times, I wonder, did she have to swallow a comment, to control a reaction, to hold steady – not least when wearing a 5lb crown? But also through the dramas of family life, through the tragedies that have threatened to overwhelm the country, like the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster in which 116 children and 28 adults died as slurry engulfed them at school and in a row of houses; or the Dunblane school massacre in 1996. Throughout wars, heatwaves, floods, Brexit and COVID her presence remained steadfast.
Stories roll in. Anecdotes that speak to the effect the Queen has had, even two, three, four times removed, but somehow still personal. My cousin, when a child, wrote to her and received a response from her lady-in-waiting. Perhaps it was that response to a letter written to the Monarch that prompted a career in journalism – actions matter.
An American friend, Toni Lance, is an accomplished artist and bird rehabilitator who, in 1985, was commissioned to design and paint stamps for the British Virgin Islands and St. Vincent — the history of rum for the former, and birds of prey for the latter. A letter informed her that her artwork would be submitted “to the Palace for Her Majesty the Queen’s approval.” It was given.
My parents had the honour and privilege of meeting both the Queen and HRH the Prince of Edinburgh on a number of occasions – I have the embossed invitations to two, one for a reception in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the other for a similar event in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. My father was the British Honorary Consul in the Lae at the time. For those duties, and to trade and commerce, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. That ceremony at Buckingham Palace is the closest I ever got to the Queen.
However, I too had the honour to serve as Her Majesty’s Honorary Consul whilst living in Equatorial Guinea, West Africa. A very, very small part to play but one that nonetheless was a huge privilege, if at times a rather nerve-wracking one.
I spent yesterday in a haze, resentful I couldn’t be in Britain, couldn’t join the throngs walking along The Mall to Buckingham Palace. Just to be there. Unable to concentrate on anything more challenging than a jigsaw puzzle, I listened and watched as the news played across the screen, and felt hope as the King’s measured and affectionate words gave promise that the monarchy will continue, maybe differently, but still as an institution revered by many.
Word usage is my fascination, my business. Writing, rewriting, then editing again, and again, and again is what I do. Playing with words, with word sequence, until the sentences flow and the story settles into a cadence and order that pleases – until the next edit.
As I walked Stan this morning along the Boardwalk, water lapped steady and constant, a reminder that some things just are. Like the monarchy. That words like steadfast and duty are not dirty, but are what keep our world in order. I realised it is those words that underpin Have You Eaten Rice Today? The book mentions the death of the Queen’s father, George VI, in 1952 when Bob Thompson says:
“…the blighter is currently residing at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Changi, awaiting trail.” He looked down, smoke from his cigarette hiding his eyes. “I can’t get used to saying Her Majesty. A sad day for us all when the King died. May her reign be as beneficent.”
In the author’s note I wrote, “…this is a story of endurance, honour, duty and love —with those four things the world can be conquered.” It is perhaps a sentiment borne out by the life of Queen Elizabeth. May the words written in fiction resound in fact. May his reign be as beneficent.
God Save the King!