The Queen is dead, long live The King?
Queen Elizabeth II (Photo: AFP)

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has provoked worldwide sympathies and sadness, coupled with a deep sense of loss of an image distinguished by the dedication, loyalty, grace, and exceptional composure and self-assurance that exemplified her reign.

I am no royalist, but I have always confessed to an avid interest in the antics of the British Royal Family — never mind the symbolism, the political insignificance, and the lack of relevance to our social and historical realities and environment.

I make no secret of the fact that I have always been intrigued by the well-ordered traditions, pomp and ceremony so well displayed by the British in matters of State. And I am both amused and fascinated by the pageantry and the spectacle, and marvel and admire the precision and meticulous planning when managing their ceremonial events.

So, make no mistake about it, I will be one of the estimated two billion people from around the globe who will be watching the state funeral, and later the coronation, on television. In fact I go back to some of my earlier media columns that documented my admiration for the way in which that family has continued to defy the changing cultures and patterns that have elsewhere abandoned the notion of kings and queens.

All our prime ministers have, at politically opportune moments, sworn off against the constitutional monarchy system of government adopted by Jamaica which positions the king or queen as our symbolic head of state. Surprise, surprise, I too have strong feelings against a continuation of that state of affairs, but I am not going to allow it to affect my regard and respect for British ceremony.

We like to quarrel about the relationship with the monarchy, but when The Queen shows up a jolly good time is had by all. In spite of all the protestations, Jamaicans of all persuasions have been known to fall over one another for a chance to be invited to a King's House reception. And we have become accustomed to royal visits.

When the young queen and the duke first visited Jamaica in 1953, guess who was on the invitation list. Believe it or not, yours truly was invited to one of the functions. Now never mind that I shared the invitation list with 20,000 other schoolchildren who were trucked from all parts of Jamaica into Kingston for a rally in honour of The Queen at Sabina Park. We stood for hours at that tender age in long lines stretched across the cricket field, waving our tiny red, white and blue flags (the Union Jack) and singing, "Rule Britannia", coupled with Linstead Market and Dis long time gal me neva see yuh.

I remember spotting the royal couple standing in a Land Rover as they drove up and down waving to all and sundry, but more special to my memory is the huge ice cream cone and patty which we were given for lunch after the parade at, I think, the Dairy Farmers' mid-town restaurant before heading back to the country.

Yessir, it was 1953 and The Queen was here making her second stop on a royal introductory tour of her Commonwealth countries. It was clear that Jamaica's status as a 'British possession' was to be clearly understood and maintained even as the folk dancing and the merrymaking took centre stage.

The newspaper of the day waxed effusive and eloquent: "Let the people cheer. Let their voices ring out on the plains and from the mountaintops in giving out shouts and acclamation of their adherence to the great British monarchy in whose history has been written our own charter of potential promise."

The upper crusts in the society, bastions of the British colonial establishment, would have their coming out parties at King's House and the like, while the ordinary people would stand and cheer.

And cheer we did. More than 5,000 turned out to welcome the royal couple as their BOAC Stratocruiser landed at the Montego Bay airport on November 25. Hundreds of thousands more lined the 120-mile route to Kingston as the royal motorcade stopped or slowed at Falmouth, Discovery Bay (where she officially opened the Queen's Highway), St Ann's Bay, Ocho Rios, Moneague, Linstead, Bog Walk, and Spanish Town.

Kingston city was lit up with 7,000 decorative lights installed in Cross Roads, Half-Way Tree, Spanish Town Road, and downtown. Bonfires blazed on the hills, and parades, receptions, speeches, concerts and a King's House dinner tested the mettle of the 26-year-old queen and found her well prepared for her long reign.

The programme went smoothly, but not without moments of humour and incident. Radio Jamaica's Roy Lawrence shocked listeners with his famous glitch when he announced during a live broadcast that Sir Hugh Foot, the affable English governor, had "lifted his foot to the queen".

Years later Louise Bennett had us laughing at recollections of the nose veils, long gloves, scissors tail, bustle frock and fedders 'jus a show off on royalty'.

Elizabeth and Phillip won the hearts of Jamaicans with their first visit. During their subsequent visits — 1966, 1975, 1983, 1994, and 2002 — Jamaicans of all walks of life turned out on the streets and in the ballrooms to show them love.

They led an exemplary early family life, with their three lusty sons and daughter Anne often pictured around the hearth, on the lawns, waving from the gallery, and romping with each other as ordinary families do.

Her sister Margaret was also a popular royal, and during the 50s she was the life of the party in London's fashionable West End where she was often photographed at bohemian nightclubs dancing, chain-smoking, and downing champagne.

The Queen herself may not have been in line for succession if her uncle, Edward VIII, in one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century, had not given up the throne to his brother and her father in 1936, in order to be free to marry the woman he loved. The lady in question was Wallis Simpson, a twice divorced American, whose love affair with the king continued after he ascended the throne on January 20, 1936.

Edward's determined efforts to marry his commoner sweetheart ran into stiff opposition from the Church of England and the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. In a touching radio broadcast on December 11, he announced his abdication, stating that he found it impossible to discharge his duties as king "without the help and support of the woman he loved".

The British, who had been upset with Simpson's intrusion into the royal family, were happy to see the back of her, but the Americans who had supported the union were peeved.

America considered it a snub and took delight in shafting royalty with some irreverent but amusing take-offs. One priceless bit of theatre has an aging Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in their rocking chairs with The Queen worrying that "Charles has not been looking too well lately."

"I know," says Phillip. "He still thinks he is going to become king."

Well that day has finally arrived, and the Prince Charles that we have grown up with over the years is now King Charles III. He will be welcomed in the traditional manner, but already the pundits are predicting a rocky start for a man who misbehaved during his first marriage, and who must have saddened his mother as he separated himself from the role model example that she had set for her son and heir.

With the role of the monarchy at present under the microscope, questions arise as to whether Charles' earlier mis-steps can withstand the slings and arrows of a scandalous period in his life that is bound to haunt him as he takes up responsibilities as the titular head of the Church of England and to act as a focus for national identity, unity and pride.

He can. For all his life he has been prepared for this role as King of England and head of the Commonwealth. He loved his mother dearly, as does the rest of the royal family, and will not let down her legacy. But Elizabeth will be a hard act to follow.

As the world pauses to mourn and to give thanks, we will gather to pay tribute to one of the greatest figures in world history. The state funeral, and later the coronation, will have all the mystique and fantasies of a fairy tale, as well as the solemnity befitting the rites of passage from one monarch to the other.

There will be governors generals and prime ministers — including, we assume, our own Sir Patrick and the Andrew Holness — mingling with crowned heads from Europe and elsewhere, and an estimated 2,000 invited guests. There will be state carriages, royal trains, glittering tiaras studded with real diamonds, morning coats and stiff upper lips, and crowds to line the processional routes.

In spite of our shadow boxing and sensitivity over her position as head of State, we still enjoyed the love affair. And, in return, she did appear to love this country and was always relaxed and at ease here.

Lance Neita is a writer and historian who likes to think of himself as a pretender to the throne. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com.

Lance Neita

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