The Royals have been all over the news lately, what with the kerfuffle over Harry and Meghan followed by the death of Prince Philip. American viewers of The Crown consider themselves experts on the British Monarchy now, but there was a time when I was presumed an expert just because I am English. I did not grow up a Royalist though. Here is my confession, involving an old-fashioned loo, a taste for lead, and Her Majesty’s nose, adapted from a piece first published in The Dabbler in 2013.
The most irritating thing about being a Brit in America is the expectation that I must be as enamored of the Royal family as Americans are. Americans seem to have put resentment of King George III firmly behind them and follow all the ups and downs of royal news like a long running soap opera. Even better than Downton Abbey. I am often called upon to join in the gushing adulation and answer questions as a presumed expert on all things royal. Perhaps it is proof that I have remained English to the core that I can do so only with a heavy dose of ironic detachment.
I was a teenager in the 1960’s when all the old values of empire, duty, king, and country came under assault. It was the age of satire. The comedy news show That Was The Week That Was shaped my worldview (I had a crush on David Frost). My father, whose oft-repeated admonition was “if you can’t say anything good about someone, say nothing,” nevertheless called the Royal family “parasites.” He thought the money expended on the Royals should be used to help the poor. My mother was Belgian so she had no strong feelings for or against the British Royals and never displayed any particular feeling for her own King Baudouin. I remember the Queen being a figure of fun in my household. We listened to the traditional Christmas radio address just to laugh at her strained hoity-toity accent. My school friends and I joked about growing up to marry Prince Charles (we were the exact same age) and what a dreadful fate that would be. Among university students the Royals were regarded as an embarrassing anachronism surely soon to be swept away. I was never really around anyone who loved the Royal family until I crossed the pond to this former rebellious colony.
So for those who would like to know if I have memories of the Coronation in 1953, the answer is yes, I do. But they may not be the kind of memories you imagined. I didn’t watch the pageantry on television; we didn’t have one. And I wasn’t taken up to London to join the throngs cheering the new Queen in the streets. At five years old I was considered too young for such an expedition. Surprisingly, my father did go up to London leaving my sister and I at home with our mother. Perhaps his anti-monarchy opinions had not yet hardened. I remember him coming home bringing us little Union Jacks as mementos and telling my mother about the huge crowds.
But my strongest memory of the Coronation is The Unfortunate Case of the Queen’s Nose. For the one and only time in my life I won a competition, a coloring competition in a children’s magazine. I’ve never been able to draw anything much more artistic than a stick figure, but as a meek obedient child I was very good at coloring neatly inside the lines. To celebrate the coronation the magazine invited children to color a picture of the Queen’s coach in royal procession. I can remember just how I bent over the page with my freshly sharpened coloring pencils and meticulously filled in each area of the scene. A few weeks later a surprise parcel came for me in the post. I had won first place! My prize was a commemorative book about the coronation and a plaster bust of the Queen. But that is not the end of the story…
A couple of years later we moved into our new council house and somehow the bust of the Queen ended up on the upstairs windowsill just outside the loo. Perhaps it is a measure of how little she was treasured that we didn’t put her on prominent display in the living room or even among the religious iconography in my bedroom. (I was terrified of the picture of my patron saint, St. Rita, shown with blood dripping down her face from the Crown of Thorns). No, the Queen was relegated to the unofficial loo waiting area. In a large family with one loo we often found ourselves impatiently hanging about on the landing awaiting our turn. The loo was the old kind with a tank up at ceiling height, which sounded like Niagara Falls when flushed, a welcome signal that our turn was up. I spent many idle moments lolling about with my elbows leaning on the windowsill watching the world go by. It happened that in this position the Queen’s nose was just about at my mouth level. How it started I don’t know, but once I had the first taste of the sweetish plaster I was hooked. No doubt it contained lead. I would nibble at the nose a little bit each time I waited there. I don’t know if any of my siblings ever partook of the royal nose. Perhaps it was all my doing. By the time I left home the Queen’s bust looked like one of those Ancient Egyptian sculptures with the nose broken off. Whenever I came home over the years, there she was, a reminder of my puzzling youthful addiction and flagrant lack of respect for my sovereign.
Now I’ve made this confession I hope the statute of limitations has passed and I won’t be charged as a traitor to the Royal family when I next visit England. I remember hearing that if you stuck a postage stamp on a letter with the Queen’s head upside down you could be arrested. Surely consuming the Queen’s nose is worse. But rounding up traitors for such symbolic crimes sounds more like something that would have happened in the reign of the first Elizabeth. I am sure if I had eaten her nose I would have been hung, drawn, and quartered.
On the other hand, since Americans love the Queen so much, maybe I am no longer safe here in her former colony.