By Paula Thelwell
NOTWITHSTANDING the remarkable events that will forever define the ten days of national mourning following the sudden death of Queen Elizabeth II, I am still in a state of disbelief.
The late monarch may have physically deteriorated over many months, seeming to shrink in size – if not stature – with each rarer public appearance, yet her passing was nonetheless a shock.
Having been a constant of British life for nine decades she seemed invincible and there was an assumption that she would go on for ever.
Immortality is an impossibility and at the age of 96, her years were numbered by the laws of nature. The only certainty in the passage of life from birth is death.
Yet even as her coffin was drawn along a mile-and-a-quarter-long funeral procession through London – and later in the day down the Long Walk in Windsor Great Park, I found myself repeating: ‘I can’t believe it.’
American journalist and socialist John Reed penned Ten Days That Shook the World as his firsthand account of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia. The title has been borrowed many times since.
But the period of national mourning between the late Queen’s passing and her state funeral were ten days that paused life throughout the British Isles.
It was similar to the pandemic lock-down measures but in reverse, with people forgetting the many current troubles to come together and reflect on what she stood for and how her influence spread across the globe.
Moreover, it was a relief that politicians were forced to contain their egos as government and decision-making were put on hold as a mark of respect.
Websites and search engines adopted funereal black home pages. Businesses and venues, supermarkets and independent stores displayed respectful messages and universally closed on the bank holiday created at short notice for the day of the funeral and committal services.
It was the least a grateful, respectful and loyal people could do for a sovereign who dedicated her life from the age of 21 to the service of her country and subjects.
A trail-blazing woman, the most influential in the world – but in a mild-mannered and selfless fashion; the least egotistical of any head of state, living or dead.
Until the events that unfolded after Buckingham Palace announced on 8 September, that ‘The Queen died peacefully at Balmoral this afternoon’, I was convinced that such sentiments – once at the heart of British life – were being consigned to history.
We live in the world of social media, ill-informed comment, fake news and an erosion of freedom of speech by the perpetually offended – deaf to all views contrary to their own.
Reality TV shows and the so-called celebrities they spawn symbolise the shallowness of appearance over substance, while Her Late Majesty’s last government was dominated by self-interest rather than the common good, led by a prime minister in Boris Johnson who misled her in his attempt to suspend parliament.
It has become trendy to sneer at the core values that underpinned Queen Elizabeth II’s reign: service, loyalty, dedication, respect and patriotism.
The outpouring of grief, the millions who lined country roads and city streets or queued for hours to catch a glimpse of or file past her coffin, reinstated those core values at the forefront of British life as billions around the world looked on.
Yet again, we were proud to be British and we were not afraid to show it.
The pageantry, pomp and circumstance, tradition and rituals of the various processions in Scotland, London and Windsor painted a colourful tapestry. It was militaristic, at times almost medieval and none more poignant than on the final part of her long journey from Balmoral to Windsor.
Accompanied on foot and horseback by devoted staff, retainers and loyal troops – against the counterpoint of military bands and pipers, the mournful tolling of a bell and gunfire – the monarch and Commander in Chief was taken home to her castle.
Not forgetting the private person she was, her faithful pony and beloved corgis also paid their respects.
Until a few years ago, as an ardent republican I would have been among the naysayers.
Then I underwent an Elizabethan conversion that further evolved into an acceptance of the Duchess of Cornwall becoming queen.
A pretty radical transformation for one who had held such forthright views.
It had taken over half a century but the late Queen had finally worked her magic on me.
Elizabeth II may have been a constant and reassuring presence for seven decades, but she appreciated the need for change and progress by responding to the wishes of her subjects when transformation was required.
She even achieved the feat of embracing social media while keeping her opinions and private life to herself, and mastered Zoom to maintain her all-important public profile during lockdowns.
We are richer for her life and poorer by her passing.
In the words of Paddington bear: ‘Thank you [ma’am] for everything.’
And long live the King.