By John Prince
“The Queen is dead. Long live the King.”
I was raised in Canada under the shadow of “The Monarchy.”
My hair was worn in the requisite manner of King George VI—short back and sides military-style, parted on the same side as the King. Children were expected to emulate the royals. The royals dominated conversations across Canada. They were saluted, revered, loved (for the most part), and considered to be beings situated somewhere between us mere mortals and the angels.
Then came the day. Wednesday. The old brown Philco that sat forever on the corner of the kitchen table started to play organ dirges. Every few minutes a somber voiced announcer repeated, “The King is dead. Long live the Queen.” No programming. No ads. Just the same music and announcement over and over again all day.
My father announced that most likely school was cancelled. He was on the school board so he could make that call.
My parents, along with the rest of the community, the province, the country—we were all in a state of shock. Unlike today when we know the most intimate and up-to-the-minute of most royal comings and goings, in those days Royals were shrouded in privacy by the media. Of course, we had no idea that the King was even ill. And Princess Elizabeth (now suddenly The Queen) was somewhere off in the wilds of Kenya at the time.
In the coming days churches had special services and prayers. People clustered at the general store and crossroads and talked about the King and the Royal Family. They didn’t really know much of anything except the highly sanitized and positive news in the daily papers and popular magazines. Women’s Auxiliaries began making special quilts. And a “Queen!” We’d never had a queen before, at least not for a few hundred years. Speculation ran high on what kind of a monarch “she” would make.
Then events unfolded at a high speed. Queen Elizabeth made her famous address from Africa, flew back to London, donned her black mourning weeds, and presented herself to her people. King George VI was buried at Windsor Castle on Friday, February 15, 1952. Nine days. That’s all it took to change “The Monarchy” to “The Royal Family.”
The Brits have a wonderous way of wallowing and wading their way through sadness and despair only to ultimately end the mourning with a world-wide party. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth was no exception. It involved everyone from the new Queen in ermine and jewels at the altar of Westminster Abbey to the 20-odd rag-tag kids (including me) from the one-room (grades 1-8) at Nauwigewauk School.
June 2, 1953, was warm and sunny as we rode in various farm trucks and cars to Hampton, the shiretown for King’s County. There were parades along Main Street, each school and group carrying a banner announcing their presence. Speeches, addresses, impromptu lectures entertained and harangued. Barrels of potato salad, sliced ham, cheese squares, cakes, and pies were washed down with gallons of yellow and red Kool-Aid.
The moment-by-moment description of the long and intricate happening an ocean away were broadcast over a series of loudspeakers. The dulcet tones of Richard Dimbleby, (always reserved, always classy) long the “royal announcer” and a familiar voice to everyone, kept up the narration.
As was pointed out numerous times during the hours of the broadcast, this was the very first live AM radio broadcast from the UK to Eastern Canada. Somewhere, high over the Atlantic, an aircraft filled with electronic gear circled, relaying the radio signal from London directly to the farmers, fishermen, merchants, and school kids of southern New Brunswick.
The new technology, many commented, was awe-inspiring. What in the world would they think of next?
The coronation ended—Britain was six hours ahead of us—and people remained. A few men popped open bottles of Moosehead, kids from one school gathered to posture and preen in front of others, couples found quiet places to pursue their ardor. Women packed up leftover potato salad and Washington pie. Men smoked and talked about crops and prospects for the summer hay and crops.
I rode home in the back of a rattling pick-up inhaling the night air, looking up at stars, and remembering the day. We all hoped this was the start of something momentous and good. Well, some of it worked out.
There are people who have little use for The Royal Family. They are pretentious, expensive, suffocating, and many display exceptionally loose morals.
But they do have some upsides. They are tremendous tourist attractions as are their great castles and other piles. They keep the supermarket tabloids filled with news (some of it true) and that provides employment and cash flow. And let us not forget the TV series and programs for which they are the content. So, all in all, they probably pay their way.
I see The Royal Family as something that you don’t really need, but is kind of fun to have anyway. Conversation starters. Museums full of ancient cuneiform cylinders that only 27 people in the world can read. Underwater sculpture gardens. Rainbows. Icebergs.
The Queen is Dead. You’ve had a long and glorious 70-year run, Ma’am.
Long live the King. Now there’s the next big question. Charles or William? Who do you choose?
Photo: In 1972 the Queen was pictured on board HMY Britannia as part of a series of everyday photographs taken for use during her Silver Wedding Celebrations. (Litchfield via Getty Images)