Should I care that Queen Elizabeth II is dead?

The United Kingdom’s longest serving monarch finally passed away last week at the age of 96, completing seventy years on the throne. Even recent gains by Ukraine recapturing territory often seems below the fold to the story of the queen’s death and her son’s ascension.

Even though I’m 65, she was the only English monarch I lived under. So I’m sure in the U.K. her death was bound to be huge news. While the United States broke away from Great Britain largely because of King George III, her death has somehow caused our flags to be lowered to half-mast. I doubt if the Queen Máxima of the Netherlands died we’d do the same. I doubt that one in 100 Americans even know the Netherlands has a queen, and fewer would know her name. I had to Google it.

If you’ve watched the Netflix series The Crown, you will learn Queen Elizabeth was quite a bit more interesting than she appeared in public. Of course, its producers got to amp-up her story, but it makes for compelling television. Aside from her long reign, she was groundbreaking in one major way: she was the first monarch of note in post-colonial Great Britain. Not that G.B. has completely given up empire, but its few affiliated states keep drifting away. Barbados was the latest country to ditch the British Commonwealth. I happened to visit it on a cruise ship last December just weeks after the event. Many of the remaining members are loosely affiliated at best and may put her image on their money.

The whole idea of monarchy seems incredibly dated. In fact, the king or queen of Great Britain doesn’t do a whole lot. As best I can tell, their primary purpose is to keep the feeling of national identity from flagging and in times of national crisis try to raise the morale of its citizens. Prime ministers come and go, but a sovereign provides a feeling of continuity and national purpose. In that sense, maybe America needs some sort of similarly disempowered figurehead, perhaps to scold either party when they get too much out of line.

Not to put too fine a point on it though, but one of the primary purposes of its sovereign is to assert, “This is a white country.” It’s true Prince Harry took Megan for his wife, and she’s the first known British royal of color. But Harry’s kind of had it with the monarchy, and has largely disavowed it. He and Megan live in Canada and seem happier away from the British Isles.

Being a royal though sounds like a pretty good life, if you don’t mind dodging the paparazzi. You’ll never have to worry about being homeless or poor. You might wish that you could do something more meaningful than open shopping centers or doting on your corgis. You might tire of trying to flatter or tolerate the numerous boors who come to kiss your hand.

The hardest part of the Queen’s job, at least according to The Crown, is simply to shut up. It’s not your place to have opinions on political matters, but to open parliament with ceremony and to accept the many new prime ministers who will come calling. The better PMs would meet periodically with the sovereign to keep them abreast on important matters. I suspect though that reading The Times of London or The Guardian would more than suffice.

Early in my blogging career, I opined on Prince (now King) Charles’s decision to marry a divorcee, Camilla Bowles. It sure sounded like the Queen didn’t like Camilla, but I saluted Charles for finally marring the woman he really loved. Anyhow, the Queen had something of a change of heart. Camilla will become a Queen Consort, which means she is functionally a queen, but devoid of any political powers. The exception is that if Charles died with a minor in the line of succession. Then she could rule as a regent until he was of age. But that’s not going to happen. Prince William is 40. I guess Camilla grew on Elizabeth, and the quarter century since Princess Diana’s death made a lot of her grudge moot.

Elizabeth endeared herself to her “subjects”, mainly by being one of them. She was a surprise monarch, so her childhood was more like one of her subject’s than one of royalty. It took a number of surprise changes for her to become queen, including the abdication of Edward VIII. This made the Queen a bit more grounded than most monarchs and more relatable. While the work of monarch wasn’t too hard, it was persistent and could be demanding. To her credit, she hung in there and did her duty, such as it was, and it seemed to resonate with her subjects.

And what of King Charles III? No prince has had to wait longer to become king, which makes him Great Britain’s oldest king ever. The good news is he is unlikely to suffer the fate of King Charles I (their only beheaded king) or Charles II (who belatedly reestablished the monarchy, but did a bad job of it, so bad that soon sovereigns became figureheads). He’s unlikely to endear himself the way his mother did, and his “reign” will certainly be shorter. At age 73, he’ll be lucky to have two decades as king. I suspect most Britons are waiting around for King William V, assuming they don’t use the time between then to ditch the monarchy altogether.

While Elizabeth reigned over a much smaller empire, she deserves some hisses for maintaining what was left of it. Beyond the pomp and circumstance of royalty, England and then Great Britain’s colonial past is one of marked shame, slavery, subjugation and often open looting. I’ve been to the British Museum in London, and it’s an amazing storehouse of art, relics and treasure. But almost all of it was looted and Briton’s don’t seem to be in a hurry to return the booty. At best, it’s being slow walked.

If you have to be a monarch though, Elizabeth’s example of how to do it right will be hard to top. It’s likely her reign will forever be its longest.

London, Part 1

Eleven years ago I made my first trip to Europe. Then it was France, but mostly Paris. Last week it was England, but mostly London. My ancestors came from England, at least those on my father’s side. My father lived 89 years and never saw his ancestral home. Now I’ve had the opportunity to see England. I think my late father would have found the visit as deeply satisfying as I did.

Ah to be in England, now that spring is here! Although it was technically still winter while we were there, spring was in the air. You could smell it in the flowering trees and see it on the flowers of the lawn at Windsor Castle. Yes, far further north it was much more temperate. While we were gone Mother Nature left another foot of snow at our home in western Massachusetts. England, known for endless dreary and often wet days, treated us pretty well. The sun was out most days, highs generally hit the high 50s (Fahrenheit) but the wind was often bracing, particularly on Saturday when a bus journey out of London took us to Stonehenge. There will be more on that later.

London and the River Thames from the Tower of London
London and the River Thames from the Tower of London

I had a pretty good idea of what to expect but until you go someplace you never really quite know whether you will like what you find. London though turned out to be the city of my dreams. In retirement I moved much closer to nature, but in temperament I am more a cosmopolitan kind of guy. London is arguably the best, largest and most prosperous large city in the world. Its major downside is that most of us cannot afford to live there. With prices comparable to living in New York City, it’s not for the monetarily challenged. A decent apartment in one of the nicer parts of the city will run you £3000 or so a month, which works out to about $3700. On the plus side, if you can manage to pay the rent, you shouldn’t need a car. London’s Underground goes practically everywhere, and it does so briskly and efficiently.

Arguably the Underground is the city’s most impressive achievement. You rarely wait more than a minute for a train once you are on the platform. On the major lines you have options on both sides of the track with all trains going in the same direction. The Tube is massive, extremely clean and very well maintained with some lines, like the Piccadilly Line, two long escalator rides belong the primary line. Running almost as frequently as these underground trains are the many double decker buses crisscrossing the streets. This investment in transportation is beyond massive, but it pays for itself in the connections and possibilities it allows. If only the U.S.A. could get this enlightened it would probably be a lot more prosperous.

Overall London is a mixture of old and modern, but it rarely looks shabby. One of my favorite streets in Washington, D.C. when I lived near there was Connecticut Avenue. Yet it’s just one street. In London, most of the city looks like Connecticut Avenue: endless blocks of midrise housing, usually with businesses along the streets and mostly well maintained. Some streets, particularly close to the city center, are much more commercial: hotels, banks, theaters and just enormous amounts of restaurants, most reasonably priced. We never had a bad meal mainly because we had no reason to eat “English” food. But we did eat one dinner at an honest to God English pub, on a “mew”, sort of like an alleyway where the servants usually hung out. It was good dining if a bit peculiar (you ordered at the bar).

London is a great big melting pot, but more white than black and more Asian than Hispanic. I actually saw more people of color back in Washington, D.C. but like D.C. you can hear most languages spoken in London too. For the most part the people look good and seem healthy, thanks in part to their National Health Service. There are homeless in London, but they are actually hard to find. For the most part anyone who wants to work can find work and the wages are generally enough to live decently, even if you may have to commute quite a ways to find more affordable housing. It’s a city that glows and buzzes that is awesomely massive in size. Cranes are everywhere. Scaffolding contractors are everywhere too, helping to maintain the brick facades of buildings hundreds of years old. There are plenty of cars on the roads too, mostly belonging to those with deeper pockets. It’s unclear to me why anyone would want the hassle of a car in London. And yes, cars drive on the left side of the road there, which for me meant mentally checking myself before crossing streets because the dynamics of the flow were the opposite of what I expected.

Obviously this is the most recent incarnation of London. It retains sketchy neighborhoods, but overall it feels and is a safe place to live and work. The opportunities in the city are endless. Every major company has a presence here, but London is anchored by its banking sector in the City of London. Yes, there is a City of London, but it is just a tiny part of the London metropolitan area, which is broken up into many independent boroughs. In the real city you will see little but banks, insurance companies and tall, skinny men in black suits and white shirts doing important stuff that is hard to quantify but must pay very well indeed.

Tower Bridge from the Tower of London
Tower Bridge from the Tower of London

The Thames River splits the city between its northern and southern sides. The northern side is considered tonier, but many of the prime attractions are on the south side. The Thames really moves, mostly due to tidal forces that push water inland then move it out hours later, creating strong currents. London Bridge is actually on its third iteration and this latest one fields nearly as many pedestrians as cars. Lots of bridges cross the Thames, but Tower Bridge near the old city and the infamous Tower of London is probably the one that you will mistake for London Bridge.

London is a mixture of new, old and ancient. Come along with me on our journey.