“Our old queen has died, you know,” said the British woman in my elevator at the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre in Stratford, where we were both headed to a performance of Richard III.
I gasped. No, I hadn’t known, although BBC commentators had been saying for a day or so that it could happen. Poor United Kingdom. Poor me!
Once in our seats, we were told that Buckingham Palace still wanted the show to go on, despite the monarch’s passing that very night. So we ticket-holders all rose as one for the playing of the national anthem, God Save the Queen. By this time, I saw Kleenex blooming like white carnations all over the theatre. When a man cried out “Long live the King” at the end of the anthem, I began sobbing away like so many others in the crowd.
When a man cried out “Long live the King” at the end of the anthem, I began sobbing away like so many others in the crowd.
Queen Elizabeth II and I go way back. Or so I like to think. A girl of the Maryland cornfields, I had never done anything or been anywhere until two friends and I got working papers to be clerks (pronounced “clarks”) in London, the summer of ’70. With Carnaby Street and the Rolling Stones and all, London was a really cool place to be. My friends and I, on the other hand, were the total opposite of cool. We’d gone to all-girl schools. I’d worn green gabardine uniforms that were about as flattering as garbage bags. But in Barons Court, our London neighborhood, we felt like butterflies—free of heavy schoolbooks and parental expectations and open to cool things like mini-skirts and Mary Quant makeup.
My job was being a “clark” at the Greater London Council, a grand beehive of government offices on picturesque Westminster Bridge. The GLC looked like a postcard popped into three dimensions. Big Ben was our closest neighbor. “Susan will make tea for us each afternoon,” announced my supervisor, Jenny Coker, on my very first day on the job. She was a pillowy woman who talked a lot about towpaths and had ink pens poking out of her untidy bun hairdo. Sweet and smart, she was like an eccentric granny in some book by Roald Dahl.
When I wasn’t balancing sloshing tea cups on a tray, I performed stultifying office tasks like proofreading petroleum licenses. But not to worry. The perks of my job at the GLC were definitely worth it.
The Queen and I
“You’ve got to go out to the bridge today, Susan. Queen Elizabeth is opening Parliament and she’s going to be riding in a glass coach. Something that hardly ever happens,” Ms. Coker told me one morning.
Brilliant! I would get a break from proofing those infernal petroleum licenses. And once I hit the bridge I had a great view of the glass coach, if only a fleeting glimpse of Queen Elizabeth waving a white-gloved hand. It was the stuff of storybooks. At home in the cornfields, we had absolutely nothing like it. From that day forward, I was hers.
I know, I know, there have been things to give us all pause about Queen Elizabeth over the years. The lingering rumors that she’d been a distant parent. Her tardy bow to the memory of her challenging daughter-in-law, Diana. Those lampshade hats, which only seemed to get more ridiculous as the years (and years and years) went by. And yet….
Her smile lit up a room and always seemed real. She appeared happy to be out and about among her subjects, whether at a tea party for the World War II nurses known as Wrens or when pinning a medal on Rod Stewart or Ringo Starr.
And how about her palace romp with her beloved Corgis, or that simulated parachute jump that had the whole world laughing? Both were highlights of the British Olympics. More recently, there was that teatime with Paddington Bear, including the delicious moment when she pulled a jelly sandwich out of her handbag in cahoots with Britain’s favorite bruin.
Making It Look Easy
Has anyone ever done nobility better than Queen Elizabeth ? She made it look easy, when it most certainly had to be difficult. Only her apparent humility, humor, kindness, and diligence made it look easy. She never stopped working, never, not even when she was about to die.
Somehow I always felt I knew her, especially after she waved to me on Westminster Bridge.
At my performance of Richard III, one of the directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company called the queen “a lass unparalleled,” a Shakespearean turn of phrase that warmed my heart for its casual familiarity. He knew her. I didn’t. Yet somehow I always felt I did, especially after she waved to me on Westminster Bridge.
The UK’s new prime minister called Elizabeth “the rock on which modern Britain was built.” The Archbishop of Canterbury said she helped the British “make sense of who they were.” What a legacy, to help make her people feel at home.
I’ve been back to Elizabeth’s England many times since I worked for Jenny Coker at the GLC. I brought my beautiful young husband here before we were married, to show him a place that was among my favorites on earth. I came back to Barons Court with my traveling buddies from home, to celebrate the butterfly summer that set us all free. And now, for the third time, I’m studying Jane Austen at Oxford University, where I get to visit her tiny writing table at the cottage where she created all those characters—Elizabeth Bennett, Mr. Darcy—that writers and non-writers alike love so very much.
Will I be back in the UK again? Maybe. But without that lass unparalleled named Elizabeth, it will never be quite the same.
Susan Lapinski is the former editor of Working Mother and Sesame Street Parents, and a writer in New York City. She’s now at work on a book of stories about another place she loves as much as London, Down East Maine.