I alternate my car radio between Classic FM and Planet Rock, as the mood takes me. Yesterday evening, as I headed off to a music event in Birmingham, the radio was still set to Planet Rock from the day before. Yet rather than soaring guitar solos or racing drums, I was hearing the soothing melody of Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Was the display broken, and I was in fact listening to Classic FM? Soon, the voice of Toby Jepson of rock band Wayward Sons gently informed me that no, there was no mistake: this was indeed Planet Rock, but the usual programme had been interrupted on the sad news of the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Across the country, sporting fixtures were halted, and every broadcaster on TV and radio switched to schedules they had prepared months or often years in advance. This is an occasion so momentous that the BBC rehearses it so its presenters are prepared to break the news in varying scenarios, and it has an alarm system that will alert its news teams when it eventually does happen. The papers have days of stories lined up and ready to roll out. We all knew this was coming at some point. And in recent days, we had been fed guarded updates that the Queen’s close family had been summoned to visit her at Balmoral, so we had strongly suspected it was coming soon. Yet it was still a shock.
It was a shock because for the great majority of us, Her Majesty was the only sovereign we have ever known, an unceasing, reliable point of fixity amidst flux in our lives and across the world. She said the right things and smiled at everyone, a bastion of reassurance and solidarity, for seven decades, through the terms of fifteen prime ministers.
As recently as the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, she was encouraging us to “remain united and resolute,” and involving us in the conviction “that the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country.” Insofar as Britain has anything approaching a national identity, the Queen has been its figurehead and spokesperson, calmly and kindly reminding us that whatever may divide us, we should never lose sight of our compassion, humanity and collective spirit.
She may have been our queen, and we her subjects, but it was she who served us, working through busy schedules right until her death. Beyond the palaces and privilege, she was the most committed and dedicated public servant this country has ever known.
While out yesterday evening, I was talking with a fellow musician who is a committed republican, and he mentioned the sad news.
“Whatever you think of the monarchy,” I suggested to him, “you’ve surely got to take your hat off to the Queen herself.”
“Oh, absolutely,” he replied, “It’s hard for anyone to argue with that. She was a remarkable woman.”
As the second Elizabethan era ends, and the nation moves to reorient itself to the shock of the change of the one thing that never changed, there will surely be pressing questions about the continued role and relevance of that oldest of institutions that still formally underpins our system of governance, and about what its evolution might look like. The crown is a weighty thing indeed, and time will tell how our new king responds in turn, under the close guidance of the ever-strategic ‘Palace’.
But for now, I join millions of others in taking my hat off to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who was born into a position she did not choose, but did nonetheless choose to do what she saw as her duty, and she did it to the very best of her ability and to the last. Thank you, ma’am, and rest in peace.
I wonder if readers of this letter might feel compelled to respond perhaps with their own tributes, particular memories associated with the Queen, or feelings that have been evoked by this news? I would only ask that replies retain a respectful tone, given the sensitivity of the circumstances.