As a very small child, the queen’s coronation filled Linda Burgess with wonder and awe. That is unlikely to happen this time, she writes.
The Guardian, which is one of my morning go-to reads, invites us to share our favourite quiche recipe. Why? Because King Charles has chosen quiche as his… I dunno… signature dish(?) for his coronation. His will be made edible by having eggs taken carefully from hens with names, cream from his Cornish creamery and salmon caught from his own Scottish river. The petit bourgeoisie, his faithful subjects – also known as us – on the other hand, might be lucky to have eggs from a vast factory and a bit of the tinned pink stuff to hand.
What did his sainted late mother, the queen who everybody liked, respected, oh the trouble she knew etc etc, choose as her signature dish? Chicken. The thought of quivering mountains of leftover quiche has already made me feel nauseous, and I can’t bear to look up the chicken recipe, as a source close to the royal family tells me it contains mayonnaise, but I can, on your behalf, work out why it was chosen. Undoubtedly in 1950-something, when we last had a coronation, chicken was as special in England as it was here. That was before 70% of all birds in the world were farmed poultry. You had it only at Christmas and if there were more than two children in the family, you fought for the right to hook your little finger around the wishbone, pull it, get the bigger half, and wish that all your wishes would come true.
I don’t remember the last coronation in 1953, I think I was three at the time, but it left its imprint on my consciousness. Edmund Hillary had obligingly conquered Everest on the same day. Equally memorably, the queen came to see us a little afterwards and us moppets all got a coin to remind us of that happy visit. A vast percentage of the population travelled miles to see her gloved hand waving from a railway carriage. No one in my world anyway mentioned that not everyone was all that chuffed about the whole deal. Various people’s mothers had a cup and saucer with the queen’s face on it in their china cabinet, because tea, which everyone drank, was linked to the queen and was so English. Everything in the world was so English then, because people from that tiny isle had set out early on and with great success to steal the rest of the world. You didn’t think of this when your lips, huge in relation to the size of the queen’s head, hovered near her face, the milky Choysa tea steaming so provocatively.
As they sailed around acquiring the world, the English were big on souvenirs; even now, their museums still burst with what they brought home. Here in New Zealand, children got souvenirs too. Most of us have stamp albums somewhere, tiny pictures of the queen in profile, changing every now and then to incorporate a slightly saggier neck.
I was too young to matter when she was crowned, but my brother, who would’ve been around 12, got the most amazing thing. On wet Sunday afternoons, we lay on the sitting room floor in front of the smouldering coal-fire and he would go to his room, which was out the back door, across the porch, next to the toilet and the washhouse with its copper boiler – carefully lift the kapok mattress off the saggy wire-wove, retrieve his treasure from its secret hiding place, then bring it to share with his three little sisters.
My arms sort of ache with joy remembering it. It was I guess a diorama. Like a book, except it opened in a different way, becoming, at the end of careful unfolding, about a metre long. A yard, as it was called back then. I would have been less than a yard long myself, so it looked enormous. It was a picture of the queen’s coach, and in a special envelope there were dozens of accoutrements which you took carefully out – to this day I can’t quite believe my brother didn’t issue us all with special gloves – and you read the little label and it said something like 64C. You lay carefully down beside the folded out bit, found the matching reference and slotted it carefully into place. It might have been a footman, or a man in a bearskin hat, or a lady in waiting, it might have been a horse. When everything was in place, no one in our sitting room quite breathed while my brother carefully stood the whole thing on its side, and there it was, in what we would now call 3D: the queen on her way to her coronation.
The papers, mostly, these days, read online, report that only 15% of the English give a toss about this coronation. The interest here will be even lower. The radio on Friday morning tried to beef up interest, interviewing New Zealanders in London. Kate and William had gone to a pub in the tube, on the new Elizabeth Line of course. It was lunchtime and they both drank cider and William pulled a pint. Oh, bless. Now the royals are just like us. Cider?! Cider?? Back in the olden days their ancestors drank like fish; their great grandmother would’ve been well on her way to being pickled by lunchtime. Their ancestors travelled in gold coaches and wore crowns to get their photo taken for stamps. It just feels a bit odd to think of their father doing that.
That young woman, their grandmother, came at just the right time. Depression, royal scandal, reluctant accession to the throne, London blitzed to smithereens – never had the English world more needed cheering up. Somehow, the sight of a young virgin with flawless skin and top-grade bling being pulled along the road in what is reportedly an extremely uncomfortable coach, by prancing horses wearing big feathers, did the trick.
The new king just can’t make that much of a difference to most of us. Now someone has half-heartedly suggested that we – NZ’s own loyal subjects – go out on our balconies and express allegiance to our king. In England they may well do this, putting to one side the memory of the last time they did this, for the NHS, at the behest of Boris Johnson, just minutes before he went off and broke all his own rules. I can’t quite see people doing it here, though they did say on the radio that the Anglican church is doing something, and that there’s to be a high tea in – where else – Christchurch. Living in central Wellington as I now do, when I stand on my balcony I overlook many others, but no bunting is yet to be seen. Things have changed too much. We know too much.
…And 70 years passed. I went to England to visit my brother who’s lived there since his 20s. And of course, we got talking. In his 80s, still agile, he went upstairs to his study, under the eaves of his North Yorkshire 18th century cottage, opened the third drawer of his desk, carefully withdrew a slender package and carried it cautiously down his heritage listed stairs. He wasn’t about to take any risks with it as he still hadn’t quite got over my sisters and I ruining his Lion Annuals. They’d have been very valuable now if we hadn’t coloured in the comics. We sat at his Georgian table and he opened it.
Like the slimmed down royal family, it had got perceptively smaller. And, like the new king, slightly faded, a wee bit worse for wear, a little ragged round the edges. But that carriage, those horses, that amazingly young looking queen. Those numbered slots just begging to be filled. Oh, my aching arms, oh my bursting heart: there it was again. The diorama.