People in England found it very easy to love the Queen Mother. She was, it seemed, a perfect repository of the national theme, Past Caring. She stayed in London during the Blitz, she didn’t like foreigners – especially foreign women, especially Wallis Simpson – and she drank like a fish. She liked a party, loved a wheeze, adored a jape, and not far into William Shawcross’s very admiring official biography, published this week, we find Elizabeth Bowes Lyon kicking up her heels in Paris in 1924. Elizabeth was assuredly a bit of a one. Apart from shopping, there was tea at the Ritz and dinner at the British Embassy.
They also visited the Casino de Paris, ‘where for the first time in my life I saw ladies with very little on, & somehow it was not in the least indecent’. They danced in rather risqué nightclubs, including Les Néants, where ‘we drank off a coffin, surrounded by skeletons & exchanging very vulgar badinage with a man carrying a huge bone.’
Her interest in the great fun, and deathly hallows, to be discovered in the outside world was still evident at the other end of her life. In her eighties, she found a great new friend in Ted Hughes. ‘Queen Elizabeth,’ Shawcross reports, ‘liked that sort of person and she also found his looks – tall, craggy and well built – “very striking”.’
Hughes liked her very much in return. ‘There’s something about her that’s kept very young,’ he wrote in a letter to his brother, ‘like a young woman. But everybody is so fond of her that she escapes the psychological isolation – for most old people inescapable.’ It would make a wonderful play, the friendship between the playful old lady and the mystical nature poet, but for the time being we’ll have to content ourselves with the account of their friendship secreted within the pages of Shawcross’s massive book.
Ted Hughes was again among the guests at a picnic below Lochnagar. As they listened to the wind in the trees, they had a conversation typical of their friendship. She asked him if he thought trees could communicate with each other. The exchange kept coming back to him and he wrote a poem about the picnic…
It was ‘a wonderful and loving poem’, she said, which ‘transported her at once to my beloved hills’. The pair invented a couple of imaginary friends, the Rev. Cedric Potter and Miss Dimsdale, who she imagined might be married one day. ‘I can see the announcement in the Daily Telegraph,’ she wrote.
The friendship lasted until Hughes’s death, and she was clearly struck by the value of the man and the riches he had brought to her life. Just before he died, he gave her a copy of Birthday Letters, the book containing all the poems about Sylvia Plath. She asked him why he had published them and he said it was ‘a kind of purging’. He told her he had done it both for his children and for himself. ‘I have felt vastly unburdened,’ he added. ‘It has quite changed my life and whole outlook for the better.’
The Queen Mother continued to remember very fondly their meetings, their letters, and their happy hours at Lochnagar. Until the end of her life, her biographer tells us, ‘Ted Hughes remained always in the pantheon of people to whom she raised high her glass at dinner.’