Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan

The Queen once detained me as I tried to get into an ice-rink. It was one of those hot days in the summer of 1977, and the portly Mr Waddle, or Akela as we liked to call him in Jungle Book parlance, took a pack of us to the Magnum Leisure Centre. I was feeling a bit down as I only had one cub scout badge (for housekeeping) and I thought I might get another one pinned to my jumper for careering across the ice in my toggle and cap.

But first there was the Queen. We stood for ages next to the boating pond, dreaming of ice, then we spotted this little German peasant woman ambling towards us with a very white face. My mate Fergus sniggered. He said she had funny wee shoes and legs. I have a feeling she may not remember how the conversation went, but I recorded it for posterity in the back of a school jotter the next day.

The Queen: ‘Very hot, isn’t it?’

Fergus: ‘Roastin’.’

The Queen: ‘And have you been cub scouts long?’

Me: ‘Ages, ma’am. We’re trying to get more badges.’

Fergus: (treacherously) ‘He’s hardly got any.’

The Queen: ‘What fun. And do you cook sausages and things?’

Fergus: ‘Aye. In a fire.’

Me: ‘We’re going to the ice-rink.’

Fergus said she looked nothing like her postage stamp, but I was already examining my digital watch, and a full 70 minutes passed before we saw skates.

Billy Connolly once said that the Queen must think the world smells of fresh paint, and so she must, if her visit to Irvine New Town is anything to go by. I remember there were derelict houses down by the harbour, and the Council bricked in the holes where the windows used to be. They then plastered them over and painted curtains and potted plants there, as if windows had no purpose but to look pretty from outside. It was faintly surreal, especially when one of the windows showed a contented cat curled next to an alarm clock. For years I imagined the Queen driving past and feeling comforted by the town’s cartoon reality.

Well, now she’s 80, and I feel she may have provided one or two indirect comforts of her own along the way. Walter Bagehot pointed out that the value of the Royal Family was the way they could ‘bring down the pride of sovereignty to the level of petty life’. I’m sure he wasn’t thinking of Charles and Diana – to say nothing of Fergie or that twitchy little pain Edward – but the Queen has indeed overseen a drama of pride and pettiness that makes Richard II seem like an episode of Coronation Street. More than that, she has described a new role for the royals: making one feel a bit better about the dysfunctionality of one’s own family, knowing that they could never be so internationally fucked up as hers. That seems to me a very modern and proper job of work for the monarchy, worth every last penny they get from the Civil List.

The British tabloids have two major subjects that bring out their best character – royal anniversaries and the pursuit of paedophiles. In each case we see them deploy that magic blend of hysterical populism, killing earnestness and blatant fantasy. For the Queen’s 80th it was all tears and memories of the Blitz, and little seemed to remain of the ‘Show Us You Care, Ma’am’ headlines from the time of Diana’s funeral, the ones that eventually lured the Queen away from Balmoral to beg the nation’s approval. Now that her mother is gone, the Queen has become the National Old Lady, and the papers have become busy inventing new forms of subjection to her heavenly qualities and brand new typefaces in which to express it.

People who want to understand how the Windsors turned to politics – and how New Labour politicians turned to the Windsors – will have to wait for Stephen Frears’s film The Queen, out in September, which raises the whole sordid business to the lovely heights of the national history play. In one scene, we see the Queen (played with delicious aplomb by Helen Mirren) beholding the slain carcass of a great Highland deer. She stares at it for some time and we imagine, from things she’s said, that she is thinking of her father, before she lifts her head and tells the gillie to congratulate the person responsible for the noble kill.

Monarchists rely on predictability and mystique, which is why the last 25 years have been a feast for anti-monarchists. And yet, come whatever, there will always be those who find it natural to believe that all the water in the rough, rude sea can’t wash the balm off an anointed queen. Penny Junor must be one of them, for her book The Firm (HarperCollins, £6.99) was being read by every second person on the Tube last week. ‘Elizabeth II has been a very remarkable sovereign,’ she writes. ‘She has not put a foot wrong in more than fifty years and, while she may not be the most exciting of figures or the most inspirational of speakers, she is utterly genuine, totally dedicated and entirely professional and is as constant and predictable as the British weather.’

‘Very hot, isn’t it?’ she said to Fergus and me. And all day she passed painted flowers on bricked-up windows. What a life. In the afternoon, she must have been miles away, asking somebody else about sausages, but by that time we were skimming the ice.