It takes a lot to make a nation sit up and take notice.
But on Sunday evening at 8 p.m., Her Majesty the Queen did exactly that, addressing the whole of Britain for only the fifth time in her 64-year reign, to deliver a message of comfort and thanks.
It was brilliant, in that word’s truest sense, splendid with light. A tonic for the nation in testing times, changing not only what we were thinking but how we were feeling, reminding us of how fundamental our Queen is to our lives.
She gave thanks to our front-line medical workers and those working so hard to support us all, and to those staying at home to try to stop this virus, assuring us that long after this pandemic has passed we will take pride in the way we came together as a nation to deal with it:
“And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet, good-humored resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past; it defines our present and our future.”
She seemed to ask us to dig deep into something much bigger than ourselves and the trifling piffles of our everyday existence. To connect with our place in history and see that we are part of something much greater that comes from deep in our past and stretches far into our future. We are a moment in time.
Having been endlessly tested over a long lifetime of service, our Queen is now searching out the good in her people: their self-discipline, their good humor, their fellow feeling. I felt some personal guilt; I fear I have not looked for this good often enough when considering my fellows, often wanting to bang their heads together to knock some sense into them. Or ask them to leave my country and never return.
“And though self-isolating may at times be hard, many people of all faiths, and of none, are discovering that it presents an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect, in prayer or meditation.”
I have felt this in my own family, in lockdown. Yesterday the trampoline went up, the football posts were put back in pride of place on the lawn, and the thirsty shed finally got a coat of paint. Whatever prayer or meditation looks like for others, for us it has been the gift of family time.
Without this virus I would still be on the road, finding stories and speaking in support of patriots and Trump. I miss my adventures, of course. My children say I have been forced against my will to become a full-time mum, and laugh as they hold me hostage to their whims.
But although being a full-time mum in isolation with my own children has occasionally made me want to slam my head repeatedly against the front door just to numb the pain, we are muddling along together. I know I will look back on these times as some of the best we have enjoyed.
The Queen went on to remind us that through the joint endeavors of medicine and compassion we will prevail: “We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us.”
Her words were cool water on a rapidly overheating engine. In Britain anger and resentment have been bubbling up and the red mist has descended: overzealous police have secretly filmed dog-walkers to publicly humiliate them; online forms have been introduced for reporting anyone who flouts the social distancing rules, enabling incensed isolators to take revenge on sunbathers in the park without leaving home or lifting the phone.
In the last two days alone, I have been reported to my local police authority for daring to buy bedding plants at a garden center, and called a domestic terrorist for trying to lend perspective online.
But the Queen’s speech was a salve on all this, reminding us of things much greater than ourselves: national pride, shared endeavor, and our place in history.
This speech was much more than words spoken. It was a chance for a nation to sit in silence and listen to a person we all trust telling us things we need to hear. This is a rare thing in today’s world.
Aside from the annual Christmas message, the Queen has only addressed the nation five times in history: the First Gulf War in 1991; the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997; the Queen Mother’s death in 2002; the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012; and now.
Imagine being the ultimate boss for 64 years and speaking publicly only five times. Given this extraordinary personal discipline, when you do speak, not only will you have something important to say, but people will want to listen.
And so it proved. I could almost feel all the families crowded around their TV screens in their pajamas, just like mine, sisters shushing their brothers, crossed-legged on the floor. One nation, all doing the same, hearing the same, wanting the same – united by the sheer force of a 93-year-old lady who has served her country unwaveringly all her life.
As I looked at my own children focused on the screen, I realized this was the first time in a long time we had all shared one screen together, not distracted by our personal gadgets or other matters. It was a true family moment, brought about by the nation’s grandmother. I was suddenly nostalgic for simpler times. Happy sad.
We don’t have a word for happy sad but our Japanese friends do; they call it setsunai, clumsily translated as ‘wistful’ or ‘bittersweet’ but meaning so much more than that. It is a word that holds both sorrow and joy, like looking at a photo of a relative long passed and being happy for the time you had with them, but sad they are no longer here.
Watching this 93-year-old lady speak, in her lovely dress, without glasses, without pause or falter, was this very thing: setsunai, joyful and sorrowful at the same time.
Joyful to know the nation has this amazing woman at its head, sorrowful that she cannot live forever, that recently losing Harry and Meghan must have been so testing and hurtful for her. I want to wrap her in bubble wrap just to keep her safe.
It’s the same feeling I have for my own mum and dad right now, in their little bungalow up the road, pottering about in their sunny garden, all cuddly and soft. Mum with her little sponge cakes and dad with his tools. I am filled with fear that one day they will leave me here alone. Who will pick up the phone each night to chat to me about nothing much in particular? Who will I borrow a plunger, creosote and advice from when my dad is gone?
Selfish needs, and small ones – the shared daily nothings of life with my mum and dad that I will be utterly broken without.
It is the same pressure I feel squeezing my chest when I see the queen now: a fragile attachment to something fundamental. The soft ache of sadness to come.
But she knows. Of course she knows. She has lived through wars, through loss, through separation and birth, through decades. She has seen it all. She shares our fears. I see her knowing smile behind her eyes when she says: “We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.”
And I am certain she was not just talking of this life in this place, but of a life beyond this, where we will be reunited with all the people we love and miss the most. Where I will forever see my mum pottering about in her garden in her comfy sweater, and my big dad still in his work clothes doing jobs, even though he retired years ago. We will meet again. It’s a harmless notion for those who do not believe, but a life preserver for those of us who do.
Then she stopped speaking. And for the briefest moment there was nothing, like that weird pause after a performance when the crowd is spellbound, before the applause. I realized I was holding my breath.
When it broke, the nation erupted into hashtags of cheers. I wanted to stand up and cheer out loud.
God Bless Her Majesty. Long Live the Queen.
For reference: Full text of the Queen’s broadcast if helpful or needed:
“I am speaking to you at what I know is an increasingly challenging time. A time of disruption in the life of our country: a disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many, and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all.
I want to thank everyone on the NHS front line, as well as care workers and those carrying out essential roles, who selflessly continue their day-to-day duties outside the home in support of us all.
I am sure the nation will join me in assuring you that what you do is appreciated and every hour of your hard work brings us closer to a return to more normal times.
I also want to thank those of you who are staying at home, thereby helping to protect the vulnerable and sparing many families the pain already felt by those who have lost loved ones.
Together we are tackling this disease, and I want to reassure you that if we remain united and resolute, then we will overcome it. I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge.
And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet, good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past; it defines our present and our future.
The moments when the United Kingdom has come together to applaud its care and essential workers will be remembered as an expression of our national spirit; and its symbol will be the rainbows drawn by children.
Across the Commonwealth and around the world, we have seen heart-warming stories of people coming together to help others, be it through delivering food parcels and medicines, checking on neighbours, or converting businesses to help the relief effort.
And though self-isolating may at times be hard, many people of all faiths, and of none, are discovering that it presents an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect, in prayer or meditation.
It reminds me of the very first broadcast I made, in 1940, helped by my sister. We, as children, spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety.
Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do. While we have faced challenges before, this one is different.
This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us.
We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.
But for now, I send my thanks and warmest good wishes to you all.”