'Adversity is the diamond dust Heaven polishes its jewels with.' Thomas Carlyle
Last week, a Red Room colleague, whose blog posts come highly recommended, mentioned how fascinated she was by the similarities and differences in accounts of life on either side of the Atlantic.
Well, it's sometimes said in jest that Americans and Brits are one people divided by a common language. Or maybe it's the other way round! But penetrate a little deeper into the psyche of nationhood and it becomes clear that while tremendous friendship, goodwill, co-operation and esteem prevail, what separates is more than tweaks of the lexicon. It's a matter of history and geography, our respective positions on the atlas and how the interaction of both has forged diverse ways of thinking and being in striving towards fair and civilised cultures. The Atlantic is easier to bridge than at any time in the past, but it is still a thousand leagues of water.
Today, we're celebrating the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty's Coronation on June 2nd, 1953. What the 2012 Diamond Jubilee showed beyond a shadow of doubt was how loved and revered she is, how thankful we are for the blessings of our heritage, how, when all the carping about privilege and the flirting with extreme fringes of democracy are done, we recognise what has given us a frame of reference through decades of instability. We know who we are. Thankfulness is better than pride. Pride has to do with Empire and all its conceits. We are struggling with many of the sins of Empire at present. It has all come home to roost.
Our Monarch is a mirror. She reflects back the better part of our human nature. Queen Elizabeth II is no Gloriana. She has understood what humility means and nicely judged her stance through some harsh challenges, very aware of dark forces behind the scenes. As a Constitutional Monarch, she has toed a strong and delicate line. When the Divine Right of Kings was questioned in the seventeenth century, it led to the execution of Charles I. It was an idealistic notion, open to abuse on the part of monarchs and subjects alike, and widely misinterpreted. To make the concept viable in moral as well as legal terms, humility is called for on both sides. The buck stops with the Sovereign. The exalted are here to serve in God's stead, a tall order with myriad random forces at large, one that demands respect for the position itself and constant prayer for the wisest outcome when human frailty takes over.
The Commonwealth and Cromwell's Protectorate, after Charles I's death in 1649, proved neither popular nor practicable. Folk didn't take to having a commoner decide their fate and the experiment failed. The Restoration of 1660 heralded times that have never looked back, whatever modifications have been made. It's the easiest thing in the world to tear down icons, demolish old structures, whitewash church walls of their painted saints and martyrs, not so easy to lay foundations among the rubble and build a whole new regime.
Perhaps contrarily, we don't go in for role models and heroes in Britain. The notion is alien to us. Fandom doesn't have quite the same charge as it does in the States. We buy the products of celebrity to enhance our lives; we embed those we admire in the culture, but while fashions and attitudes may filter through, we take our idols with a pinch of salt. It seems there is something else already in situ within our makeup.
Across the ocean, we see space and the freedom to move and be, an enviable pioneering spirit, a people determined to pool resources and 'fork lightning' from the ruins of religious purges and ideological persecution. A generous people keen to delight in the success of others rather than cut them down to size and look for feet of clay. They have belief in opportunity, a Dream that anything is possible by dint of hard work... And, occasionally, we glimpse a people cloven from their deepest roots, living on the outer crust of history, hankering for the old countries, the inherited beliefs.
I look back to the fifties, the decade in which the Coronation took place, and smile at how young English historians describe it. No, my earliest memories are not especially gilded, or bathed in nostalgia, but it was an era of citizenship, relative safety and unlocked doors. The corner shop, the linchpin of community, had not yet lost out to supermarkets. (Ironically, it is being restored by immigrant cultures.) Education was the watchword and degrees matched the needs of the workplace in a way they seldom do nowadays. People travelled a lot. They travelled widely in the course of their week. Infrastructure was well-oiled and wider-reaching than it is now. Of course, the population was only half the size, maybe less if some estimates are right. Since then, technology and transport have created more haste and congestion, less speed. A letter dropped in the post to someone in the next village may now go a hundred miles out of its way before delivery.
So what is prosperity? Isn't it anything that intimates heaven, the goal behind every goal and the subliminal purpose of all striving? It is our Queen doing her best to hold the self-serving, power-hungry wolves at bay, tending her flock as faithfully as a shepherdess.
It is our Monarch imaging God's love for humanity and in that every Continent has an equal share.
Poem in honour of last year's Diamond Jubilee