Things weren't always this good between me and the queen. I lived in Britain while Princess Diana was still alive, which wasn't the queen's finest hour. Indeed, the way I felt about the queen then was akin to how I later came to feel about Dick Cheney. No, she wasn't the British answer to Darth Vader, but I detected she was a control freak, who liked to pull strings from behind the scenes. Later, when the nation turned against her in the wake of Diana's death — a moment captured so well by Stephen Frears in his film, The Queen — I wasn't at all surprised. Caught off guard, she had shown her true colors, and there would be no more Trooping the Colour by her guardsmen.
Well, more fool me. Your Majesty, you easily weathered that storm. Not only did you win back the affections of many of you subjects but you've won me over.
To what do I owe this volte-face? I think it dates from the period when I lived in Japan, another small island nation with a monarchy.
Living in Japan taught me:
1) The value of stoicism.
By that I don't mean stiff upper lip, which in my experience can come across as emotionally cold, dismissive, and snarky. Rather, I mean gaman — the Japanese word for people who display forbearance and poise in the face of adverse circumstances beyond their control. Now that's a quality I can admire, and even the most ardent anti-monarchist must concede that Elizabeth II has it in
Although the queen arrives in the summer’s worst heat wave, she is not the wilting kind. The dark hair has gone white and the shoulders are a bit rounded with age now, but her step is still lively and the face engaged on a reception line or at a garden party as she shakes another hundred hands and speaks with simple dignity.2) Respect for the aged.
Japanese have an expression for talented older people: Living National Treasures. It's a meme we Westerners would do well to adopt — the idea that people who have made an art of what they do over time can't easily be replaced and so should be celebrated while they're still alive. Still going strong at 84, the queen has perfected the art of meeting-and-greeting and making small talk, in a way that may never be surpassed.
If I were to write a play about the queen, I might put her on stage with the 77-year-old comedienne Joan Rivers, who, too, merits Living National Treasure status. Both Rivers and the British monarch are experiencing career revivals after having had many an annus horribilis and being subject to popular misconceptions, such as the idea that they are mean spirited and heartless. (Rivers won Celebrity Apprentice last year, and now there is a film out about her life.)
But there is also a sense in which they could be each other's alter egos. According to Jonathan Van Meter, who wrote a profile of Rivers for New York Magazine, Rivers lives in a style fit for a queen, replete with live-in butler and stiff dinner parties with finger bowls. By the same token, I have this hunch that the queen would relish being Rivers for a day, telling people to their faces she's ambivalent about feminism and detests whining and victimhood and laziness.
(Ultimately, however, the queen has the edge on Rivers as far as national treasures go: her face is etched with the patina of age, a mark of far superior value.)
I was living in Tokyo when Crown Prince Naruhito married Masako Owada. I vividly recall many people expressing their concern about how this brilliant young woman would fare at the hands of the Imperial Household Agency, the government agency in charge of state matters concerning Japan's imperial family. A stickler for protocol, the agency had bullied Masako-san's mother-in-law, Empress Michiko, into having a nervous breakdown when she first entered the palace. Michiko-san lost the ability to speak for several months and hasn't been the same since. But maybe Masako-san, the popular thinking went, was more of her own person and could resist the brow-beating?
Well, around eight years ago, Masako-san largely disappeared from the public eye, reportedly due to emotional disorders caused by pressures to produce a male heir and adjust to life in the Imperial Family. Ben Hills is an Australian journalist who has published a book about the princess's plight. He reports she has been suffering from shingles and deep depression and calls her a "prisoner" of the Chrysanthemum Throne.
Compared to what is going on in Japan, life in Britain's Royal Family seems positively touchy feely. (That Kate should count her blessings!)
Queen Elizabeth's great-great-great grandmother Queen Victoria is a kind of patron saint to those of us who are inclined to chase after elephants. She got through her long reign by dint of her vibrant personality and wicked sense of humor — much more our style! That said, if all goes well Elizabeth will soon match her famous ancestor as the only other monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years on the throne. Long live the queen!
Question: Does my change of heart make sense, or have I gone completely bonkers?