Since the age of 25, hers has been a life of meeting, greeting, touring and red boxes. Six decades on, the Queen is busier than ever. As Charles Nevin explains, you can put it down to her sense of duty ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012
We cannot, by convention, ask the Queen directly for her thoughts on 60 years of hard reigning, but she is unlikely to be either impressed or dismayed to find herself still working at the age of 85. A great deal of official and unofficial fawning surrounds the British monarch, but it seems clear that her leading characteristic, a result of both temperament and upbringing, is a formidable sense of duty.
After 60 years, the figures are arresting. She has made over 300 state visits abroad, some 25,000 visits around Britain to greet, meet, open and tour, hosted more than 100 state banquets for foreign heads of state, including Robert Mugabe and Nicolae Ceausescu, conferred 400,000 honours, dealt with around 150 prime ministers in Britain and the Commonwealth, received 3.5m pieces of correspondence and attended to daily red boxes containing various matters of state, cabinet minutes, appointments, legislation. According to a new biography, “Our Queen” by Robert Hardman, she has fallen asleep at work once, very briefly, in 2004, during a lecture on new insights into biology and medicine with the use of magnets at the Heinrich Heine University, Dusseldorf.
She is the third British monarch to reach the age of 80, and the first to remain active: George III was pronounced mad, and Queen Victoria withdrew. Elizabeth II’s daily schedule remains little changed from 20 years ago, and in some respects has increased: as the royal family has become more open, entertaining has risen by 50% in the last five years. After a famously frugal and inflexible breakfast involving cereal in Tupperware, BBC Radio 4, the Daily Telegraph, the Racing Post and a bagpiper beneath the window, she takes to her desk to read the rest of the British newspapers and deal with correspondence and the first of the red boxes. She then telephones her senior private secretary and asks if he is free to come up, a command masquerading as a question which exemplifies the style of a monarch bound by the unwritten subtleties of the British constitution.
Various meetings and engagements will follow, including audiences with British and foreign diplomats, and senior clergy from the Church of England, of which she is the supreme and interested governor. Often, too, there is an investiture, where she will stand for an hour bestowing official honours, formally and individually. In the afternoon and evening there will be public engagements: as Andrew Marr puts it in his new biography, “The Diamond Queen”, it has been “a life of turning up”. And as the Buckingham Palace website puts it, “Often, one of the last lights on in the Palace at night is the Queen finishing her ‘red box’ of official papers.”
We are even less likely to learn what she thinks of this endless reading, and page-ticking, of government papers proposing, reporting and ordering matters on her behalf over which she has no power: duty, again. Hers not to question why, except in private, with the prime minister, unminuted, at his weekly audience. She will keep on, aided by her personal constitution: “She sleeps well, she’s got very good legs, and she can stand for a long time,” Lord Charteris, a former private secretary once said. “The Queen is as strong as a yak.”
Picture: The Queen in 1952, the year of her accession, on her way to her first State Opening of Parliament (Getty)
Charles Nevin is a freelance writer who spent 25 years on Fleet Street. He is the author of "The Book of Jacks"