It rained lightly in London on Thursday and we felt somehow prepared that something momentous might happen. Charles had gone to Balmoral. His sister Anne was already there. His brothers followed soon. Elizabeth had cancelled an important function, a privy council meeting. She had also missed the Highland Games.
And then the news popped into our phones. The UK’s monarch had gone. At 96, a ripe old age. You wouldn’t have guessed if you looked at the streets. I was in Covent Garden area with a friend at an Indian-Chinese restaurant. The music continued. Patrons kept coming in. There was no announcement. The English pub across too was vibrant in the light summer rain.
A helicopter flew over us but there were no sirens. Nobody suggested that the shops or restaurants should close. Nobody threatened anyone and nobody needed to board up their windows.
Later, as I headed to the bus stop I saw a giant poster, saying, simply, Her Majesty the Queen, 1926-2022. They were prepared. It was inevitable. The streets were quiet as London evenings are on wet evenings when people head home.
At Victoria station, I saw a young woman in jeans and t shirt with two friends asking the police officer the way you Buckingham Palace. She was carrying a large bouquet. I walked to the Palace, people had started gathering. There was no hysteria. The police were invisible. I had seen far more security near Downing Street, the home of the prime minister, the previous day.
Stoicism, stiff upper lip. Mustn’t grumble. Keep calm and carry on. These are the cliches by which the English are known. For a monarch who reigned for 70 years, Londoners showed their unsentimental demeanour.
It is easy to imagine Boris Johnson feeling terrible, missing out the chance to give a speech where he would have somehow placed himself at the centre. It is also easy to imagine someone like Margaret Thatcher rising to the occasion with a speech worthy of the day. Or Tony Blair, with his keen instinct of the masses, saying exactly what the British people would want to hear.
Instead we have Liz Truss, in her first week as prime minister, expected to play a unifying role, mourning the death of the woman who represented the institution she once wanted to eradicate.
Britain changed in the 70 years of Elizabeth’s time as Queen. Four years after she began her rule, Britain was humiliated at Suez, John Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger, and the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament came into being, challenging the Cold War consensus.
She saw the empire she had inherited shrink, and by the time of the Commonwealth Summit in June this year in Kigali, Rwanda, which the UK had never colonised, the UK was a shadow of its former self.
That incredible shrinking could be humiliating to many. Elizabeth handled it with grace. There are many ways to shorten her name, but she was always referred to in full.
Never elected, she was admired and loved by many, respected by many more even if they may not have felt affection for her personally. What she really believed in about the great issues of the day, we will never know.
The monarch in the UK reigns, does not rule. The one who rules shares her name, but it is a shrunken name, Liz. Like what has become of the nation, overtaken by some former colonies, which chose to leave the European Union, and is now not so much a sceptred isle, but a small island off the coast of Europe, unsure of itself.
New York-based Salil Tripathi lived and wrote from London from 1999 to 2019.