The day I met the queen

2012-06-05 00:00

THAT’S an exaggeration, really. I saw her, from a distance. She didn’t see me. And she wasn’t the queen then, but Princess Elizabeth, not quite 21, secretly engaged to Philip.

It was 1947. The royal family were visiting South Africa to thank South Africans for their part in saving Britain in World War 2. It was at the Oval in Alexandra Park. The royal family, along with Eleanor Russell, at that time lady mayor of Maritzburg, were in the pavilion. On the far side of the Oval I was there, in my Wolf Cub uniform. I’m not sure why I was in my Wolf Cub uniform except that it seemed a patriotic thing to do. I remember hoping that she would not see me because in that particular Wolf Cub pack (the sixth Pietermaritzburg) instead of caps we wore a green cloche hat in the style of a twenties’ flapper which was embarrassing.

The royal family had travelled to South Africa in HMS Vanguard, and on disembarking in Cape Town had travelled to Maritzburg in the White Train, their home for the duration of the visit. The White Train was briefly parked at the Maritzburg Station, but moved on overnight to Lion’s River where next morning, it was rumoured, the two princesses would be met with horses for a brief ride in the Midlands. We drove to Lion’s River for another glimpse. I don’t remember if we actually saw them then.

Natal in those days was deeply patriotic. Movies in the Grand Cinema or the King’s Cinema had always ended with a shot of the Union Jack flying in the wind to the strains of God Save Our Gracious King, and we all rose in our seats. Movies were always preceded with Gaumont-British news, and when the royal family appeared in the war-time news clips, we clapped.

The king was our hero. After all, our fathers had been away in the Western Desert fighting for him. We at Merchiston were tough colonial boys. We did not wear underpants beneath our grey serge shorts. One unfortunate lad’s mother insisted that he wore this effeminate garment. His mother, he assured us, had told him that the king himself wore underpants. But we knew that could not be true. The king was brave and manly.

We graduated from Merchiston to College. One afternoon in 1952 a message came to our classroom from the principal. “The king has died.” There were gasps, and some tears. We stood to attention. The school was immediately dismissed for the day, and for the day of the state funeral. When Queen Mary died a year later we were not given another day off but on the day of her funeral the whole school gathered in the Victoria Hall to hear the service over the radio.

Television had not reached South Africa by 1953, so although the queen’s coronation was televised, we could not watch. But within a few days the film of the coronation was shown to full cinemas in Maritzburg and Durban.

So that visit of the royal family to Natal, the last outpost of the British Empire, had been an emotional occasion. I remember, when they left, that a choir assembled from the Maritzburg schools sang to them Will Ye No Come Back Again?, the Scottish lament for Bonnie Prince Charlie.

They never did come back, or at least not until the queen’s visit in 1999. The royal visit in 1947 presaged the success of the Nationalist Party in 1948. The path to republicanism in 1960 was inevitable. But truth be told, the English in Natal never felt part of the republic. It was not our republic. Hendrik Verwoerd and his successors were not our people. The Carbineers defiantly retained their royal title until 1961. The Victoria Club in Longmarket Street flew the Union Jack until it closed. In our hearts we remained the subjects of the queen.

It has all changed now, of course. But when, at the end of the concert at the Royal Show last week, the orchestra played God Save the Queen, we rose as a man and woman. Because, for those of us brought up in Natal in the forties, she remains our queen and we wish her well on her 60th anniversary.

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