On the Queen, continuity, working-class culture - and emotional attachments to a fraught history
I have a framed picture of the Queen in my apartment. It’s a vintage photo that a friend picked up for me at a garage sale at least a decade ago, and that I have loved since the moment I laid eyes on it.
A tag on the back from the Keystone Press Agency notes that the photo, taken in 1958, is of a portrait painted by Edward Halliday for the New Zealand government.
The photo is lopsided and imperfect and old. And I have always found it strangely moving.
It reminds me of my Nan, who was born in England not long before the Queen, who had a great fondness for the royal, and who took great solace in her bravery during the war.
Despite being a factory worker, my Nan identified with the Queen her entire life. She would have been devastated at her passing, had she lived to see it.
The photo in my home stirs many things in me all at once. It is a reminder of all that my Nan passed on to me — my British heritage, my working-class roots, my love of food and family, and my belief in the power of storytelling.
And it transports me back to the day that all of these disparate threads came together at Buckingham Palace.
On the day of the Queen’s state funeral, I offer an excerpt from my book, Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life, with a postscript on my visit to the Palace.
On my tenth birthday, my grandmother gave me the Better Homes and Garden New Junior cookbook. I can’t say that I remember cooking from it, though there are grease stains on some of the pages, so I must have.
If there’s anyone in my family that I aspired to take after, it was my Nan. She adored food and family in equal measure, and she gave her whole heart to both. Working-class as she was — she toiled in factories in England, fashioning chocolates, and then airplane parts, on an assembly line — my Nan was as refined a woman as any could hope to be.
Her hair was always set in curls. She never left the house without a full face of makeup. She wouldn’t dream of cursing. She wore sparkling rings on her fingers and smelled faintly of pressed powder and lilies and roses. She was warm and gracious, always ready with a kind word. She cared very much for her family, and her neighbours, and strangers on the street who appeared to be having a difficult time. Also, she adored small dogs.
When my mother was about five, and they finally moved out of my great-grandmother’s cramped row house and into their own council flat, Nan got the 1953 edition of the Good Housekeeping Cookery Compendium and worked her way through its pages.
The results were spectacular. My mother and uncle tell me that Nan’s food was always fresh and wholesome, delicious and perfectly executed. She made everything from scratch, even bread. Nan and Grandad had a kitchen garden in London, and so there was always piles of greens at every meal to balance out the mouth-watering dessert that was the pièce de résistance. Even after they immigrated to Canada and fell on particularly hard times, Nan always managed to make meals a festive occasion.
Her specialty was Sunday dinner. Her roasts were tender and juicy; her Yorkshire pudding melted in your mouth. Her mashed potatoes were whipped to perfection and buttery smooth. And she could make a mean dessert from nothing: rice pudding, bread pudding, macaroni pudding — you name it. Plus, on special occasions: Queen Victoria sponge cake with layers of jam, marzipan-topped Christmas cake, treacle pie.
Nan drank her weight in tea every day, and lived for sweets. There were times in my childhood when my parents refused to let me eat anything that contained refined sugar. It was all honey and carob and maple syrup for me. Halva — those chalky bars of sweet sesame paste that haunt health food stores everywhere — if my parents were feeling extremely generous.
But they knew better than to press the issue with Nan. And so my memories of her are drenched in chocolate and marzipan, buttery frosting and powdered sugar and sticky saccharine jam.
Her blue eyes shining, she would tell me about her first husband, a fighter pilot who died in the war. Or her second husband, my grandfather, a dashing Welshman whose picture adorned her brother’s wife’s mantelpiece. Grandad was this sister-in-law’s cousin, and when Nan laid eyes on his photo, she thought, “That is the man I am going to marry!” She used to call him her Mantelpiece Romeo, and when he returned from the war after serving in the navy, they wed within two weeks.
I loved Nan’s stories. Late at night, lying across the room from me in the single bed that my parents had rented for one of her visits, she whispered about the dances during the war. All the windows were painted black and the German planes flew low overhead as the teenagers danced with a giddy abandon that can only come from imminent danger. Only recently did I realize she must have been telling me about The Blitz.
She told me, too, about the day of the Queen’s coronation, when the masses flooded into the streets. The atmosphere was jubilant, and the people cheered and welcomed their new sovereign with open arms and fistfuls of flowers. Commemorative silver spoons, teacups and saucers were given out. Cake and ice cream were delivered to every British subject, much to the glee of my mother, who inherited Nan’s sweet tooth. My mother was then almost five, and spent the day atop her mother’s shoulders in downtown London, craning her neck to catch a glimpse of the young monarch. Nan’s tale wove together gilded carriages and marching soldiers and trumpeting horns, and Queen Elizabeth II, in her calm, steady voice, promising to serve the Commonwealth for the rest of her days.
Such stories would often be accompanied by a chocolate macaroon. A humble factory worker, Nan gave the only thing she had to give: food. And I lapped it up gratefully, licking chocolate from my fingers and holding out my hands for more.
By the time I was old enough to fly alone from Vancouver to Toronto to visit her — eight, according to the hilariously lax parenting standards of the day — my grandmother’s hands were so gnarled from arthritis that it was difficult for her to zip up her own dress, let alone cook up a proper supper. But family stories of Nan’s culinary gifts make me wish that I could have cooked with her.
Nan died when I was thirteen years old. The night that she passed away, I dreamt of her and sensed her presence in my bedroom, and felt her being wrenched away. I woke up, startled, at four a.m., and understood that she’d made her exit from this world.
In the morning when I got up, my father confirmed that she was gone. I knew what I had lost.
I wept for days. I wrote a poem that was read at her funeral, likening her to a ballerina from Swan Lake, the most beautiful thing I could think of at the time.
There have been many times that I felt her absence over the years, but I feel it most keenly in the kitchen. Sometimes, standing there at an open fridge, trying to figure out what to feed myself, I am hit with a deep ache. A yearning for my Nan. For her stories, her love and care. For her recipes. For her food.
In spite of the rich culinary tradition I come from, I was in my thirties when I finally learned to cook properly. For years, I walked around bereft, longing to put on a Sunday supper and not having the slightest clue where to start. The story of my relationship with food, as with the broader story of my leaning out, involves dozens of false starts, dozens of detours. And so, so much casting about, trying to find a different way.
In the end, though, my dream was Nan’s dream: a house full of family and friends, a table laden with good, nourishing food, an evening of entertaining stories and a ridiculously decadent dessert — served up with a shot of glamour (in my case, heels and candy-coloured lipstick, in her case pearls and Chanel No. 5). All inevitably followed by a steaming pot of tea.
In March of 2012, I was invited to Buckingham Palace for a press conference for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I flew to London, stayed at the May Fair, and passed a few days walking the streets.
It was, in fact, the first time I’d seen the city that looms so large in my family history.
I walked The Mall. I wandered through Kensington Palace. I toured Westminster Abbey. I went to The Goring for afternoon tea.
I ate cheddar and chutney sandwiches from Pret A Manger, bought a Battenberg cake at Marks & Spencer, drank gallons of tea, and missed my Nan.
And then I found myself at Buckingham Palace, walking in the Grand Entrance that I’d seen in so many photos, and climbing the majestic staircase, tread by so many royals and politicians and figures from the past.
Our group was ushered into a press room with a couple dozen journalists. Elegant flutes of champagne were passed around. Speeches were delivered, and then we were were invited for a private tour of the Palace.
The Queen was in residence, we were told, though we did not see her.
We lined up at the door that separated the press area from the Palace. I was first in the procession. As I stepped across that threshold, I had to choke back tears.
What might my Nan have felt, knowing her own granddaughter had been invited to the Palace, after all those years admiring, respecting — loving — the Queen from afar?
This is a personal essay, tinged with grief and gratitude. A mood fitting for today.
But it is not offered without ambivalence.
I have family in Dublin, and the relationship of the Crown to Ireland has, of course, been a deeply disturbing one. I have friends from countries with similar histories. My family in Wales also didn’t care for the monarchy. In fact, my Welsh great-grandmother despised the English so much that, while her son and my Nan were on a train back from Wales to their wedding in London, she called ahead and cancelled the ceremony.
There is, too, the issue of working-class culture, and its baffling obsession with those who have inherited tremendous wealth and prestige. How can those with so little celebrate those who have so much, just by accident of their birth? Certainly this is the view that many of my American friends would take.
I suppose, though, that on this day we must allow for a world complicated enough to hold all of these things simultaneously. A world with room for troubled institutions, fraught history, and a remarkable woman who embodied commendable values — duty, self-sacrifice, public service. Continuity.
A woman who volunteered to be a receptacle of myth, mystery, history, tradition. And our collective memory.
A woman who I never met, but who was nevertheless present at all stages of my life, my mother’s life, and that of my Nan.
A woman with whom my grandmother — a Londoner who survived the bombings, and married a Navy man, just like the Queen — felt a deep sense of solidarity.
It is all of that that I mourn today, dizzy and disoriented from the loss.
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