During the early years of World War II, the British were bearing up with stoic good humor under waves of Nazi bombers, while in a house in Anniston, Ala., a boy stood by his mother at the baby grand in the living room as she played with anthem solemnity, “There Will Always Be an England.”
The boy was stirred from a source he couldn’t understand then, and was fiercely supportive of all things British.
My affinity for “the sceptered Isle” had little to do with the Royal family. As a child, I was awed more by the astonishing bravery of the men who flew the Spitfire fighters against the Nazi air armadas.
In subsequent years as I learned more about the Royals of my time, there were disappointments in some members of the family — disgust in one case — but I maintained warm respect for the institution.
Like most Americans, 82 percent in a recent poll, we think fondly of the queen partly because we don’t have a single sovereign far above the tawdry business of politics to symbolize what is best in us as a people.
We have always wanted a king or queen to project our best qualities as Americans; we’ve even tried to fit our presidents into that role as Republicans do Reagan and Democrats do John Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt.
But when we get close to our kingly presidents, we find they could bend their values to fit a political end; that they were only mortal, like us.
One of the great romantic stories of the 1930s was the abdication of King Edward VIII “for the woman I love,” Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced woman from Baltimore. She was older than Prince Edward, the soon-to-be king, but Edward had habitually preferred the company of older women.
His obsession with a woman who was neither young nor pretty and who bossed him around like a lapdog hid a dark secret. The editor of a British Sunday newspaper who should know told me he loved to be whipped by her.
“There must have been some sort of sadomasochistic relationship,” says Philip Ziegler, Edward VIII’s official biographer. “He relished the contempt and bullying she bestowed on him.”
When it was discovered that he had pro-Nazi views, he was banished to the Bahamas where he exhibited racist and anti-Semitic views, as well.
Romance turned to disgust for me when the fullness of his character was revealed. It also enhanced the poignant dilemma of his younger brother, Albert, who was pushed unwilling onto the throne in the face of on-rushing World War II and burdened with a confidence-draining stammer.
His Royal dilemma was brilliantly played by Colin Firth in the 2010 film, The King’s Speech, in which he won the struggle against stuttering with the help of a cheeky Aussie commoner.
It was George VI’s fate to reign for the duration of World War II and to begin the dismantling of the Empire — a task that was completed during the reign of his daughter Elizabeth, the queen, whose Jubilee was celebrated last week.
In a commentary on the transitory nature of power, the great British historian Arnold Toynbee also drew a distinction between the American South and the historically more favored New England.
Toynbee said that a boy at Groton, for instance, would have felt as Toynbee himself did during (Victoria’s) Diamond Jubilee, “Well, here we are on the top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there — forever!
“There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. However, if I had been a boy from the Southern states, I should have known that history had happened to me…”
Queen Elizabeth knew history was happening to her as the island decoupled from its empire, and she knew the personal pain of her son Charles, whose marriage to the fairy princess Diana had come apart, too.
The world outside the palace loved the princess more because she wasn’t a saint. We could call her Diana because she was like us, and like us she had doubts and insecurities. But she also loved beautiful things, was a beautiful thing; she loved style, was style. She could break our hearts, and her heart could break.
Her death in 1997 did break our hearts but the queen seemed oddly aloof in Balmoral, her Scottish castle. Her first cousin and great friend Margaret Rhodes said the queen was just protecting the boys, William and Harry, like a good grand nanny.
As the world poured out its grief in a sea of flowers surrounding Buckingham Palace, Prime Minister Tony Blair finally persuaded the queen, whose approval rating was below 50 percent, to return and view the flowers.
Her walkabout was a relief to millions who wanted to love her and a crack in rigid distant Royal protocol, observed today in the outgoing accessibility of the two princes. The Royals today, even the queen herself, are more human.
Millions of Britons and millions more from around the world joined in celebration have washed away sad memories. All is forgiven, Your Majesty; Happy Diamond Jubilee!
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.