By John Kass
September 11, 2022
When Queen Elizabeth II died the other day, there were two things I had to do:
The first was to call my 92-year-old mom and see how she was taking it. Like many women of her World War II generation, my mom revered the 96-year-old queen. She revered Queen Elizabeth for her dignity, her service to her people, for keeping that stiff upper lip whether she felt like it or not, for putting duty and country first, and the queen’s stoic reserve at a time when Western Culture has become increasingly consumed with cheap theatrical displays of emotion and public sentimentality.
I’m not a fan of kings or royals. If you grew up in Chicago, you grew up in a city where many were eager to bend the knee and kiss the hand. Rather than support the divine rights of kings and a monarchy, I’d much rather we support a meritocracy of equal opportunity where the best and the hardest working rose to the top, just like the NFL or the English Premier League. The competition and striving made America great, but we don’t have that anymore in America. Instead, we have politics that offer “equity,” a racist practice where winners and losers are selected, not on merit but by immutable characteristics like skin pigments.
But my mom just loved Queen Elizabeth.
“I know, I know” mom said over the phone, her voice soft. “I’m watching on the tv. The queen is dead. Long live the king.”
She paused for a moment, sighed deeply and said, “Zoi se mas (Life to us). Long live King Charles.”
As a young woman my mom left her native Canada and the civilized small town of Guelph, Ontario to marry my father and make her new life in Chicago, in the tough Back of the Yards neighborhood. It was a neighborhood of many strong churches and busy taverns and drunks and fights. All of it smelling like a slaughterhouse, because the old Union Stockyards was America’s slaughterhouse.
As as a newlywed, she once looked out their apartment window to the corner tavern where she saw a man get completely knocked out of his shoes with one punch.
“They must have been slip-ons, you know, loafers,” she said once. “It had been raining and the shoes just stayed there as he flew backwards. I said to myself, ‘Welcome to Chicago and life is just a bowl of cherries. Did I tell your father about the man who was punched out of his shoes? Of course not.”
As she settled into the unfamiliar world of her new life in Chicago, Elizabeth became queen and my mom’s touchstone. She didn’t talk about the queen with her friends. She didn’t act like some royal groupie. But I was her son. I knew. And there was that National Geographic of the coronation on the coffee table she kept for years.
Some Americans take inspiration from sports stars and show-biz types. But there once was an America where performers weren’t considered leaders or role models, any more than actors or tap dancers.
As a girl, my mother had listened to the bombing of London on the radio, as her father, my grandfather, fought in Europe for Canada in his second World War having also fought in World War I. And the House of Windsor and Winston Churchill led Great Britain through the darkness, not by cheap and sensational emotional speeches, not by cheap theatrics, but by example. Elizabeth’s stoicism meant everything to my mother. She and millions across the world took inspiration from the English monarch.
And because my mom felt this way, there was that second thing I had do: re-watch and reconsider a superb 2006 film “The Queen,” starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II. Especially now, with the queen to be lying in state and celebrity news commentators and their political agendas working overtime, along with revisionist worm-tongues who would make history unrecognizable. If you haven’t seen it, allow me to recommend it. It’s worth your time.
You might think me foolish to focus on a movie, especially when there is so much news and live commentary about the royals now. But will the media peel its own skin? The film deals with the modern political/celebrity / media culture that demanded Queen Elizabeth humble herself, wear her emotions on her sleeve for all to see to the delight of the emotionally unhinged mob that really didn’t know Diana, but hysterically wept for her.
Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her performance. She’s brilliant in this, a study in control just like her subject. And it mirrors exactly what my mother and many others loved about Queen Elizabeth II. The film focuses on the difficult period following the death of former princess Diana Spencer 25 years ago.
The queen refused to participate in the national drama about Diana. She wanted no part of it. The media didn’t like her silence. And her approval ratings dropped.
Elton John so wanted to perform at the funeral and all but demanded it. He recast his song about Marilyn Monroe, the Hollywood sex goddess who committed suicide after being passed around like some broken toy by the Kennedy brothers. His song about “Norma Jean” was refit to cast Diana as the “English Rose.”
Was it dignified to refit a song for Monroe as the funeral anthem for Diana? Would you want it done for or your sister, or mother or wife at their funeral?
If you ask that, I suppose then I have no further questions for you. But I wouldn’t want a song at a family funeral associated with a broken sex goddess/plaything of American political royalty. But maybe that’s just me.
It could be just me and my cultural deficiencies and weaknesses. But then, we don’t sing songs at our funerals, except perhaps lamentations. At Diana’s funeral extravaganza, Marylin Monroe melded with the English Rose as if they were spiritual sisters.
The Prime Minister at the time was Tony Blair, a slickster who had much in common with former President Bill Clinton. It was Clinton who could emote on a dime. Americans wanted that sort of thing then, and the world came to want it too. Everything became about your feelings.
When Blair christened Diana post-mortem as “the People’s Princess,” public sentiment in the UK turned against the queen who had refused to dance and emote. The media, the Prime Minister and others wanted her to perform. She didn’t want to perform.
“Nowadays people want glamor and tears, the grand performance,” Mirren says as Elizabeth II “I’m not very good at that. I never have been I prefer to keep my feelings to myself.”
It was that refusal to give into emotion that kept England strong through the bombings and kept their fighting spirit up. Would satisfying our inner snowflakes lead a nation and keep it strong?
And when she finally capitulates to save the monarchy, the Tony Blair character congratulates her for demonstrating proper humility.
“You’re confusing humility with humiliation” she says.
There will be hours and hours and hours of news coverage about the queen’s funeral. There will be much gossip and intrigue. The worm-tongues will be in their glory.
Before she died, she approved each step of the funeral rites, from the processions to the songs that will be played, and who stands where. It’s all political theater approved by an extremely strong woman who didn’t want to shed public tears, but who knew the power of ceremonial and ritual. The choreographers pull at a nation’s heart strings.
Do yourself a favor and watch “The Queen.”
(Copyright 2022 John Kass)