We live in New England, and the name isn't arbitrary — there are lots of connections with Old England here by blood and culture and religion. So it's not surprising that a lot of people in our area feel very affected by the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who died Thursday at age 96.
Executive arts editor and host of Open Studio Jared Bowen joined All Things Considered to talk with host Arun Rath in a “podcast-y” way about the queen’s legacy, and why they found themselves so moved by the end of her reign.
Arun Rath: Just diving into this, I talked about local connections here — personally, my mother's English. Just two weeks ago, we took her back to England for the first time in about 15 years. As you can imagine, a pretty emotional trip. And she was a little sad — I think we all were — that the queen was in Balmoral while we were in London. But we still made a little pilgrimage past Buckingham Palace, funnily enough, on our way to catch a performance of Hamilton.
My mom and I have talked a lot today. She's certainly more traditional, probably more of a monarchist, as you'd expect. Deeply, deeply sad. But, Jared, I was so shocked by how gutted I feel over this. I'm not a monarchist, as you can imagine. It just seems that whoever you are, if you're English at all, you loved this queen.
Jared Bowen: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons for this. And I feel the same way, Arun, I am not a monarchist, either. But I think the first element of this is that: we learned during the pandemic that we, as human beings, crave steadiness and consistency. And we like stability. And I think Queen Elizabeth represented all of that to us. She's somebody you grew up watching and who was this steady figure in Britain, but you also knew that your parents grew up with her, your grandparents, perhaps, even looked to her as they watched history unfold. And so that DNA kind of passes down.
And to me, I was always struck, especially in the latter years, the strength that she exhibited — and I'm talking about the physical strength. The image of strength that she demonstrated when we would see her with that beaming smile, meeting as many people as she could avail herself of — whether it's diplomats or those parties that would have at Buckingham Palace where just some of the common folk would come and be honored, but really have an exchange with her. She greeted them. She made small talk. We'd never saw her use a cane until just the last, I think, few months. She may have retreated into her private quarters and not felt as well, but she never showed us that.
And I think that has gone so far into our psyche, to have one individual woman in England who had the world watch her like this and gave us that consistency.
Rath: Yeah, the consistency, I mean — your head spins. Because I was thinking about how, you know, we've been losing a number of these kind of epical figures in recent years — the most recent example, of course, being Mikhail Gorbachev. But the scale when we're talking about Queen Elizabeth, it's staggering. Harry Truman was the president during her ascension. All these world leaders, all these big figures, to think that she was there through it all and impacting it. And you also think, this woman — maybe with the exception of Maggie Thatcher, and now the new prime minister — among all these men.
Bowen: Well, and that's where I think the other part of this comes into play is: the story here. I mean, there is a great narrative about her life and the family and what they represent. There is a reason that we have all gravitated toward fairy tales and stories about castles ever since childhood. There's just something, I think, in cultural storytelling that's magnetic and draws us to that.
And then we have a figure who was never supposed to be the queen. We all now are being reminded, of course, of the story of her father becoming king only because his brother abdicated. So here's a woman who had a normal life — normal-ish life, I should say — until it became very evident that she was in line for the throne. And then everything shifted.
And then she carried that family heritage, the heritage of the monarchy in her country, all the way forward, all through 70 years, really not wavering. And we saw the good characters and we saw the bad characters. And we saw the tragedy. And we saw the humor.
We saw even her take dips. I remember having being very disappointed, watching how she reacted to the death of Princess Diana. And so much was made of that very, very slight nod she gave to the coffin when she finally did have to acquiesce and acknowledge the presence that Diana had in her country. So we've even seen the queen do that. But she has always recovered and seemed to have learned from her mistakes.
Rath: You know, as we were talking about about the scale, how the Queen Elizabeth II is the only queen most of us have ever known. Some say that she really established the legitimacy of the modern constitutional monarchy. To lead a nation, somehow, without being involved in politics and again, to say that in a line that almost sounds superhuman.
Bowen: Well, it's interesting to know that she did this by saying virtually nothing. She would speak, of course. She had her obligations before Parliament and the other appearances she made. But she's a woman who rarely gave interviews, only a few her in her entire lifetime.
Over the years, I would watch various documentaries, and you look for these little bits of sound, as she's entering a castle or coming in from watching the races or something, and she'd have one slight bit of conversation. It was your only sliver into getting a sense of her personality. But that was also very much crafted.
It goes into the storytelling that I was alluding to earlier in that she crafted, I think, intentionally a mystique around her being queen and what her role was and what it represented. And it left so many people to speculate about what she actually thought as the world unfolded and changed so dramatically around her.
Rath: And talking about how British culture took her on — because, well, we know how savage British satire can can be. Seemed relatively kind to this kind person. Maybe with the exception of the Sex Pistols, but even they turned nice to her by over time.
Bowen: Well, I think that's inevitable, right? You attract a certain amount of attention. But she also saw this change: because at the outset of her being queen, there wasn't the scrutiny that there was today. That's shifted over, again, the 70 years of her being on the throne, where suddenly the press and the tabloids and authors and others suddenly felt that they had more license to go after the family, to have conversations, to report conversations, to conduct interviews that never would have been possible before.
And so she had to deal with that. She had to contend with that, and rightly so. There were very strong questions about what was happening within the family — or “the firm,” as it's often called. I've thought a lot about that today. Again, going back to the how this image of the queen and the monarchy is constructed, that so many people have referred to it as “the firm” because it's not even necessarily a family. They had a job to do and they were very aware of that. And it's my understanding that people even within the palace walls have called it “the firm” because it is a business, at the end of the day. A business of upholding their image before the British people, and ultimately — because you and I are talking about this here in Massachusetts — around the world as well.
Rath: One last thing I want to share is that, I think one of the things that also makes me feel a bit sad right now about losing the queen is the kind of the context in Britain. I realize that the queen, for me, stood for not just kindness, but a kind of tolerance. A tolerance for this diverse, maybe multiracial, Britain that was in this weird way repopulated by its former colonies — people like my father, who came from India. And right now, we're in this age of Brexit. So much intolerance, British nationalism, it makes losing this queen somehow harder.
Bowen: Again, you've seen how she's adapted — not always well —
Rath: Definitely wasn't perfect!
Bowen: No. And we've seen the missteps and some of the horrible things that members of the family have said over the years. But you did have the sense that she wanted to keep it together, that she wanted that inclusivity.
I was also struck, after the Oprah interview, how Harry was at pains to say it was neither his grandfather nor his grandmother who made those terrible comments about how dark [he and Meghan Markle's] baby might be. And I wonder about that today, too, Arun. What happens now that she's gone and there isn't that baked-in kindness, if you will, and that respect in a world that's already troubled? Because she was often the one in her very sweet, kind voice in those public addresses that could kind of calm people down. You almost could feel that she had the sense that she could lower the blood pressure.
Rath: Jared, well, there's a reason I reached out this morning and said, “Please, please, come on and talk with me if we lose the queen.” Thank you so much.
Bowen: Well, it's great to be with you, as always.
Rath: That's GBH’s executive arts editor and correspondent Jared Bowen. We've been talking about the life and death of Queen Elizabeth II. And I want to go out on some amazing music. This is Henry Purcell's music for the funeral of Queen Mary II. It's very traditional English church music, and it's incredible.