“Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say,” sings Paul McCartney on the Beatles’ “Her Majesty.” That comic song closes Abbey Road, the last album the band ever recorded, and thus puts a cap on their brief but wondrous cultural reign. In 2002 McCartney played the song again, in front of Queen Elizabeth II herself as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations. Earlier this year her Platinum Jubilee marked a full 70 years on the throne, but now — 53 years after that cheeky tribute on Abbey Road — Her Majesty’s own reign has drawn to a close with her death at the age of 96. She’d been Queen since 1953, but she’d been a British icon since at least the Second World War.
In October 1940, at the height of the Blitz, Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked King George VI to allow his daughter, the fourteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth, to make a morale-boosting speech on the radio. Recorded in Windsor Castle after intense preparation and then broadcast on the BBC’s Children’s Hour, it was ostensibly addressed to the young people of Britain and its empire.
“Evacuation of children in Britain from the cities to the countryside started in September 1939,” says BBC.com, with ultimate destinations as far away as Canada. “It is not difficult for us to picture the sort of life you are all leading, and to think of all the new sights you must be seeing and the adventures you must be having,” Princess Elizabeth tells them. “But I am sure that you, too, are often thinking of the old country.”
In the event, millions of young and old around the world heard the broadcast, which arguably served Churchill’s own goal of encouraging American participation in the war. But it also gave Britons a preview of the dignity and forthrightness of the woman who would become their Queen, and remain so for an unprecedented seven decades. As Paul McCartney implied, Queen Elizabeth II turned out not to be given to prolonged flights of rhetoric. But though she may not have had a lot to say, she invariably spoke in public at the proper moment, in the proper words, and with the proper manner. Today one wonders whether this admirable personal quality, already in short supply among modern rulers, hasn’t vanished entirely.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.