For some reason, last night before I learned the news, and apropos of nothing, James Taylor’s song “Fire and Rain” was playing on a loop in my head. It turned out to be appropriate. It is, after all, a song about sudden and unanticipated loss. More than that, it’s about the melancholy that follows the absurd belief we all share, that things will continue as they always have continued because, well, things will continue as they always have.
Last night at approximately seven PM, Greenwich Time, I came downstairs from my study when my wife informed me that Queen Elizabeth the Second was dead. I was unprepared for the shock, the disbelief and, above all, the raw, uninhibited grief. For the first time in my life and, I dare say, for the first time in most of yours, a certain woman didn’t occupy the throne of Great Britain and the United Kingdom. From the moment I was born to that moment yesterday as I write this, Great Britain had always had that particular woman watching over us. That is no longer so. The second Elizabethan Age is now officially at an end.
But it’s more than that. The second Elizabeth to grace this island was like the first. Someone very special. So much so that even detractors knew she had something no one else had. In a world filled with political hacks, con artists and phoneys, Elizabeth Regina was exactly who and what she appeared to be. Steadfast, unflappable, gentle, conscientious and utterly devoted to her people. She really believed in what she was doing. She carried out her role in good faith without guile or conceit, a role that was thrust upon her by the folly and corruption and manipulation of others. The plans they made put an end to her. And it was a role she filled for more than 70 years without complaint or disgrace.
It’s true, most of the other members of the royal family were all too human. They behaved and continue to behave in the dispiritingly human ways that neither surprise nor astonish. I’m not quite as harsh in my assessment as was Christopher Hitchens, but I’ll quote him anyway because he captures much of the letdown I feel about what comes next. “From the aesthetic point of view,” Hitchens wrote, “[the death of Elizabeth II] will matter a bit, because the prospect of a morose bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, and with the most abysmal taste in royal consorts, is a distinctly lowering one.”
But that might just be because, more than anything else, Elizabeth is a tough act to follow. How can the prospect be anything but lowering when she was so much of what she was? She was that rare thing, a politician who remained decent and steadfast, without a hint of impropriety across multiple decades, while the rest of her world was in a state of exhausting and continuous drama — and too often even scandal.
I’ve witnessed many detractors of the Queen over the years but never yet encountered one who, had they been born to that role, would have been half the person she was. There was always something tinny and inauthentic about her critics. None of them measured up to her. On some level most of them knew it.
I spent my first Christmas after September 11th, 2001, on this island, where I watched my first traditional Christmas Queen’s Speech. I was touched by her simple human compassion for America’s recent tragedy and how she conveyed the idea that she was grieving right along with us. I believed she did grieve with us, and that belief has never changed.
And so she has left us, without fuss or fury. There was no protracted illness, no melodramatic cry of self pity. She left us the way she served us, departing with the same quiet dignity with which she arrived and with which she did everything. She left a quiet place that can’t be filled with anything else except our own foolishly misplaced dependence on the continuation of everything. For my part, I always thought I’d see her one more time again.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.