Opinion

John Lloyd

‘My people throughout the world’

John Lloyd
Dec 23, 2013 22:02 UTC

This week Queen Elizabeth the Second, now 87, will give her customary Christmas broadcast. Every year she tells most Britons what they want to hear: that they are still great. And she is given much love for that.

That love is said to have been hard won. A few of the books written about Queen Elizabeth’s reign detail a marriage that went sour, at least for some years, because of her husband Prince Philip’s adultery. Nearly all books point to a disciplined life of unremitting travel, briefings, lengthy state occasions and unfailing courtesy. They also mention the constant explosions of sexual waywardness of nearly all of her four children and her (temporary) drop in popularity when, after Princess Diana’s death in 1987, she appeared to insufficiently grieve.

The British like to sneer at the claim of American exceptionalism — the “necessary nation,” as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it in a TV interview in 1998. Britain has its own exceptionalism in the form of the Queen’s Christmas broadcast. In this sense, the Queen is a master propagandist.

The royal Christmas broadcast was the brainchild of Sir John Reith, the creator of the BBC, to be a mixture of the romantic and the puritan. It was conceived in 1932 as an address not just to the people of the UK, but to the British Empire at a time when it was being transformed.

The first speech, delivered by the apprehensive King George V, was written by the great poet and novelist of empire, Rudyard Kipling. Addressed to “all my peoples throughout the Empire,” it was a mere two and a half minutes long. The king offered a model of Britishness that his granddaughter has since followed. He said:

Finding a new role for churches

John Lloyd
Dec 21, 2011 17:38 UTC

The opinions expressed are his own.

There is a poem, written in 1955, by the English poet Philip Larkin, called Church Going. It tells of the poet’s solitary penchant for cycling about villages, visiting country churches, empty, sometimes ruined, each with a “tense, musty, unignorable silence.” In deft touches, he writes of taking off his bicycle clips in lieu of doffing a non-existent cap; of experiencing an inexplicable pleasure in standing in these “frowsty barns”; yet finishing his visit feeling “much at a loss.”

He ends with a reflection: that the church is “a serious house on serious earth,” and that

“… someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round.”

This “hunger to be more serious” is acute now, in Christmas week, when, in the countries of long Christian tradition, the broadcast air is replete with carols, sacred music and invocations to rejoice in a miracle birth. It is a hunger which also contains something of a languorous sense of guilt – that something which should have been precious, or sacred, had been casually lost, dispensed with in the getting and spending of contemporary life. A stirring of regret that there is no solid faith beneath that yearning; and a nostalgia for a childhood acceptance of the message of Christmas, wrapped up in the pleasures of adult attention and the receiving of gifts (to be sure, reality can be quite opposite: but most of us sugar-coat such memories).

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