The Queen is a bridge between the past and the future and it is doubtful we will see her like again
Through public and personal tragedies, the monarch is still held in colossal esteem, writes Gail Walker
Even the most ardent anti-monarchist would be hard pushed to deny that the celebrations of the Queen's 90th birthday have been a tremendous success. Huge crowds on the Mall, four generations of royals on the balcony, wall-to-wall TV coverage, applause across the age ranges and ethnic populations for a social phenomenon most thought was anachronistic and doomed, on the wrong side of history.
Who, 38 years ago - when Johnny Rotten was snarling, or even 19 years ago when the death of Princess Diana brought so much disquiet about the institution to a head - would have thought that the monarchy in our day would be so safely ensconced in public life?
Except, of course, that's not quite true. The weekend's events were not about patriotism as such, or about showing deference to an institution. At the centre of all the pomp and pageantry, around whom the entire panoply of state celebration was turning, from towering guardsmen to prime ministers to Commonwealth representatives to flights of aircraft overhead, the focus of the vast crowds and hundreds of thousands of camera phones, there was one tiny figure, not quite isolated, but palpably still borne up by the responsibility she took upon herself 63 years ago.
The whole ceremony evidenced the colossal personal affection in which the Queen is held by the nation. Can those words mean anything in our 21st century? If 'the nation' means anything, one way is in the response ordinary people have to this little old lady who, at one time, was an impossibly young and beautiful woman ascending to the throne after the devastation of a historically violent and uniquely vile conflict.
When her mother died in 2001, there was scepticism among the broadcast media as to how the public would respond. As it happened, the collective memory of the nation recalled the woman who stayed in London during the Blitz, a woman whose homely values - Dubonnet, darling - struck a chord with a people who like their old dears a bit risqué, a bit fond of a bet, more than a bit human.
Her daughter, though, is sterner stuff of course. She is Queen in her own right, not by marriage, and has that little extra layer of detachment which has stood her in good stead over the long decades as the world changed and, sometimes, fell apart around her.
What a wise woman the Queen is. As the poet Philip Larkin wrote on her Silver Jubilee in 1977:
In times when nothing stood
but worsened, or grew strange,
there was one constant good:
she did not change.
But, in fact, she did change - she has opened the doors of the castles to TV crews and Ant and Dec, parachuted into the Olympic stadium, has spoken directly to the people at times of national trauma, has found ways to deploy her unique role for the obviously greater good, even to the extent of acknowledging her own family's losses in our own conflict and passing beyond those, with a nod of the head, to extraordinary acts of political repair.
We here have much for which to thank her. When the time came, she visited the Republic, laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance to those who fought to end British rule in Ireland, met Martin McGuinness and spoke of reconciliation. Only she could have managed these symbolic gestures with grace, humanity and the commensurate impact that she herself brought to them. It couldn't have been any other monarch. At 90 - just think about that - she is a reminder of the virtues of old age, a visible symbol that the elderly have so much to contribute. She symbolises the vitality of our elders: it takes some nerve to don Saturday's colour-popping green coat and hat and Sunday's fuchsia outfit. When that other popular poem said, "When I am old I shall wear purple", no one really expected that anyone would. Except the Queen.
It's a truism to say the cornerstone of her popularity is 'devotion to duty'. Thirty years after most would have retired, the Queen continues as a link between the old Britain, the Britain of the present and the emerging Britain.
Some say a life of conspicuous wealth leads to a life of longevity. But only a moron thinks that, as celebrities with vast personal fortunes and phalanxes of personal physicians fall by the wayside at a relatively early age or are afflicted by illness. Only a churl would dismiss the stresses of her position. Not to mention the family scandals which threatened - and at times continue to threaten - her legacy. It can't have been easy.
But the Queen has grown into the role, becoming not merely a figurehead but a diplomat above party political considerations. And she is popular with her people because she has pulled off a remarkable feat. Along with Philip, she has balanced the symbolic and the personal, the State and the family, the public and the private. She has managed to retain her own personal dignity through the most invasive era of human history.
While her face is as familiar as one of our own family, we know little about the Queen (below) or her husband. We know the broad strokes and the near clichés - the corgis, the horses, the handbags - but she herself remains an enigma.
One thing is certain. That is the high regard in which she is held personally by those who have had dealings with her - from former statesmen, ex-presidents, premiers, former sworn enemies, and ex-heads of State, to those throngs who have turned up for garden parties and walkabouts around the world. People who have nothing to gain from sycophancy or false praise have a clear sense of her qualities.
In other words, she is a remarkable woman who is also the Queen. A formidable combination.
And one we have been very lucky to experience in our day.