Losing the Wallpaper: Musings on the Death of Queen Elizabeth II
Quite the late night development – a development that will no doubt dominate all parts of the media for weeks to come. The death of Queen Elizabeth II. Head of State of not just the United Kingdom, but also of my own country.
As a preamble, I am not a monarchist. Rather the opposite. However, whereas I always took a dim view of Prince Phillip, I did actually respect the Queen as a person. One can differentiate an institution from the flesh and blood person behind the mask. To a New Zealander, she was always a remote figure – a face on coins and banknotes, and the ostensible reason behind a public holiday in June, but little more. But remote though she was, the Queen was enduring. Neither myself, nor even my parents, have ever known another Head of State. The Queen was always there, an eternal and unchanging fixture, a sort of social wallpaper. Without her? The world feels a stranger and more alien place. I am reminded of a passing line from the 1939 film Goodbye Mister Chips, where one schoolboy says to another how odd it is having a King, on the death of Victoria. Yes, it does feel like that.
Wracking my brains to think of the Queen as something more concrete, there is her cameo literary role in The BFG by Roald Dahl – an author I adored as a child. But I also recall something else.
The year was 1990. New Zealand was celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi, and our distant monarch was visiting our shores in person. I was seven, and attending school in Palmerston North. I remember our entire class having to walk from Shamrock Street down to Fitzherbert Avenue – then lined with trees – and wave as the Queen’s limousine drove past. I still remember much nattering between myself and my classmates about which one was the Queen and which one was the Queen Mother. But wave we did, just as our teacher told us. Looking back, it feels like one of those things you see in sepia photos, something from an older era, a residual memory of Empire.
Speaking of Empire, I suspect a fair amount of New Zealand’s impending discourse will be about whether we ought to have a referendum on a republic. The notion has been floated for a long time, though I think pinning such things on the death of the Queen was really tantamount to putting the issue in the too-hard basket. New Zealand has a time-honoured tradition of clinging to the vestiges of the Empire because our constitutional arrangements work on a “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” basis. By kicking the can down the road, we didn’t have to think about the matter until some indefinite future date.
Now? Now, the moment has actually arrived. The bluff has been called… and yet I think the public appetite will merely be for another bout of can-kicking. I really don’t think there is much public outcry for chucking out our brand-spanking-new King Charles III. It just means a bit of novelty as the new coins start getting minted, even as we deal with more concrete issues like pandemics and food prices. But life, as they say, rolls on, and I suspect that (republican though I am) I will get used to the new wallpaper along with everyone else, and there will be a new irrelevant – and yet strangely enduring – fixture in the background of our lives. King’s Birthday in June, and an old man on the coins, rather than an old woman. The song becomes God Save the King, legal QCs become KCs, and that’s really it. I might not like the underlying symbolism, but symbolism doesn’t pay the supermarket bills or fuel the car. Can-kicking it is.