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One morning a few years ago I was standing in the lobby of London’s Covent Garden Hotel waiting for my 9am ride. From the breakfast room door emerged film star Lucy Liu (who I’d never met before). She strode past me to the front desk — but then did an unusual thing: she came back, looked at me and reached up to a tag sticking out of my sweater and she tucked it back in. She then said, “There. Now you’re perfect.”
Lucy Liu, I would go off to war and die for you.
And I guess that’s the way the English were supposed to feel about the Queen back when the Queen was Queen Victoria: I’ll go off to die for you, Ma’am. It’ll be a pleasure, really. I guess that’s part of the regal job description: getting the kids stoked.
“Queen” is a strange word to look at, a word seemingly engineered by Scrabble technicians to allow players to shed excess vowels while at the same time affording them a well-deserved buzz while they deploy the Q-tile they’ve been hoarding for several rounds of play.
There’s this thing I like to do with all English people no matter who they are or what they do: in the middle of a conversational pause I say, “You know, isn’t Downton Abbey just the greatest show ever?” Heads swivel, eyes bulge and voices rise an octave. “Are you mad? All that show does is sentimentalise the worst kind of privilege. Do you honestly think the staff and the family gave one crap for each other? And the castle was probably one great big rape factory!” And so forth. The vitriol is genuine, and yet everyone seems to have watched all seasons. Hmmmmmmmm . . .
My first memory of Queen Elizabeth was from collecting stamps at about the age of six. My vocabulary then was limited, so I wouldn’t have been able to summon the adjective for the face that graced half the stamps in my nascent collection: “dutiful”.
I remember seeing a poster for The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead on the walls of a music store in 1986. For a second I thought it was news and then I realised it was an album title, and then I got to thinking about the Queen dying for real and what that would feel like and how it might go down. I think maybe we’ve all done this in our minds: where were you when you heard? I feel stunned. What happens next and how quickly does it happen? I can’t imagine a world without Her. The Queen is almost the exact same age as my father, who recently died, so I guess this is all freshly percolating in my id. Hi Dad. I miss you.
Linguistic nugget: in Montreal last summer I stayed at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, or, in French, Le Reine Elizabeth . . . except why were they using the masculine “le” instead of the feminine “la”? The simple answer: the “le” refers to the unspoken word “hôtel”, not the Queen.
There, I just used up 30 seconds of your life that you can never get back.
I have this theory that there exists another universe which is just like ours except in that universe, different people became famous than did in this one. Jodie Foster is a Denny’s waitress in Bakersfield. George Clooney repairs engines at an Airbus facility but is off for a month because of a bad back. And so on. If you visited that universe, you could bump into Jodie and George and then . . . well, what would you do, really? Ask for their autograph? They’d call the cops. Ask them if they ever thought of acting? Stalker. There’s really nothing you could do except stare like a twit with a faint smile while you creep them out. If you ever want to make the world seem more interesting, just assume that everybody you see is a movie star in some other dimension.
Sometimes, I’ll see 90-year-old ladies and wonder if they’re actually the Queen in some other universe. What would I say to one of these women? “Hello. You look very regal today.” Clueless. “Like some tea, Ma’am?” Freak. The truth is that there’d be nothing much you or I could say, aside from platitudes and pleasantries — and then we’d sigh and realise that that’s pretty much what it would be like meeting the real Queen in our own universe. But one has to admit She’s done a magnificent job of maintaining an aura of mystery armed only with a signature hand wave and a roster of secret handbag codes used in conjunction with her security staff.
In the 12 hours since I wrote the above paragraph I went for lunch at my genuinely super-connected friend’s house, and there on the sideboard were not one, but two letters from Buckingham Palace, nestled amid unsolicited discount-exhaust-pipe-repair flyers and pizza menus. And the envelopes contained real letters; they weren’t just a blanket mail-out seeking donations for the Queen’s beloved charity, the Global Corgi Deworming Initiative (GCDI). I once had a letter on White House stationery, but one-upmanship dictates that letters from Buckingham Palace trump all others. My friend’s letters were humbling.
I know a few drag queens, and the thing about drag queens and the Queen is that they’re both very much about power. It always amazes me how people misconstrue drag identities for transvestism. Transvestism is an almost entirely straight thing, where guys want to dress like women yet still have straight sex. Drag queens, on the other hand, are largely about power and creating a vivid powerful persona. A drag persona elevates you out of a world that marginalised you, and hooking up isn’t the end game. Some of the toughest people I know are drag queens, and I’d love to see the Queen having tea with them. She’d have a great time, I think: I see you have a very good tuck. Lemon or cream?
I remember the late summer of 1977, when punk rock was exploding, and “God Save the Queen” ruled the charts on the Queen’s silver anniversary. Talk about timing. There’s something incredibly British about both punk rock and the Queen . . . cultural cathodes and anodes creating a shocking short circuit. That summer I’d been in Vermont, where I bought small plastic buckets of a viscous American toy goop called Slime. Slime is basically what it sounds like: green goop that dribbles and melts in your fingers, but which never turns dribbly. It was fun. I brought my Slime back to Vancouver and it was late August and I was watching punk rockers on TV with my mother; the two of us played with Slime. We made Slime wristbands, and it felt like some kind of political or artistic order had been upturned. Within three years I was in art school.
Here’s something you maybe didn’t know: the Queen doesn’t just own the swans on the Thames — well, co-own the mute ones to be precise — she owns the river’s mud. My friend Gordon is 96. Five years back he was in London and walked down some stone steps on to the Thames mudshore, carrying a small shovel and a small plastic colander bought in a hardware store. He dug into the Thames mud and, with just a few small shovelfuls, he was able to harvest an unexpectedly beautiful array of early-1900s white plaster disposable smoking pipes, many fragments of blue-and-white crockery, animal bones and a few other random objects.
In digging in the Thames, my friend Gordon was doing something called mudlarking. If you were a parent in the year 1890 and your kids said they wanted to be a mudlarker for a living, it would be the worst job-choice scenario — diving into the manure and garbage of London in search of . . . stray coins? Unbroken clay pipes? It would be the career-decision equivalent today of your kids saying, “Mom, Dad — I want to collect cigarette butts outside government buildings and then trade them in for their secondary market value as a source of raw nicotine.”
I have learnt that these days, to mudlark, you have to apply for permission from the Queen (via the Port of London Authority), and even then you can only dig down three inches because below that lie heavy metals from the industries of yore. Basically, once you throw something into the Thames it’s there for good.
I’m fond of the idea of the Queen and I’m sure she’s a good person, but I’m unsure what it means to be “reigned over”. If I wasn’t being reigned over, would I feel differently? Could you stop being reigned over if you wanted to be — sort of like applying to have your name changed? Is being reigned over like being horny — it’s hard to articulate but you know it when it happens? Is being “reigned over” just a massive consensual magic spell? What about being ruled over by a politician . . . the same sort of thing? My American friends don’t get the idea of a constitutional monarchy, and it’s kind of hard to explain: Yes, we elect our political leaders, but we still have to be reigned over at the same time. I know . . . it sounds odd but it works.
But what if you don’t like being reigned over — or if you don’t like whoever it is doing the reigning?
Tough luck, I guess — you have to wait for one you do like.
That could take ages.
Stage a revolution — shed your colonial shackles. Hmmm . . . no real need for that. It ain’t broke, so there’s no need to fix it.
I’ve only seen the Queen once in real life. It was one evening in 1983 and she was in Vancouver for a Commonwealth conference. I was at Leo’s Restaurant (long gone) on Water Street and I heard police sirens approaching, so I went out to see what was up. The weather was awful, pouring rain, and I saw four or five police cars with cherries flashing. In the middle of them were the Queen and Prince Philip, in the well-lit rear seat of an almost cartoonishly opulent Rolls. I was the only person outside in the rain, so I did what everyone’s supposed to do and I waved — and she saw me and waved back. Not quite a Lucy Liu moment, but I do remember thinking: she has no off-button — she always has to be the Queen, she can’t not be Queen. And she waved to me and she didn’t have to. So here’s a question I ask in the most utterly neutral of tones: would Prince Charles wave back to me in the same situation? I guess that’s everyone’s big question. Hi Charles.
Douglas Coupland’s new collection of stories and essays ‘Bit Rot’ is published by William Heinemann (£20)
Illustrations by James Joyce