Elizabeth II and I go back a very long way. When I was eight years old, George VI died and I can remember all the grown-ups around me being very upset. The photograph of the three queens in mourning made a strong impression on me.
There also seemed to be a great deal of coverage of the Young Princesses, as they were called. I was at an age when I loved sticking things in scrapbooks. This must have been (as both Elizabeth and my own favourite, Margaret Rose....oh, how I loved the name!...were now grown-up) because of Crawfie's book about her time as nanny and governess in the Royal Household. Crawfie was the nickname of Marion Crawford and her book was called The Little Princesses. It was published in 1950 and the Royals never forgave Crawfie and had no contact with her ever again. I can't remember the physical book - my mother would never have read such a thing, I don't think - but extracts from it appeared in Woman's Own, and that magazine was certainly around during my childhood. So I began to read about the Princesses and to snip pictures out of the newspapers when I was about seven or eight. I stuck these in a scrapbook together with photos of the movie stars to whom I was totally devoted. By the time I was eight, I was a reader of both Silver Screen and Photoplay. My father's secretary, Sarah Tan, used to pass her copies on to me and I treasured them and read every word I could about the stars I adored. At this time, my friends and I played endless games which revolved round the films we'd seen. The fact that I never got to play Jane Powell but always had to be Ann Miller still rankles a bit. Ann Miller was the funny one, and even though she always had spectacular dance numbers in every single film, she was NOT the Romantic Lead. Sigh!
But back to the Queen. From the beginning of 1953, there was much chat about the Coronation. We were living in North Borneo in a town which was then called Jesselton. Our house was in the shadow of Mount Kinabalu and about fifty yards from a beach like the ones you see in Bacardi and Bounty advertisements. My first published work ever appeared in the local newspaper, The Sabah Times. I won a story competition and my prize was a Parker '51 Pen and Pencil set. For anyone who wishes to read about this period of my life in some detail, my novel OTHER ECHOES is extremely autobiographical.
The Coronation itself created, in this British Colony, many different ceremonies and parties. I remember being drilled with all the other schoolchildren for a kind of parade on the Padang: the playing field outside the Club. There were copies of the Illustrated London News kept at the Club and after the event, pictures like these
appeared for us to pore over and cut out and paste into our scrapbooks. I am sure my parents went out to dinner all over the place. There must have been a Reception at Government House to which I wasn't invited. What I do remember most clearly was the Coronation Picnic.
Picnics happened all the time in Jesselton. A few families would hire a motor launch and pack some bottles and snacks of various kinds and set off across a completely translucent sea to an outlying island called Gaya Island. The children played with fantastical shells and swam in the sea and made things out of coral and the adults lay about and drank beer and lemonade and gossiped in the shade. We'd spend the morning on the island and then go back at lunch time to eat a curry with at least 15 side dishes (sambals) and then, as I remember, collapse into a deep sleep till late afternoon.
I took this pattern, this routine, and wrote a short novel about it. I made the picnic special by linking it to the Coronation. I added a supernatural element. I put into it as much detail as I could about the kinds of things we did on picnics and I also made sure that my friends were as accurately depicted as possible. I even tried to be honest about myself. THE CORONATION PICNIC was published in 1989, as a Hamish Hamilton Antelope book.
One of the things that happens in the story is a pretend Coronation. Because the book is out of print, I'm going to quote a longish passage:
"The children started singing. First they sang 'We Three Kings' because, as Tonia said, it sounded royal. Then they sang 'Rock of Ages' because it was dignified. Amy listened. When the hymns were over, the first words of 'God Save the Queen' rose into the air. Amy started walking slowly up the path in as stately a way as possible. The red and blue and white striped towel hung down behind her and trailed on the sand. Luise had chosen the place well. Trees nearly met over her head as she walked. She pretended she was really Princess Elizabeth, walking up the length of Westminster Abbey in a gown encrusted with jewels. As she knelt down in the sand and Ian put the wreath of creepers round her head, she remembered pictures Mrs Aston had shown them of the real crown, studded with gemstones the size of boiled sweets."
This is my way of saying: Happy Jubilee Year to Elizabeth II. I'm not a Royalist in any way but I have loved following the Royal Drama over the last sixty years and I look forward to lots more pleasure and fun to come. I no longer stick photos in scrapbooks, but I do enjoy reading about and looking at someone whose life and family I've been gazing at and thinking about since I was a very small girl. Vivat Regina!