Living History

On a recent trip to coastal Norway and the Arctic Circle, my husband and I spent some time in Southampton before embarking on our cruise. The port city on England’s southern coast is delightful and welcoming, well worth a visit. As we discovered, it is full of history that we knew little about. It was the departure port for the ill-fated inaugural sailing of the Titanic, and it was also the port from which the Mayflower sailed in 1620 with its 102 passengers and 30 crew members.

It is a charming city, and there was a distinctive air of festivity when we were there, buildings festooned with the Union Jack and banners in the streets. Smiling likenesses of Queen Elizabeth II greeted us everywhere we went, and the mood was distinctively celebratory. The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee was officially proclaimed for the long weekend of June 2 through 5, with special events planned to continue for at least a month. We arrived in Southampton on Sunday, June 12.

When we returned to Southampton 17 days later, we found that little had changed. England was still celebrating the queen’s 70 years on the throne. We found that to be true as we journeyed north to Suffolk and spent a few days in London before boarding our return flight to the United States on July 5.

Little did we expect that only about two months later, we would hear the news of the queen’s death. And we could not imagine, at the time, the outpouring of grief from around the world that would greet that news. As I watched news coverage from around the world in the days before the state funeral on September 19, I was pleased that we had been fortunate enough to visit Elizabeth’s England while she was still queen. Sadly, we did not take a tour of Windsor while we were there. But, watching the funeral procession make its way through London, I recognized many of the streets we had so recently traversed.

I felt, oddly enough, that I had been witness to history simply by being there. Forty years or so have passed since a previous trip to London. But, like Rome, Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and other world capitals, London is an eternal treasure. Much of it remains the same, but it is more diverse and infinitely more crowded than when I was last there. Modern steel and glass buildings, whimsical modern art, the London Eye and the London Shard, and both the cable cars that whisk passengers above the Thames and the RIB boats that carry passengers at high speed on the river somehow complement rather than compete with slow-moving river taxis. They have become nearly as iconic as double-decker buses and traditional black cabs.

London may be unique in the world. For one, it is the home of a monarchy that, by all accounts, seems alive and well, especially today after its record-setting ruling queen has passed the crown, along with the orb and sceptre of the title, to her son, King Charles III.

I watched the ceremonial events of the past week in awe, with an awareness that an event of this magnitude will not happen again in my lifetime, perhaps never again. I was up early to watch the funeral on my large-screen TV, along with an estimated four billion viewers worldwide, deemed to be the largest global television audience in history.

Some of us around the world watched the queen’s coronation on early black and white television; many more have tuned in to watch royal weddings and funerals of world leaders in real time and full color. But this was different, somehow.

More than one million Britons lined the procession routes to pay tribute as the cortege bearing the queen’s flag-draped coffin made its way from Balmoral, Scotland, to Edinburgh, and later from Buckingham Palace through London to Westminster and back, and, finally, to Windsor

There were poignant moments amidst the traditions and prescribed ceremony. The outpouring of public love and respect was acknowledged by the royal family as they greeted well-wishers who laid flowers outside various palaces. They endured public scrutiny and performed their prescribed roles tirelessly and flawlessly for 11 days. The military, church leaders, government officials, and representatives of other nations, rose to the demands of duty and tradition.

And now we will all move into a future that is still to be written, by a monarch who has waited a lifetime to become king surrounded by family members who have demonstrated that they are, in a very real sense, as human as the rest of us.

That’s something to be remembered, within and beyond the United Kingdom.