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Queen of Canada

To you, she was your Queen.
To us, she was the Queen.
— Emmanuel Macron, President of France

I don’t remember how old I was when I became aware that I shared my name with Queen Elizabeth. But you can bet I thought it was pretty special.

I mean, what little girl wouldn’t? (Even though, in truth, I am named after my grandmother.)

My first trip overseas — the one where I caught the travel bug — included a stop in London. It was 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. We were there in mid-August, long after the festivities were over, but while the Mall was still adorned in Union Jacks and silver beads. I remember those beads so vividly.

The Mall in 1977

My mother bought a tiny Silver Jubilee souvenir plate on that trip to London; somehow it ended up on my kitchen counter where it now holds my bottle of extra virgin olive oil (to keep the oil dribbles from ending up on my counter — as you do with jubilee souvenir plates).

On that trip, my first of many visits to London, I wallowed in all the pomp and ceremony that makes London unique among European capitals. I was dazzled by the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, and I was mesmerized by the palace guards.

Last June, when I turned on my TV and watched the Trooping of the Colour and then, two days later, the Platinum Party at the Palace, I thought to myself, “Wow, I so prefer the under-stated British patriotism to the over-the-top American version.” I wondered what it must’ve been like for the Queen, grieving for her father while undertaking a massive job much earlier than she anticipated, and in a man’s world to boot. She was a young, working mother before society ever came up with the term (as if mothers are ever “non-working”). I marvelled at how the Queen found a way to make her mark so early on, surrounded by all those old men in suits.

I thought about how long seventy years is. Much has been made of the fact that Winston Churchill was her first prime minister, but I was shocked to realize she acceded the throne while Stalin was still ruling Russia. Twelve of Canada’s 23 prime ministers have served under Queen Elizabeth. She’s been our Queen for almost half of our existence as a country.

World War II and the Covid-19 pandemic bookend the second Elizabethan Age, which seems fitting. She made her first radio address in October 1940 to the children of the Commonwealth, many of them evacuees, while still a child herself. One of her last TV addresses (not counting her annual Christmas message) was in April 2020, where she referenced that 1940 radio broadcast and talked about the pain of separation from loved ones.

We’re told the Queen loved Canada. She visited us the first time as a princess, and then 22 times as Queen. I remember standing in front of Edmonton’s Government House for a chance to see her during one of those visits.

It was 1978, and the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Andrew, and Prince Edward were in town for the Commonwealth Games. My dad rather spontaneously decided one evening that our entire family should go watch in person as the Royal Family arrived for a formal dinner. After a very long wait, we were ecstatic to see how close we were when the cars pulled up. Just feet away from us! Except, much to our disappointment, all we could see were the backs of the Royal Family as they turned away from us to be greeted by the premier and other dignitaries.

Those of us on the far side of the cars began hooting and hollering. We were noticed — the Queen and her family turned towards us and gave us that royal wave. And then — whoosh, they were swept indoors.

The crowd felt it was much too quick of a glimpse and we all began hollering again. “We want the Queen,” we yelled. And not long afterwards, the Royal Family obliged us and came out onto the balcony of Government House to give us another royal wave.

It wasn’t Buckingham Palace, but it was a balcony.

Like the rest of the country, I woke up on September 8 to news that the Queen was under medical supervision. I tried to work, but kept the live feeds of both BBC and CBC open on my computer, watching, listening, waiting. I was quite surprised at my reaction when the news came. Tears, yes, and shock. And I realized that I somewhat bizarrely thought she would live forever. How silly of me.

What hasn’t surprised me since is the outpouring of love and affection for her from all over the world. That people would queue overnight to see her lying-in-state? You only have to watch it online for a few minutes to realize what a moment that would be, walking past the Queen’s coffin in person.

Half-Mast Canadian Flags in English Bay

What has surprised me is all the ritual surrounding King Charles III’s accession. Who knew there would be so much ceremony, both in the United Kingdom and in the Commonwealth? It’s made me wonder about my monarchist tendencies for the first time ever. Yes, the rituals of accession go back thousands of years. Yes, tradition is important. But when you live in a time where change happens at lightning speed, it’s become commonplace, you might say traditional, not to hold on to traditions.

The notion of a hereditary head of state does seem pretty strange and out of date in today’s world. But when I look at countries like Japan, Norway, the Netherlands, … Canada … and then compare those democracies to republics with elected heads of state (especially the one to the south of us), well, I’m still all in when it comes to a constitutional monarchy. From where I’m standing, it looks like a stable and reasonably effective way to run a country.

I’ve always known that the Queen is Canada’s Queen, and Head of the Commonwealth, but it wasn’t until these past ten days that I clued in to what the realm is. That’s us — the fifteen countries that had Queen Elizabeth II as our Sovereign, and now have King Charles III.

I know there’s going to be a lot of rumbling about whether it’s time for Canada to become a republic, like Barbados did just over a year ago. Except for one little problem. When we patriated our constitution back in 1982 — that’s when the Queen made a special trip to Ottawa to sign what I always thought of as the divorce papers — we gave ourselves an impossible amending formula. Instead of having to go to the Parliament of the United Kingdom to amend our Constitution, we now have to sort it out ourselves. Dumping the monarch would require an amendment, and the chances of us ever coming to an agreement about how to do that are pretty much nil.

Canada is the largest realm, after the United Kingdom, and our delegation to the Queen’s funeral was also one of the largest. This morning’s procession from Westminster Abbey to Wellington Arch was led by four Royal Canadian Mounted Police on horses gifted by the RCMP to the Queen. In addition to the current and former prime ministers and the current and former governors general, the three main Indigenous leaders went along: the President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and the President of the Métis National Council. Their attendance goes far beyond symbolism. It’s a recognition that there is still much work to be done in terms of reconciling Canada’s colonial past. There are calls for King Charles to make a public apology to the Indigenous peoples who live in Canada. I expect it will come, eventually, because all institutions, even the British Monarchy, must adapt and change to stay relevant.

Near the end of our 1977 trip to London, I remember my dad asking each of us kids what we thought of when we heard the word “London.” I said Parliament Square.

My family was surprised. They expected me to say the Crown Jewels or the Changing of the Guard, knowing how enamoured I was with both, but Dad understood my thinking. At Parliament Square, you can see both the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey — the monarchy, the parliament, and the church — in one sweeping glance.

There’s a portrait of the Queen that was taken after her coronation. You know the one: she’s wearing the Imperial State Crown, and holding the orb and sceptre, all of which adorned her coffin this past week. Behind her is a backdrop showing the Henry VII Chapel of Westminster Abbey. That’s the chapel where fifteen kings and queens, including Elizabeth I, are buried. It takes your breath away when you stand inside it.

If Parliament Square is what I think of when I think of London, then that portrait of the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II is what I think of when I think of the Queen.

Our Queen.

Remembering John Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love; — then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
— John Keats

Back when I was a child (no, really — I was still in my teens), I took a course on the English Romantic poets. The first semester was all about William Blake and the Lake Poets (Coleridge and Wordsworth, among others). The poets known as the Late Romantics— Byron, Shelley, and Keats — took up the second semester.

It was a challenging course; in her feedback to a paper I wrote on Keats, my professor gently suggested I was perhaps more inclined towards studying history than literature. (She was right.)

But those young poets never left me, in their way, and so, less than a year later, I found myself wandering through a Roman cemetery looking for John Keats’ headstone. He died of consumption — what we now know as tuberculosis — on February 23, 1821. Like so many ex-pats in Rome, he was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. Unlike most people, he insisted his headstone not bear his name, but rather “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

On that same visit to Rome, I also visited the Keats–Shelley Memorial House beside the Spanish Steps. It’s the house on the far right in the next photo. It was sobering to see where Keats died, but also thrilling to see the incarnation of my entire Romantic poetry course in three rooms.

I stopped by the Keats House in Hampstead, in the north part of London, on my next trip overseas. Hampstead Heath, a marvelous open space of almost 800 acres that beckons when you are museumed out, lies just behind the house.

Since I keep bumping into Keats on my travels, I thought it only right that I acknowledge the 200th anniversary of his death.

But back to the Romantic poetry course that started it all for me. One morning, my prof began class by asking who among us had life insurance. Her point was how unusual it was for someone as young as Keats to be so aware of his own mortality.

Unusual, but understandable. Keats lost both parents before he was grown and then watched his younger brother die of tuberculosis. He had also trained as a doctor. By his early twenties, Keats had seen far more death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime. His sense of how fleeting life is inspired him to write poems like the sonnet I started this post with, which he wrote a month after his brother died.

More death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime — that, of course, refers to those of us who will live through this pandemic more or less unscathed. And those of us who do, have far more privilege than most.

Happy Birthday, William Wordsworth!

I wasn’t planning on writing a post to celebrate the birthday of the English poet William Wordsworth, but somewhere on the Interwebs today, I came across the last verse of his most famous poem. That would be “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” — or, as many people call it, “that daffodil poem.”

Here’s the verse I’m talking about:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

What hit home for me about this particular verse today is the realization that the one-time Poet Laureate of England was doing exactly what we are all being asked to do right now: living a virtual life. Long after he wandered through those daffodil fields, Wordsworth wrote about the feelings he experienced as he did so, and how those memories sustained him.

As our memories are sustaining all of us during this pandemic.

Here then, as a nod to Mr. Wordsworth and on the happy occasion of his 250th birthday, is a photo taken back in the time of before, when we could walk side-by-side without a care along a seawall adorned with daffodils.

Red Arrows Over Burrard Inlet

Every once in a while, I manage to be in the right place at the right time.

Such was the case this afternoon.

The Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows have been on a North American tour. This afternoon, they did several flypasts over Burrard Inlet.

I was there.

Happy Birthday, Queen Victoria!

Are you tired of all the royal baby talk? There’s been an awful lot of it this month. Bear with me though, because we should all take a moment to mark a significant anniversary of yet another royal birth.

Two hundred years ago today, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent was born in Kensington Palace. With her birth, she became fifth in the line of succession to the British throne.

Fifth seems a long ways away from the throne these days. (Archie Mountbatten-Windsor is seventh at present.) But due to a series of monarchs and heirs to the throne dying without legitimate heirs, Princess Alexandrina Victoria ended up becoming Queen of the United Kingdom in 1837. She had just turned 18.

This statue of Queen Victoria stands in front of the Parliament Buildings in Victoria, British Columbia. Many places in the Commonwealth are named after Queen Victoria; Canada is the only country to honour her birthday with a statutory holiday. It falls on the Monday before May 24. I grew up referring to Victoria Day as the “May long weekend.” It wasn’t until I moved to Toronto that I first heard it called the “May two-four weekend.” For a long time, I thought that was because Queen Victoria’s birthday is actually on May 24.

But, no. It’s because beer is sold in cases of 24. I had never heard a case of beer called a “two-four” — that’s not a common term in Western Canada — and was completely oblivious to its link with beer.

And why is beer on the mind of patriotic Canadians during this particular weekend in May, you ask? It’s because the May long weekend is the unofficial start of Cottage Season in Ontario. (Don’t get me started on the whole cottage vs. cabin debate.)

Regional differences. Long may they reign. Just like British queens.

World’s Most Boring Place

The Internet is rife with rumours that Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex are honeymooning in Jasper National Park.

Yeah, right. And I’m the Queen of England.

What I find most remarkable is that one of the online tabloids’ headlines said the couple were honeymooning in “the world’s most boring place.”

Canadians are known around the world as polite folks, typically slow to anger. But mock our icons — like one of our oldest, most spectacular national parks — and we sit up and take notice.

That headline got noticed. And ridiculed.

As for that most boring place? Here’s what it looks like.

Wandering Through the Lake District

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
—William Wordsworth

The photo of daffodils I posted the other week had me thinking back to my lovely ramble through the hills of England’s Lake District. It was a sunny, autumn afternoon a couple of decades ago, and although it had been many years since I had studied English romantic poetry, William Wordsworth’s poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” was firmly imprinted on my brain.

Likely because I was wandering. And alone. And in the middle of the Lake District (aka Wordsworth’s backyard). I believe I took this photo above Rydal Water on my walk from Dove Cottage to Rydal Mount.

I had arrived in Windermere around dusk the evening before and started off that morning intending to walk to Ambleside. All over England are public footpaths, known as right of ways, where anyone can walk, even if the land is private. The delightful thing about these footpaths is you can take a bus or train to the start of the trail, do your walk, and then hop on another bus or train to get to where you need to be.

To my memory, the paths are well marked. However, I was soon confused and turned around and, well, lost. I asked another walker for directions, showing him my tiny hand-drawn map bought that morning at the Windermere Tourist Information Centre for 20 pence. To his credit, he did not laugh, but he immediately pulled out his full-size Ordnance Survey map — at which point my map felt woefully inadequate and I felt like a silly tourist.

This gentleman set me straight, but it was not long before I was once again lost. I gave up on that path and made my way back to the road where I knew I could catch a bus to Ambleside.

After lunch, I tried another footpath and this time successfully found my way from one of Wordsworth’s former homes (Dove Cottage) to another (Rydal Mount). In the end, it all worked out for the better because by cutting short my morning walk I had more time for my afternoon walk — a walk so beautiful it turned out to be one of the most memorable walks of my life.

A walk so beautiful I started reciting poetry to myself. And, believe me, I’m not the reciting-poetry type.

Several of the English Romantic poets lived in the Lake District, so they are also known as the Lake poets. And the Lake District is truly one of the most spectacular parts of England.

Because I was there in autumn — a lovely time of year, for sure — I saw no daffodils. But someday, one day, I hope to go back in April and see me a crowd of golden daffodils.

Remembering Jane Austen

I could not let today’s date go by without acknowledging the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death. She died 200 years ago today at the age of 41. Bibliophiles around the world are celebrating her legacy and the new British £10 note featuring her image will come into circulation later this year.

Jane Austen lived in Bath between 1801 and 1806 — which is where I took this photo — and two of her novels are set there. I went to Bath because I’m a Jane Austen fan, but the city is well worth a visit regardless of your reading preferences.

Happy Easter!

Fountains Abbey Church, Yorkshire, England, October 1996

Through My Lens: Fountains Abbey Windows

For Palm Sunday, I’m posting a photo of a wall of windows from Fountains Abbey. These windows are located on the bottom level of the abbey’s tower, which was built not long before the abbey was surrendered to the Crown. As I explained last Sunday, after the surrender, the lead and glass were removed from all of the abbey’s windows, allowing in the elements and causing the abbey to quickly fall into ruin.

The Crown sold Fountains Abbey to a merchant from London. Eventually, it was purchased by Sir Stephen Proctor, who used stone from the abbey to build a home for his family. It took from 1598 until 1611 to build that house, which he named Fountains Hall.

What was left of the abbey became the estate’s “folly” — essentially a giant lawn ornament. Such features were common in formal English gardens.

Since 1983, Fountains Abbey has been owned by the National Trust. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986.