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Coronation Day

Many years ago, I toured the Tower of London with my parents and my siblings. Included in our tour was a viewing of the Crown Jewels. I remember entering a room that seemed (to me, anyways) something like a vault. I think we might even have been underground. The room was cold and quite dark, but that was so the jewels would shine. And shine they did, lit in such a way that they dazzled and shimmered. Each piece was on its own small platform covered in purple cloth, all at various heights, and all contained in one large display case. It was quite a thing to see.

I bought myself a souvenir booklet —The Crown Jewels and Coronation Ritual — which I still have. It’s worn and dog-eared because I studied that book from cover to cover.

Thanks to my viewing of the Crown Jewels all those years ago, and my souvenir booklet, I had a pretty good idea of the regalia that would be used in today’s coronation service. What I didn’t know, and what I was most curious about, was how the service would flow. It was the mix of civic and religious rites that was a mystery to me, as much as the beliefs involved are my own. The only thing I have to compare it to is a church wedding, of which I’ve been to many. But a coronation? I have no point of reference.

What I saw on my tiny TV early this morning (no, I didn’t watch it live — I recorded it on my PVR and started watching it when I woke up) was nothing like I have ever seen before. I had heard that King Charles wanted a more modern coronation, but everything I saw seem steeped in centuries of tradition.

So when the historical commentator on the CBC’s broadcast summed up what he had seen as “weird, wonderful, and wild,” I nodded in agreement. It was weird. Weird in that the ceremony seems spectacularly out of touch with our modern world. But it is also spectacularly wonderful in that a thousands-year-old tradition is still being practised. And wild in that so many of us can still find meaning in it, even as we declare ourselves citizens of a modern world.

Did you know the Dutch don’t crown their sovereigns? Apparently this is because when they regained their independence in 1815 (in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars), the Kingdom of the Netherlands included what is modern-day Belgium. The Dutch were Protestant and the Belgians were Catholic, so rather than fight over which religious leader would crown the king, they just skipped that part. In fact, most of the European monarchies don’t bother with coronations.

There may well come a day when the United Kingdom does away with theirs, especially as the idea of a state church becomes more and more antiquated in a world where freedom of religion is considered a human right. But I suspect the ritual will stick around for another British king or two.

The photo at the top of this post is of the towers of Westminster Abbey peeking out from behind Victoria Tower, which is part of the Palace of Westminster where the Houses of Parliament reside. I chose this photo because, well, first of all, I don’t have one of the Crown Jewels, but secondly, because it shows both church and state, the meeting of which was what today’s coronation was all about.

And thirdly, it shows continuity. The English kings and queens have been crowned at Westminster Abbey since 1066. Victoria Tower used to be known as the King’s Tower, but was renamed in 1897 to honour Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee — just as the Clock Tower (where Big Ben resides) was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to honour Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.

That’s a whole lot of heritage in one photo.

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.

Big Ben

Big Ben

I’m pretty sure I don’t have to explain why I’m posting this photo tonight. What I suspect is the world’s most iconic clock is, I think, the best metaphor for what Brexit will do to the United Kingdom and Europe.

There is no turning back.

Through My Lens: Little Cloister of Westminster Abbey

Little Cloister

This year, for Lent, I’m going to take you on a photographic tour of European cloisters.

For the First Sunday of Lent, here is a photo of the Little Cloister at Westminster Abbey in London that I took in 2007. That’s Victoria Tower behind.

Through My Lens: Jets on the Taxiway

Heathrow Jets

Eventually, and usually inevitably, the European vacation comes to an end ― and we come home.

The long journey goes much quicker if you can find something to amuse yourself with en route. Like I was here. I took this photo of jets lined up on the taxiway at London’s Heathrow Airport in March 2011.

Through My Lens: Dolphin Lamp Post

Dolphin Lamp Post

Hundreds of these lamp posts ― the first of which went up during Queen Victoria’s reign ― line the Thames Embankment in London. They’re known as the dolphin lamp posts. That’s because their designer, George John Vulliamy, modelled them after the dolphin sculptures in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. The “dolphins” along the Thames are actually sturgeon.

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!

It’s his 450th birthday today ― the Bard’s, that is. I’ve been rummaging through my photos to see if I had any that link to William Shakespeare and I found this one. It’s of the Tower of London.

Tower of London

Richard III, considered by some to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, was almost entirely set in London and several of its scenes take place in the Tower. You know the play. It’s the one that starts out with Richard talking about the end of his winter:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York

Richard doesn’t come off so well in the play. Shakespeare probably did more to malign his reputation than any historian. But never mind. It’s an entertaining play. And its setting gives me an excuse to post a photo.

Note the ravens in the photo. Six of them are kept at the Tower because legend has it that the Crown (Britain, too) would fall if the ravens were to ever leave the Tower.

Royal Opera House

Regular readers of this blog may have figured out by now how much I enjoy listening to live music. And that I especially enjoy seeking out opportunities to hear live music whenever I travel.

I have my mother to thank for that. She took my sister and me at the tender ages of twelve and thirteen to hear a recital of Bach organ music in the Bovenkerk of Kampen, the Dutch town where we happened to be living at the time. The sounds of the organ’s principal pipes reverberating in the centuries-old Gothic arches high above us made quite an impression on me (as did how cold we got sitting in an unheated stone church on a crisp evening in late November).

Something about that night stuck with me and, to this day, Bach remains my favourite composer. So much of a favourite that I even named my cat after him. Upon our family’s return to Canada, I was motivated enough to continue my music studies for another six years, soon switching from piano to pipe organ. I doubt my mother had any idea what a couple hours of Bach organ music could do to me.

But enough about Bach. Let’s get back to the other guy. You know, Mozart. My post the other week on Mozart in Prague reminded me of another memorable opera experience I’ve had, this one of hearing Rossini’s The Barber of Seville at London’s Royal Opera House (aka Covent Garden).

I’ve written before how the opera at Covent Garden is completely within reach of the budget traveller, so, unless you really cannot stand opera (and I won’t hold that against you), there is no reason not to go. The website for the Royal Opera House is easy to use and the nifty thing about ordering tickets online is that you see the view of the stage you will have from the exact seat you’ve selected before you commit to your purchase. How cool is that?

What’s particularly fun about the cheap seats (once you’ve caught your breath from climbing waaaaaay up into the rafters of the building) is what a terrific view you have of a truly remarkable building. And ― bonus ― you have a bird’s-eye view of the performance. I witnessed the dramatic entrance of the barber (that would be the Barber of Seville) as he ran all the way down the aisle from the back of the auditorium to the stage ― something the people sitting at the front of the orchestra level missed because all the action took place behind them.

Sadly, I have no photos of the interior of Covent Garden ― that will have to wait until my next visit to London. Here, though, is a picture of its exterior, which dates back to 1858. I took this photo after stopping by the box office to pick up my ticket that I had purchased weeks earlier before leaving home. It was the last time I saw the beautiful, Italian-made leather wallet I had bought a few years earlier in Rome ― less than a half hour later, I would reach into my bag to realize it was gone.

But that’s a story for another post.

Royal Opera House

London 2012

All eyes are once again on London as it’s the opening day of the 2012 Summer Olympics. Having lived in a host city, I can say from personal experience that the Olympic spirit is alive and well when you’re on the ground in the thick of it. When you’re watching the Olympics from afar, however, that spirit can be overshadowed by the politics and the commercialism and the media looking for a story. My hope is that Londoners will enjoy the party as much as I did here in Vancouver in 2010.

This time, not being in the thick of it, I will spend the next few weeks cheering for the athletes who proudly represent Canada, enjoying what glimpses of London I’ll see on my TV, and brushing up on my world geography. (Quick, everyone: Where’ s Comoros?)

Olympic Rings in Burrard Inlet, February 2010

First Night of the Proms

Today was First Night of the Proms at the BBC Proms, aka The World’s Greatest Classical Music Festival. It runs every summer for eight weeks until Last Night of the Proms in September.

The festival was founded in 1895 when a fellow named Robert Newman, then manager of the Queen’s Hall, decided to start a music festival. He told the conductor he hired, Sir Henry Wood, that he planned to train the public to listen to, and thereby create the demand for, classical and modern music. (I just love (love!) that mentality ― “If you build it, they will come.”)

The Queen’s Hall was destroyed in 1941 during the Blitz, and so the Proms were moved to Royal Albert Hall. If you’ve ever been inside Royal Albert Hall, then you know what a spectacular concert hall it is. I’ve been to two concerts there: one of Van Morrison and, a few years later, one of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing Elgar, accompanied by Julian Lloyd Webber (yes, brother to that Lloyd Webber) on the cello.

Royal Albert Hall

Both concerts only whetted my appetite for more, so one of these years, I’ve promised myself,  I plan to spend the summer “promming”* in London. Until then, I content myself with listening to the concerts on BBC Radio 3 via the Internet.

*Promming is when you queue up for the £5 ticket that gives you access to the standing areas in the arena (directly in front of the stage) or up in the gallery. They’re cheaper than the reserved seats, but there is a catch: you stand for the entire concert.