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Such fun!

24 November 2012

9:00 AM

24 November 2012

9:00 AM

Counting One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother William Shawcross (editor)

Macmillan, pp.524, £25

Nearly all the pages in this book are filled with thank-you letters. As a child, Elizabeth Bowes Lyon was writing to thank for presents of sweets and chocolates. As the Duke of York’s betrothed, she was writing ‘Dear Prince Bertie, Thank you ten million times for sending me all those gramophone records, which arrived in record time (oh! A joke, accident I promise).’ To Queen Mary, as a dutiful Duchess of York, she was writing  ‘Thank you very much for my delightful time at Balmoral’. As a widow, ‘My darling Lilibet, I did so love my week at Windsor, and send millions of thanks for so much sweetness & thought and care for your venerable parent.’ Even at the age of 100 she was writing to thank Prince Charles for a bath towel, and to Princess Alexandra for a ‘heavenly luncheon party’.

This record of 100 years of impeccable good manners — all the recipients are ‘angelic’, ‘darling’, ‘such fun’, ‘delightful’ — will bring a smile to every reader. That is guaranteed, because earnest republicans, or sophisticated readers of other kinds will not open it; only the millions of fans will read it, and it will remind them of what a jolly, life-enhancing person she was.

She was not entering a competition with Pliny or Mme de Sévigné when she dashed off these lines, and they were not meant to be works of literature. But taken as a whole, they do convey a Wodehousian breeziness, a determination to enjoy herself, and an ability to find almost everything an absolute hoot. ‘The Serbian visit was terribly funny. They walk about all day in musical comedy uniforms’ (1923). Or, in 1954 to Princess Margaret, ‘I thought of you a lot in Virginia. I longed for you to be there & hear their Southern drawls, “Miiighty kind, mam”, they say, taking longer than you can believe to say “mighty”.’

There are occasional departures from stereotype. ‘Have you read Arthur Koestler’s last book? I did not like it quite so much as Darkness at Noon’, was not a sentence many people would imagine her writing (to Osbert Sitwell). And the obviously close friendship with Ted Hughes, reflected in shared jokes, fishing and her admiration for his work create a change of key from the everlasting pre-1914 atmosphere of whoopee given off by, for example, her 1981 note to Lady Diana Cooper:

Your neighbours are so delightful and amusing and varied, and it is great fun to watch the famous HOUSE POISON doing its work. Voices rising, conversation becoming more and more sparkling, and even the dear faces of the clergy becoming a tiny bit roseate.

One piece of prose in this volume is not a letter. It is the text of the speech she made to unveil a blue plaque for P.G. Wodehouse. She was an ardent Wodehouse reader, as she says here, and indeed wanted to go to Long Island in person to dub him a knight. Wodehouse’s peculiar ability to carry around his own harmless, merry world and to leave smiles on millions of faces was reflected in his royal admirer who had many of the same qualities herself. She does indeed seem like one of the more benign aunts in Wodehouse from these pages. ‘This country is very cheerful,’ she wrote from what was Southern Rhodesia in 1953, ‘hardworking and loyal and English, full of young, eager people who are going to make a great country of it and NO DEATH DUTIES.’

The longer one lives, the more cheerfulness seems a quality to be valued. Clearly, there were many times, especially when she lost her husband, when the Queen Mother did not feel particularly merry. She is warm in her sympathy for bereavement and loss in others — especially when they lose beloved animals. But she bounces up again like a cork, with more ‘angelic’ times with ‘delightful’ people, usually eating and drinking what sound to be scrumptious things.

I recollect the one evening I spent in her company as one of sheer sparkle and joy. It was a mistake, over a decade after this meeting, to repeat some of our conversation in this magazine as a tribute on her 90th birthday. Harmless as the conversation was, it looked like cocking a snook, and it upset poor old Woodrow Wyatt, our host, though not for the reason I discerned at the time. (He was himself planning posthumous, and highly indiscreet, diaries about his friendship with her.)

This book recaptures her effervescent charm, and the simple fact that she was a good egg.

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