It is 60 years since Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and nostalgia fans are feeding voraciously on memories of the great event. Indeed 1953 as a whole seems to have been a year of “one darn thing after another,” as history has been described.
In January of that year, a rampaging North Sea flooded huge areas of Britain’s east coast; in February, eight years after WW2, sweets finally came off the ration; in March, old Queen Mary died; and in April, a British scientist and an American discovered the double helix molecular structure of DNA. Plus that year, the Korean war ended, the first James Bond novel was published (Casino Royale), and Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
But pre-eminent was June 2, when it was announced that a British team had conquered Mount Everest (though the two climbers involved were a New Zealander and a Nepalese) and, more importantly, the young Elizabeth drove in a glass coach through cheering crowds and unseasonal rain to Westminster Abbey for her coronation as queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I can vouch for the rain. As a young reporter in a small northern town, I trudged from street party to street party, nearly all them moved hurriedly into the nearest church hall, meanwhile catching glimpses of the ongoing coronation ceremony down in London on black and white television sets in shop windows. TV was new then and only a minority had sets. But those who did invited friends and neighbours to viewing parties and it was calculated that more than 20 million people, around half the nation, watched the BBC’s first ever outside broadcast.
I didn’t get a single line in the paper. David Bainbridge was then aged 11, one of the boy choristers at the Abbey. “We had to be in our places at 7 am and we finally got out about 1 pm,” he recalled. To keep them going, the boys were given ovaltine tablets, glucose tablets, barley sugar, an apple, a bar of chocolate and a small bottle of milk. “We were told to use the empty bottle if an emergency arose,” he recalled. “I don’t think anybody dared to, though.”
Most of those boys are grandfathers now and it is their sons’ sons who sing in the country’s great choirs. Elizabeth had six beautiful young bridesmaids, all of whom are still alive. They were equipped with smelling salts and told to wiggle their toes if they felt faint.
The BBC has been gathering memories of the great day from spectators at home and thousands of miles away. Lesley MacAart of Dunfermline, Scotland wrote: “I was a child living in a small place called Njoro in Kenya.
My parents and my brothers sat around the radio to listen to the live event. My parents got us a coronation mug and a balloon with a Union Jack on it. My brother’s balloon had a hole in it but he could still blow it up. I wanted to do that with mine so I stuck a pin in it. It went bang and I burst into tears and I have hated balloons ever since.”
A week before last week’s anniversary I joined family and friends at a birthday celebration, also in London, at the local cricket club. The sun shone brilliantly, food and drink were widely available, men wore blazers and Panama hats, and from the cricket pitch came the traditional lazy summer sound of leather ball on willow bat.
“It must have been exactly like this a hundred years ago,” I mused sentimentally.
Then I thought again. The food we were eating included barbecued ribs and curries, the beer was refrigerated, guests were chatting on mobile phones. As for the cricketers, they were strapping on their pads with Velcro not buckles and all the players had names on their backs, a very recent innovation. What’s more, the names were Mohammed, Hassan, Hussein, Amir, Savundra, which you would not have seen in 1913. Nor even 1953, come to think of it.
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The flag at our village church, the Holy Saviour, is at half-mast. The vicar, Rev Stephen Robson, visited the Sea Scouts last Friday night, felt poorly and was rushed to hospital with heart failure. Stents were inserted and all seemed well.
Then came another heart attack and this one took Stephen to heaven. He was only 53.
Reverend Robson was a familiar figure, scurrying about the locality with his black briefcase, popular with his own Anglicans but with Catholics, Methodists, Hindus and non-believers, too. God bless you, Stephen.
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A couple came to a wishing well. The man leaned over, dropped in a penny and wished. His wife then leaned over but she leaned too far and fell in and drowned.
“Wow,” the husband exclaimed, “it really works!”
Mr Loughran is a UK-based correspondent.