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A tale of two Elizabeths

Letter from London

A tale of two Elizabeths

Sunday 6 February marks 70 years since the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne. Her long reign has been one of imperial decline, but from these dying embers, the rays of a new summer are very much evident, as Africans become ever more a part of British national identity, writes Clayton Goodwin.

Seventy years ago, on 6 February 1952, Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne as monarch of the United Kingdom, its Empire, and the Commonwealth. She is still there – but much of the rest has gone. It is a very different world today.

Five and a half centuries ago, the Gloriana of another Queen Elizabeth (I) created an image of an invincible and creative Britain; over the centuries this has indeed metamorphosed into a flowering of the arts, literature, science and entertainment – but in a way which could not have been foreseen at that time.

This Queen Elizabeth has presided over decades of imperial decline as her country has retreated from its world role. Nevertheless, from these dying embers, the rays of a new summer are very much evident.

On the morning of the Queen’s accession 70 years ago, the headmaster of our rural primary school lugged a heavy loudspeaker into the classroom so that we could hear the proclamation. Then he gave a brief talk on the imperial splendour to which this young sovereign was heir.

The headmaster, a sincere, honest man, asked us to take a coin from our pocket, and read the legend: Ind. Imp. which, he said, meant Elizabeth would succeed her father as ruler of the British Empire. It didn’t. There was no way that Ind. Imp. could mean anything other than Emperor of India. Nothing more, nothing less.

That imperium had ended five years earlier. There was no mention of the other dominions and colonies. Since then – and from other examples – I have taken every such statement, however well-meaning, with a pinch of salt. I learned then not to trust everything I was told.

Elizabeth II is now direct head of few of those erstwhile domains. In the closing weeks of last year, Barbados – ever-loyal Barbados (“Little England”) – cut the ties that bound it to the monarchy by becoming a republic with its own Dame Sandra Mason as the first President.

Other territories have long gone down that same path. The wind of change has blown strongly throughout the continent of Africa, and well beyond. A princess of African heritage has even flitted into (and out of?) Buckingham Palace.

During the present Queen’s long reign, the flow of immigration has been reversed. Instead of Britons going out from these shores to colonise the world, the world itself has come here. In doing so, the peoples of the Commonwealth – that is, the former Empire – have turned London into an international centre of talent and excellence.

The explosion of African excellence, and relevance, both at home and in the diaspora, has been quite outstanding. This age deserves to be remembered for the achievements of the soul and science rather than for the wars and hateful spats which the politicians have got us into. And why shouldn’t it?

The first Elizabethan Age owed its unique aura primarily to the fame of William Shakespeare and his incomparable contemporaries in the (mainly dramatic) arts. It is time the compliment was returned. The good and honest of these times should be remembered as much as the bad.

That quality is also seen vividly in the service and dedication of the many extraordinary ‘ordinary’ people who have kept the country going through the worst pandemic that any of us can remember.

Shortly before last Christmas I was asked to report after midnight to the A&E (Accident and Emergency) department of the local hospital. After waiting patiently through the early-morning hours I was shown into the treatment room, where conditions were frightening.

In a confined, unventilated room, without windows, no bigger than the sitting-room of a small terraced house, seven or so patients – untested and mostly unmasked (even at the hastening approach of Omicron Covid) – were being ministered to by a similar number, if not more, of doctors and nurses. All the doctors, and most nurses, were African and female. Fearful for my safety, I was able to get out after 30 minutes, but these medics continued working there shift after shift.

You will have noticed that I have not specified any individual by name. It would be invidious to do so because there are so many. Have you read our 100 Most Influential Africans of 2021? Leaders, entrepreneurs, change-makers, opinion-shapers, creatives, sportspeople – to which could be added, in silent respect, the many unheralded professional, office, manual and social workers, and the mothers and fathers developing the next generation.

An entire supplement of at least similar length could be written about Africans influencing life at all levels in the United Kingdom alone. I was struck, too, by the African involvement in the development of countries across the whole of Europe.

Despite the Westminster government doing so much to deny this country’s cultural origins, the future of the European experience could well rest in African hands. Déjà vu? Then it was the Arabs / Muslims who saved Classical (European) knowledge when the light went out in that continent’s so-called Dark Ages and it was their contribution that paved the way for the European Renaissance.

Africans an integral part of national identity

This will be an important year for the Commonwealth, and especially for the African diasporan communities. 125 years after the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria initiated the high point of imperial sentiment, both Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago will celebrate their 60th independence anniversaries. And it was said then that Black people, having once been subjected to slavery, were unable to govern themselves!

Our present time has been marked, and marred by vicious reactions to immigration, foreign and social policies as the first Elizabethan Age was stigmatised by the onset of slavery and the ferocity of religious conflict.

Even though injustice and social imbalance remain conspicuously present, much of the sting has gone out of the personal animosity stirred up in recent years. The message of Black Lives Matter has broken through in a big way. Whether it is a permanent shift in outlook, or a temporary trend, depends on all of us.

Africans are more visible now than they have ever been – in newspapers and magazines, in television drama, cookery and culture, in commercial advertisements and the more confident walk on the streets.

The last point arises from the African communities being vibrant, with people having more money in their pockets to spend; and, because of that, they are recognised as being an integral part of the national framework. That could not have been said even a short time ago.

But that is the conundrum for a country that on the other hand does not seem to be able to break free from what it has wished on itself and its people in a mood of madness.

In my 79-year lifetime, I have not known a previous UK government in which such apparent lust to wield power has been used to such damaging effect against its own country’s interests. And it is still not even half-way into its term of office!

We can start by learning to hope once more. Dramatist Christopher Marlowe, a leading figure in that first Elizabethan Age, wrote the play Dr Faustus about a man who sold his soul to the devil for ephemeral gratification. When he realised what he had done, and the predicament he was in, Faustus begged Helen, the object of his desire … Give me my soul again.

Give me my soul again – there is no better wish for our country and ourselves as we turn another page in this new Faustian year.

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