Ian Jack has a fine nostalgia piece in the Guardian – no, better than that, a piece about the collective memory of passing generations – linking the not altogether compatible elements of the Dickens bicentenary to the monarchy. The link he made was not with Empire or English images of national virtue so often disputed in Slugger, but with a workaday industrial world now vanished, which a visit by the Queen memorialised for those who saw her.
Make no mistake: her death will signal a far greater rupture with the nation’s past than Victoria’s. To many it will be the endnote that comes a few beats after the song itself has finished. “Happy and glorious/long to reign over us … ” On Tuesday, the anthem seemed to be sung with unusual sincerity, as though we really did want her to go on as long as possible. Which for a whole mixture of reasons, fear of the future and attachment to the past high among them, most of us probably do.
Like Jack’s, my first memory of monarchy is local. At four years old I asked why the Union Jack on Derry Guildhall had fallen down the pole and was told it was because the King had died. He was called George the sixth who had come after George the fifth who was also dead. I distinctly remember that this explanation badly confused me. Why did they both die at once? And so did monarchy become a small episode of ordinary life, because it itself created occasions which were out of the ordinary and so easier to remember.
Leave aside the likelihood that the Union Jack will never again fly over the Guildhall. What will generations younger than us ageing boomers have as collective memories beyond the traumas of the Troubles? A caption below a photograph in the Irish Times set me thinking about what they had to remember in the Republic in the same era of the fifties, the grey years long after the excitements of independence and civil war. Supposedly illustrating an archive piece by Paul Bew “What did Churchill really think about Ireland?” the photo pictured him greeting Dev warily in Downing St. In the web edition the piece is captioned “Undated photograph of Eamon de Valera meeting Winston Churchill.” Undated? My eye.
Even if you couldn’t surmise the time from Churchill’s ageing appearance (Dev might have been harder to date on his own; he still had quite a lot black hair then), a quick Google or archive scan would have turned up the answer.
Finally, after much encouragement, de Valera did agree to meet with Churchill on 16 September 1953. By then both men were in their second go-round as heads of government. The momentous encounter took the form of a lunch at 10 Downing Street. Unfortunately, we only have de Valera’s account of what was said. Churchill’s secretary, Anthony Montague Browne, refused even to be in the same building as the Irish leader. An RAF veteran, Montague Browne first considered and then dismissed the idea of making a citizen’s arrest of de Valera. Instead he contented himself with ‘the sort of silly joke’ he knew Churchill sometimes appreciated: ‘I hope the Taoiseach,’ he remarked, ‘is not followed by an unpleasant supper surprise.’xlix Afterwards, Churchill described his lunch with de Valera as ‘a very agreeable occasion’ and told his physician Lord Moran: ‘I like the man.’l
For his part de Valera reported that Churchill ‘went out of his way to be courteous.’li This time a photograph was taken.lii It was reported that at lunch ‘they had mainly talked about “the higher mathematics,”’ de Valera’s subject in his teaching days. Though as historian John Ramsden notes, ‘how Churchill kept up his end on this particular subject is something of a mystery.’liii De Valera did make a request for the return of the remains of Sir Roger Casement, executed for treason in 1916. Churchill replied that he personally favoured the idea but would have to refer the matter to the law officers.liv Inevitably, they also spoke of partition.
I recall this meeting too. I heard about it on a report on Radio Newsreel on the Home Service, the only programme at the time which carried what we today call live reports. They lodged in the memory. And so I learned that the Free State which was somewhere in Donegal four miles away, had a leader with a very strange name. Once heard, never forgotten – if you were around at the time, or could at least look it up in the internet age.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London