LIZ JONES: I didn’t board a private jet or speeding Range Rover when my darling mum died… but the journey is the same for all of us
It’s the phone call you never want to receive, and yet you’ve waited for it your whole life. And when your mum reaches her 90s, the first thing you do each day is reach for the phone, prepared for the worst. Most days, you can breathe a sigh of relief. One day, you can’t.
This was the momentous call, deeply personal, yet immensely historic, that the Queen’s children – they might be old, but she is still Mummy – received on Thursday. It was to summon them to her bedside at Balmoral to say goodbye.
They lost their mother, but the nation feels it has lost its mother too. Everyone we have lost – parents, grandparents, children, pets, friends – bubbled to the surface of us all in an overwhelming sea of grief.
My phone call came in August 2014, when my mum was 94. It was from my sister, a nurse, who was at her bedside in Essex. Nurses always know. They have seen the look that comes over a person’s face when they are about to die many, many times. ‘You need to come now.’
LIZ JONES: It’s the phone call you never want to receive, and yet you’ve waited for it your whole life. And when your mum reaches her 90s, the first thing you do each day is reach for the phone, prepared for the worst. Liz (left) is pictured with her mum Edna in the 1980s
I didn’t have to board a private jet, a helicopter, a speeding Range Rover: merely drive an hour from London, fetching an ashen-faced oldest sister on the way. There were no policemen in fluoro jackets, wielding guns, outside my mum’s tiny, rented house in Saffron Walden. All looked quiet, normal. Only the child about to lose a parent knows the horror that awaits inside. The journey is the same, for all of us.
My darling mum Edna, who never raised her voice. Who never complained. Still, cold, in her narrow NHS bed with its bars and contraptions, mouth open in a silent cry, sparkly blue eyes with no gentle soul behind them. The only person who loved me unconditionally, gone. It doesn’t matter how old you are. As the youngest of seven, I was still her baby.
On Thursday, I sat watching the rolling news. Even as the Queen was dying, she managed to unite us. We waited, watched, friends furiously texting, updating, speculating, consoling. There were moments of hilarity, too, as there always are at times like this. A friend: ‘Larry didn’t make it!’ Me: ‘Who on earth’s Larry?’ Her: ‘Harry! I can’t see to type; I’m crying so much!’
As the day wore on, that same, familiar fear washed over me. Another person, the only person left who had been present throughout my life – as reliable as the Moon, the Sun; distant, but ours to share – was about to die. I was born in 1958 when she had already been on the throne for six years. Millennials will never know anything as profound, historic, unique.
Every Christmas Day, spent with her. Someone safe, calm, serene, soft. Someone to cling to.
Everyone else seemed difficult, demanding. Not the Queen and my mum. They were of a generation – my mum born in December 1919 – who lived through the war and weren’t just stoic, that’s not the point.
They managed to find fun in everything, no matter how hard. Even hoisted in a sling so her bed could be changed, her bottom washed, my mum would simply cry, ‘Wheeeeee!’ The Queen would break into a radiant smile, and we knew the world would not end.
I was even named after the Queen. For ages, I thought I was named after Liz Taylor, or Lizzie Bennet. But no, my mum loved the Queen, would never have a word said against her. Pictured is Liz’s mum, Edna
I was even named after the Queen. For ages, I thought I was named after Liz Taylor, or Lizzie Bennet. But no, my mum loved the Queen, would never have a word said against her.
When, in 1977, at my 19th birthday party, my friend Alan turned up with a copy of the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen, with its safety pin through the Monarch’s nose, my dad confiscated it: ‘Don’t let Mummy see that!’
There were periods, of course, when the Queen faded from my busy life, apart from when I posted a letter, or watched footballers sing the National Anthem, stumbling over the words (doesn’t the word King sound harsh: like something an EastEnder would name their staffy).
But like my mum, who was never critical or pushy, I knew the Queen was there in the background, just in case. Free from turmoil, unchanging.
What a great shame the Queen wasn’t chosen by Meghan as a ‘game changer’ when she nominated women for the cover of Vogue, because what a role model!
That generation of women shared a different type of strength and beauty: never had a fake tan, dyed their hair, or wore false lashes. Never strived for a bikini body, held a paper cup of coffee, or sucked water from a sports bottle. Never ate a ready meal.
We think we need this stuff. They never did.
And no hint of vanity. As Stewart Parvin, the designer who made so many of Her Majesty’s most memorable outfits – notably eight pieces of daywear for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012 – told me when I visited his atelier in Acton, West London: the Queen was nothing if not realistic about her looks, age, shape.
Parvin would send her sketches, which she would return covered in handwritten notes. ‘She’s very exacting,’ said Parvin, who said the Queen always wore a body stocking for fittings, and adored being filled in on celebrity gossip while being prickled with pins. ‘We’ll put on the dress and then we’ll put on the coat and I’ll fiddle around with it. She has a look to see whether she likes it and then she’ll say, ‘Oh, but don’t you think the shoulder needs a little tweak?’
‘The Queen looks squarely in the mirror and she likes what she sees. She has a confidence that transcends beauty – that’s the most fascinating thing with her. She doesn’t see anything other than something fantastic.
‘We often say it’s not the most beautiful people who look best in clothes, it’s people who have confidence and know how to wear them. She’s definitely one of those.’
We might not think of the Queen as a feminist; or my mum for that matter, who never had a job, owned a chequebook, learned to drive. But their strength, their restraint, their modesty? We could learn so much from them.
But the greatest attribute of a generation of women we will never have the privilege to know again? Neither said a bad word about their husbands, whom they always put first, even before their children. Both said very little, in fact, so refreshing in this age of talk, talk, talk about mental health. When I was having marriage problems, all my mum said was: ‘Be patient.’ If only I’d listened.
My favourite photo of the Queen is from 1961, when she is galloping on a horse called Surprise at Ascot before the race meeting. No hat, no body protector, just a silk scarf between her and certain death should she fall at speed
The Queen appeared to glide effortlessly in the background to my life, there when I needed her, such as when Diana died, or during the pandemic.
But sent to review an exhibition of her wardrobe at Buckingham Palace in 2009, I learned that was far from the truth. It was a revelation to discover that to look appropriate, regal, immaculate was a full-time job.
She was a style icon, too. Her gowns in the 1950s and 1960s were something that other Liz, the movie star, might have chosen: she wore minis and kaftans, riots of roses and colour. I was shocked at her figure, her waist a mere handspan.
And how on Earth did the Queen manage to never look bored? Not to yawn, allow the eyes to glaze over?
Ahead of the Diamond Jubilee in 2012, it was thought a good idea to transform me into my royal namesake. The process took hours. The block-heeled black shoes were comfy, but the Launer London handbag? So heavy, dark, clumsy. The Cornelia James white gloves (bracelets on top, rings hidden underneath) mean you cannot text or touch your face in case of smudges. No mascara, in case of rain.
I was driven in a limo around Buckingham Palace before being forced to walk among the tourists who all smiled, wanting selfies: the warmth was like standing before a furnace. Wow, how amazing to feel so loved. I bent from the hip, just like the Queen, to talk to children and my hat fell off and knocked one of them over.
Tots handed me flowers, which dripped water on my outfit and shoes. I walked slowly (the Queen never hurried) in front of Kensington Palace. How gorgeous to own all this, who could fail to be happy?
But I soon found out to even survive a day doing her job, let alone 70 years, required yogic poise and superhuman gravitas. I pity Camilla and the Duchess of Cambridge. A lifetime of having a face that aches from smiling, a right arm that burns from waving. No wonder Meghan chickened out.
On my day as the Queen, I carried a toy corgi, because of course she loved dogs. My love affair with horses began when I saw a photo of the Queen as a child on a Shetland pony in Horse And Hound. I longed for a pony, would go giddy if I got near enough to bury my nose in a mane and sniff.
My favourite photo of the Queen is from 1961, when she is galloping on a horse called Surprise at Ascot before the race meeting. No hat, no body protector, just a silk scarf between her and certain death should she fall at speed.
Riding gave the Queen a few moments of escape from daily worries because, if you’re astride half a ton of thoroughbred, you must never let your mind wander and worry, as the horse, so empathetic, will panic. This photo tells me the Queen knew how not to be afraid, and that on Thursday afternoon she wouldn’t have been frightened at all.
At Balmoral, receiving the new Prime Minister, purple bruising on the Queen’s extended hand was clearly visible (pictured is the Queen meeting Liz Truss on Tuesday)
My mum and the Queen were lucky: they were loved by supportive men who had fought the Nazis, which meant that any other crisis – my dad had cancer and died in 2007 in his 80s; they had been married for 67 years – seemed surmountable. When I watched the Queen sitting, alone and masked, in the chapel at Windsor, head bowed, for Philip’s funeral, my throat constricted, as she reminded me so much of my mum, all our mums.
On the morning of my dad’s funeral Mum wasn’t hysterical, she didn’t wail. Her only wavering moment came as I held her hand, finally soft after years of housework, in the back of the hearse. Dad’s coffin arrived outside their little house, and she murmured, ‘I can’t believe my darling is in that box.’
We knew the Queen’s death was imminent, didn’t we? Sitting across from Paddington Bear during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, her eyes twinkly, I recognised the signs: the frailty, the curved back.
At Balmoral, receiving the new Prime Minister, purple bruising on the Queen’s extended hand was clearly visible. Oh no. I know that purple. That bruising of skin so fragile it’s like the crepe paper bought at Christmas. Isn’t it odd how grief and joy are muddled in our memory, inseparable.
After my mum died, I’d watch Titanic over and over for the moment when Rose, young again and beautiful, climbs the staircase to be reunited with Jack. That scene kept me going.
It’s also what I believe: that my mum and dad are together again. I’m certain the Queen is with Prince Philip, dapper in his uniform, corgis at their feet, tripping them up as they walk together, laughing.
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