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Opinion

My Victorian grandmother, who never stopped mourning the Queen

The Big Issue founder watched Queen Elizabeth grow from a shy princess to world-famous monarch, but it was the Queen who came before who was the biggest influence on his childhood

My grandmother believed passionately that the 20th century went wrong when Queen Victoria died in 1901, aged 81. She left the century and the country in the lurch. According to my gran, the First World War came out of the incompetence of Victoria’s son Edward VII. He did not know how to handle Victoria’s grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Second World War had just finished when she told me these things. She believed that World War II was simply a continuation of the First World War, and that it all flowed from the stupid King Edward.  

Mrs Mary Ann Bird was almost 15 when Victoria died. Later, as a 65-year-old granny, she constantly rued the day the great Queen passed away. “Queens are best, Tony Bird,” she often said, as I worked at stirring the breakfast porridge in her kitchen; our family having to doss with her due to eviction.  

The slums of Notting Hill had this Victorian echo to them, and not just because of my granny’s constant promoting of the long-dead Queen. We seemed to be living in some ways in the wreckage of the British Empire, which in that year, 1949, had become the Commonwealth. Rubbish and suffering was all around us, as if a civilisation had collapsed and we were living in its remnants.  

So I did feel very Victorian as a child, and loved my granny’s take on the times we lived in. She felt and dressed Victorian, joining the hundreds of old ladies of Notting Hill who dressed as if Victoria was still on
the throne.  

We did keep up though with King George VI and his elder daughter, who was heir to the throne. In 1949 we took the 36 bus from our slums and my mum and I went to Buckingham Palace to see the king and princess standing on the balcony waving to the thousands upon thousands of people who crowded before the gates of the Palace.  

In the surging mass of people I got separated from my mother; a policewoman took me to a tent for lost kids; and I was treated to my first Mars bar. My mother came and angrily dragged me away as I was going through my second Mars. Later when Elizabeth became Queen in 1952 she toured her kingdom, passing our slums and waving from her large black open car. She was smiling and waving as hundreds of us and the whole of my infant school stood on stands hastily constructed overnight. Aged 26, she swept quickly by towards Kilburn and Maida Vale and we cheered and threw pieces of coloured paper in the air.  

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I did not see the Queen again until I was 49 and she was 69. Now I was being given an MBE for services to homelessness. Buckingham Palace was not as impressive as I thought it would be. I could see why, at the time, the Queen was said to have expressed a distaste for the place. I suggested to the BBC afterwards that it would make a wonderful venue for the thousands of homeless who were sleeping rough in and around the capital. And we would be doing the Queen a favour because of her disdain for the generally crummy-looking place.  

A few other events at Buckingham Palace caused me to attend events with the Queen. I was lucky enough to be included as one of 500 useful individuals who had peopled the reign of the Queen thus far. The last time I caught sight of her was when I took my mother-in-law to one of her summer garden parties. The Queen wafted past and hundreds tried to get near to her. My mother-in-law was very pleased that she got a very brief view of this famous woman.  

But on the late afternoon of the day she died I was sitting in a radio studio talking about her on a royal topic, as if my voice was important. I had been asked to come in to talk about the inflation-inspired cost-of-living crisis. And yet as soon as I sat down, the questions came thick and fast as to what I made of the Queen, and what relationship – if any – I had with her.  

Just after leaving the studio, I was told the Queen had died. I had recounted the times I had seen and met her, but the shock I felt on hearing she was dead surprised me. Like most people, I believed the Queen would go on forever. The Queen, first as Princess, was present in my consciousness my entire life. I had met Charles, her son; her daughter Anne; her grandson William and her one-time daughter-in-law Diana. But everyone knew it was the Queen that seemed to matter the most.  

Precious little can be said about Her Majesty that has not already been said. A deep sense of loss surrounds us all. All I know is that, to me, the royal family that she ran was a 20-minute bus ride away from the hovel I was born in. I know my grandmother would have loved to have met her. My gran may well have got the 36 bus to the back of Buckingham Palace and joined the thousands that went to royal events; however, she only made it to the same age as Victoria, 81.  

Strangely, the Queen’s passing rekindles those days of my early slum life, and the life of that hard woman who cleaned steps and corridors for a living.  

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.


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