Monday, June 11, 2012

THE HEAD ON THE STAMP - Queen Elizabeth II has emerged as the symbol of reassurance

By Swapan Dasgupta

Like many kids of my generation who were encouraged at home and school to cultivate hobbies, I began collecting stamps at the age of seven. Unfortunately, like many childhood preoccupations, this interest didn’t endure. By the time I reached my teens, the stamp album was relegated to a bottom drawer and forgotten in favour of more exciting diversions. That is, until one lazy afternoon in the summer of 1995 when, strolling aimlessly down the Strand in London I stopped in front of the Stanley Gibbons shop and rediscovered my childhood passion. These days, no visit to London is complete without the mandatory visit to the Saturday Collector’s Fair in an obscure basement adjoining Charing Cross station and a nondescript shop off Trafalgar Square where an ex-policeman from Kenya with a fierce walrus moustache, a collector of Bhutanese stamps, holds court

As a child, I collected every stamp I could lay my hands on. These days, I try to specialise—but without losing sight of my amateur status. At the centre of my philatelic hoarding are two themes. First, there is the constant endeavour to fill the blank spaces of the four-volume Stanley Gibbons album of British and Commonwealth stamps issued in the 16-year reign of George VI—a time when the British Empire reached its apogee (and began its slow march to dissolution). Second, there is the far less demanding project of accumulating British First Day Covers—what I call my Elizabethan project.

Unlike the George VI collection which, alas, is destined to remain incomplete even if I decide to sink my life’s earnings into it, the Elizabethan venture isn’t marked by a quest for high-priced rarities—at least not yet. What is striking about the stamps embossed with the Queen’s head is their sheer range, spanning six decades. No other monarch in philatelic history can come close to rivalling the chronological expanse of Elizabethan Britain—in three years, it will have overtaken the Victorian age. My FDC collection began modestly with just one volume but, over the years, has grown to cover seven volumes. By the beginning of next year, I would have begun on the eighth. And, if the life of the Queen Mother is any guide, there is at least a decade of Elizabethan stamps yet to come. Or so I hope.

The institution of monarchy, rich with all its trappings and embellishments, may well appear an anachronism in a world where republicanism has taken hold. That it still survives and, indeed, is an object of frenzied adulation, may well be taken as confirmation of everything that is wrong with today’s Britain—a class-ridden country too firmly attached to its inheritance. Yet, apart from the wonderful pageantry that was on display earlier this week at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London and elsewhere, the attachment to the old Queen did serve to underline the monarchy’s role as the great unifier.

In the past 60 years, the British Isles have changed profoundly. The war-ravaged, austerity Britain that witnessed the Coronation of the young Queen still counted itself as a world power. The Indian subcontinent, Ceylon and Burma may have eased themselves from the bonds of imperial rule but in 1953, as my stamp collection testifies, the Union Jack still flew over parts of the world carrying exotic names such as Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Tanganyika. White settlers from Britain still tuned in to crackling short wave BBC broadcasts in their expansive farms in the outskirts of Nairobi, Bulawayo and Natal, and holders of Commonwealth passports had the automatic right to live in the ‘mother country’. In 1953, Britain was primarily an ethnically composite country. It was also a country, as the evocative, new BBC drama Call the Midwife reminded the new Elizabethans, also a country where a fierce sense of community prevailed.

All that has changed forever. In the past 60 years, Britain has experienced one of the most dramatic demographic shift known to settled societies. The Commonwealth exists in the far-flung places whose flags were on display at the Thames flotilla, but in reality it also exists in London’s doorstep. The Empire is history but its physical presence is all pervasive. The Union Flag still flutters defiantly over Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, over Gibraltar and on Stormont Castle. But, as is common knowledge, Whitehall wouldn’t bat an eyelid if it was compelled to replicate the dignified departure from Hong Kong, a decade or so ago.

Thanks to the City of London, Britain still remains at the centre of the global financial world attracting smart young fund managers, bankers and experts in abstruse financial instruments. However, as the serpentine queues before immigration counters in Heathrow and the fears of a breakdown triggered by the Olympics overload testify, its infrastructure is woefully inadequate. And, as last year’s vicious riots in London served to underline, the sense of community has given way to profound alienation and an overall disrespect for the British way of life. Binge drinking and loutish behaviour have elbowed out restraint. “Keep calm and carry on” is now strictly for coffee mugs and tea towels.

Even the idea of the United Kingdom has come under strain. Why, even a large section of Scotland now imagines an independent, idyllic future where the Union flag will no longer fly over Edinburgh Castle. In all probability, the Scottish Nationalists won’t win the proposed referendum but the mere fact that it will be held at all is ominous.

Britain often conveys the image of an unchanging society, as unchanging as the bus routes in London and the MCC member’s stand at Lord’s. Had he been alive, Harold Macmillan, the last custodian of the ancien regime, may even have appreciated the plethora of non-titled Etonians on the front bench of the Conservative Party. But these facets of continuity are superficial. In reality, Britain has transformed itself dramatically—much more than is apparent from the Letters columns of the Daily Telegraph where eccentricity and quirkiness continue to be celebrated.

Only one thing remains charmingly unchanged: the head of the sovereign on the postage stamps. It would not be wrong to say that with her quiet dignity and her frumpish ways, the Queen has emerged as the symbol of reassurance. Prince Charles may have overstated the point last Monday when, in the aftermath of the concert outside Buckingham Palace, he lauded the Queen for “making us proud to be British”, but he came closest to underlining the enormous sense of popular identification. Unlike Queen Victoria, the other Queen whose reign crossed six decades, Elizabeth Windsor will not have put her distinctive stamp on the national character. It is equally hard to conceptualise something that may come to be known as Elizabethan attitudes. The Queen has undoubtedly lived up to all expectations as a personification of dignity and duty, but her family life has been troubled. The Royal family as a whole never stood up to exacting scrutiny in the past, and this tradition has been upheld.

Yet, all these hiccups has not deterred the British public from perceiving their Queen as someone special, someone who can be trusted to do the right thing and someone who has unfailingly maintained the dignity of her office. She has been Britain’s ever faithful security blanket. In hindsight, the euphoria of 2012 will come to be recognised for what it actually was: a show of love for an exemplary individual rather than an unequivocal endorsement of an institution.

The Telegraph, June 8, 2012 

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