Reign stops play for the Queen, who spent much of her 96 years around big sport | Barney Ronay
Rain rituals. Sombre men in coats. Waiting in a grey, mannered place while the BBC talks about the Queen. A day of non-cricket at the Oval turned out to be an eerily fitting place to wait out Thursday afternoon.
For much of the time it felt like a pastiche of ceremonial Englishness, the kind of thing John Lennon might have scribbled on a napkin in the back of a London cab and considered turning into a waspish and satirical limerick. Timings and statements and black ties on the news. An obsessive tending of lawns. Queues, flags, beer and measured talk (nice pins, Rodney Hogg said, for an old Sheila). Prince Charles has arrived at Balmoral. Tea will be taken early. And we will now cut to a special announcement.
I make no apologies for writing about the Queen here. It has after all after been 96 years, a fair part of this spent around the kind of places where big sport happens, from the Austerity Games to the Matthews Final to a minute’s Uefa-approved solemnity in the Europa Conference League (it’s what she would have wanted) on Thursday night.
Not that the Queen had any obvious fondness for sport. “I have often observed in women of her type a tendency to regard all athletics as inferior forms of fox-hunting,” Evelyn Waugh wrote of Lady Circumference in Decline And Fall. Does that sound about right? The Queen did love the horses. She seemed to quite like going to cricket. One of her first non-ceremonial appearances was to meet the touring Indian team of Vijay Hazare at Lord’s in 1952. She met Don Bradman’s Australians at Balmoral and her sister stood very near Keith Miller looking pleased.
But generally the Queen’s regular appearances at sport had an air of something to be endured, on the spectrum between another garden party full of people who actually want to be at royal garden parties, and an ill-fated Dane Bowers dubstep set at a rain-sodden jubilee concert.
I once followed the Queen around on a visit to Wimbledon. The crowds cooed as she stalked the concourses in a mint-green suit and an impressive matching hat the shape and size of an elegantly turned casserole dish. The most remarkable part was the physical reality, still startling in the flesh, of that total commitment at all times to Being The Queen, to being a cipher, a presence, an object.
The moment this really came into focus was on Centre Court. From a distance the Queen seemed to be actually watching and possibly even enjoying the tennis, that mint-green hat fixed rock solid in its upright position. The giveaway came when a line call was challenged and the entire court wrenched around to stare at the Hawkeye screen. Only one object remained stationary among those 20,000 heads, the lime green hat staring resolutely straight ahead, magnificently unmoved, regally disinterested in line calls, and surprisingly tender out there in all that air.
There are probably two things worth saying about all this. First, football should not have been cancelled in tribute, and not just because this seems far too timorous and craven. Probably there are sound operational reasons, but the Queen was all about getting on with stuff. More to the point, people don’t mourn and grieve like this now, obediently tucked up in their drawing rooms. Public sentiment is restless and volatile. What, exactly, are they worried will happen in these spaces?
Certainly cancelling sport is unlikely to do much for those of us who believe that a monarchy is a silly thing, that we could probably just let this one go from here (Charles III? Really? Do we have a Gracious King now?) Much better to use the occasion as a celebration, a wake for a 96-year-old monarch who had (I am going to say it) a very decent knock.
Plus, no matter how opposed the absurd, sealed world of monarchy may be to the ideal of sport for all, Queen Elizabeth II was also a fixture of how we have arranged these things, a part of the architecture and the myth kitty of sport. The Queen is in all the pictures. The Queen has lifted the FA Cup more than any other human, even Ashley Cole. She was there when Rob Key made his double ton against West Indies. At the other end of the scale only the hardest heart could find nothing poignant or at least interesting in Bobby Moore wiping his hands on the Wembley steps before shaking those white gloves. This is one shade of what Englishness has been, a presence in the shared sporting memory bank that will never be repeated, that is now gone for good.
Perhaps there is a kind of liberation in all this. It has been pointed out that the Queen was also the visible figurehead of an inequitable society. This is not an observation that really takes us anywhere. She literally wore a crown and said: be oppressed by my presence. All royal families are, by definition, vessels of prejudice. Their basic existence says: I am more worthy than you, my blood is holier.
But equally the world is like this everywhere in some form or other. If you think the Queen represents a state of entrenched wealth and favour, wait ’til you get a load of global capitalism and the 1%. Or check out the Premier League, where we have clubs owned, ultimately, by dictatorial monarchies with a degree of inherited power roughly equivalent to Britain in the early 1640s.
Fold time back on itself, reinstate the last absolute monarch, and it seems pretty likely Charles I owns Manchester United (he’s running it terribly) plus a vast slice of the treasury and all your personal freedoms. Try booing the King in this version of the FA Cup final, or indeed at this winter’s World Cup. Getting up off our knees, ceasing to tug the forelock, it all seems like a deeply sensible idea. But that journey is long.
Is this shaping up as a fond, nuanced celebration of the Queen and sport? Probably not. It is worth adding one reason people liked the Queen is that she didn’t choose to be the Queen, but remained entirely dedicated to what she perceived as her national duty, a part of the staging of life in whatever form we demanded. Which was, as sport tells us more clearly than anything else, an opaque, ever-present figurehead, that unchanging hat in the stands.