The 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II offers an opportunity to look critically at major developments in British society.
Given that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II it was inevitable that we have been faced with a large number of recollections. A service in Westminster Abbey took place, as a reminder of the coronation service itself. There were many other events, and many people contributed their personal recollections. All that is wholly understandable; British monarchs have rarely served for as long as the present Queen.
As I mentioned in my Cambridge Letter on March 24 (in which I wrote about two occasions celebrating the past), living in the past is not to be commended. At the risk of appearing perverse, I decided once again to go back in time — to the coronation year. One reason is that I am a member of the (now increasingly limited) group of people for whom the event was a reality and not just historical record. In fact, through a family friend I had a seat in Green Park from which to watch the post-coronation procession. I was a student, and came up from Oxford on a very early train, to sit, fascinated by what was a really notable event, viewing it through unremitting rain.
My second reason for deciding to write about “my” view of the Coronation is that it provides me the opportunity to look critically at some aspects of British society and remind myself of what major changes there have been.
One of the most obvious is that in 1953 there was still — very limited, it is true — food rationing in Britain, as a relic of the war. One consequence was that simple meals could be seen as treats. My own experience provides a good indication of this; I arranged for the college chef to cook for me a chicken that I had bought (no longer rationed), which I carried with me in a small attaché case — to eat, with great pleasure, as the rain fell upon me.
Another change is marked by the fact that I was able to carry the case with me, walking from Marble Arch to my seat, without once being challenged. It would be quite impossible to do that today because of the huge increase in security concerns.
One other change, which stands out when looked at from what is currently taken for granted — but which was not at all remarkable at the time — is the fact that 60 years ago television was the exception rather than the rule in many households. The student body of my college rented a television set for the occasion. By modern standards it was very small, but it did offer the opportunity to witness the event, in a way that would simply be taken for granted now.
These changes are all what might be described as personal. What these personal memories did, however, was to cause me to reflect in a far wider context about what society 60 years ago was like.
One major difference was that road travel was far less developed — partly because many people did not own cars, even more because the road system was, by today’s standards, primitive: no major motorways, for example. Even more significant was the state of other forms of communication, most notably those based on computers.
Most significant of all was the international structure in which the United Kingdom existed. There are two, not directly related, elements of this. One is the fact that the European Union had not been formed. In 1957 the Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community (EEC), which metamorphosed later into the European Union. Britain did not join until 1972, and has remained a member (though hardly an enthusiastic one).
The other international fact was that in the coronation year, the UK was still in charge of a large colonial empire. It was, certainly, an empire which was not to continue, and whose continuance was widely recognised as unrealistic. Nevertheless, in 1953 all Britain’s African colonies were still under British control. Ghana did not become independent until 1957, and it was the first to change to that status.
The coronation was not the cause of major changes, but for me, the advantage of casting my mind back to it is that the process provides a reminder of huge developments that are easily forgotten as times go by.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. firstname.lastname@example.org