There are some days that one never forgets. What happened, where you were, what you were doing and what followed. I was standing in my kitchen starting to get supper ready when I heard the news that Queen Elizabeth II had died. It got me thinking about how, in my life, I’ve lived history. It’s not something one thinks about as a six-year old, sitting on the floor, listening to a crackly radio broadcast as the first human walked on the moon.
Similarly, when the 1976 “riots” broke out in South Africa and a year later, Bantu Stephen Biko was murdered on 12 September. I was at boarding school and television didn’t exist in South Africa then. Because of that, and because at school, unless you were a senior (I was not in 1976/7), the only source of news was the local newspaper. Every week day, a copy of the Daily Despatch arrived on a table in the common room. After school, almost ritualistically, I’d read it. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was one of the few South African newspapers to document – in detail – the inquest into Biko’s death.
That, with hindsight, was my first significant September date. There are others.
Not actually a royalist, but…
I’m not a royalist and my views of monarchies are conflicted. We have monarchies in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was a member of the amaXhosa royal family. Here, too, the notion is contested and, frankly, a bit confusing. Unlike in Britain, they are quite parochial and play no role, formally, in international relations. Interestingly though, just today, the recently installed King of the Zulus extended an olive branch to their former colonisers.
I did, however, grow up with an English mother who, after her own mother’s death, found a book that documented the family’s tree back to landed gentry and royalty. She claimed. I don’t know what happened to the book. I wonder, now, whether that story is apocryphal. It does, however, explain why I remember November the 14th 1973. I was 10, it was a hot, early afternoon in the kitchen at home. Making
a million sandwiches. There was some or other school event later that day. My memory isn’t sure, but says that it was a prize giving. What my memory is very sure of, is why the radio was on, and there was no conversation: Princess Anne was getting married. My mother was hanging on every word.
Some eight years later, and Charles married Diana, I was at university. A bunch of us piled into a friend’s car and headed to our house. When my parents came home for lunch our lounge was bursting at the seams with young people, glued to the television, watching the royal wedding. We were all – to a boy and girl – roughly the same age as the girl-woman who became the People’s Princess.
September, 16 years later
As vividly as I remember that July day, I remember the morning of Sunday, September 1st, 1997. I had gone through to the kitchen to make the ritual cup of tea and turned on the radio for the news. It was heart stopping. Princess Diana was dead. She was only two years older than I, and over the intervening years, my empathy for a woman who on that 1981 day, had no idea of the poison chalice she’d been served, had grown. My own marriage at the time, was on the rocks. That she seemed to be getting a second chance made it all the more tragic. To me, anyway.
Then, five days later, Mother Theresa died. Yes, she was old, but I felt it in a way I hadn’t for Princess Diana. That news was buried in the public outcry, controversy and pomp an ceremony that surrounded the Princess’s funeral. My memory sent me back to that day in 1988 when I’d had the privilege of meeting a saint.
Little did I realise, following the Biko story as a 14 year old, that the newspaper I was reading was part of history, documenting history. I think it’s really something that dawns on one with hindsight. As do the ironies of life. Like, for example, from whom I heard about Nelson Mandela’s imminent release in 1990. I wrote about that here.
There are other dates that remain indelibly in my memory, and one of these is 9/11. The Husband and I weren’t yet married. We were at work – on a joint project. Not long after lunch, a colleague said her mother had phoned to tell her that an aeroplane had flown into a building in New York. My initial reaction was one of utter disbelief. It was in the early days of the internet and I had a dial up connection in the office. I simply could not connect to any of the international news sites to verify what sounded like a bad story line.
By the time we went home – earlier than usual – we new “it” had happened. We unlocked the front door, and for the first time in our shared life, dropped everything and turned on the TV. How long we sat watching that horror unfold and repeat, I can’t remember. I do remember a sense of incredulity that something unimaginable was happening and that the world would never be the same again. Nor is it.
An internationally insignificant, significant September day
There is a third September day that I shall never forget, and for very different reasons. It didn’t hit the international headlines, but twenty years later, my memories of that day are as vivid as they were then. It feels like yesterday and in others, it’s a lifetime ago. Only because we’ve made a life. It’s been an eventful one and, I’d like to think, a happy one. May we have as many more happy and healthy years together.
Back to the Queen
Over the last week or so, I’ve been wondering about my fascination with happenings in the United Kingdom. I am. Anyone who has lost a parent or someone close to them, can only but empathise with the family’s grief. Could I grieve publicly, stoically and as gracefully as that? No. I didn’t. When my mother died, I took one of her friends to church. I’d been holding it together for my father. Condolences from my mother’s friends and comparative strangers to me, and from the pulpit, sent me into a paroxysm of weeping that I could not control. Nothing very stoic or graceful in that.
The ancient ritual, pomp and ceremony fascinate me. That some of them, like the coronation, hark back to prehistory in a modern world keep me glued. The people, the scenes and the buildings fascinate me and while there’s a part of me that feels a bit like voyeur, this is history unfolding in real time, and scenes I doubt, I shall ever see again.
Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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