On 2nd June, 1953, I went to my first fancy-dress party. I was three, and very proud of the Noddy costume my mother had made. I remember even now shaking my head to get the bell ringing on the tip of my blue Noddy hat. Alas, or luckily, no photographic record survives, although this was possibly the most photographed day in British history up to that moment; it was, of course, Coronation Day. At the party, we ate red jelly out of waxed paper bowls, using special commemorative coronation spoons, which we were allowed to keep as souvenirs. Perhaps every child in the country was given such a spoon: they are plentifully available today on e-Bay.
The party was held in the Dame Elizabeth Hall, Stechford. I was born in Birmingham, my father being at that time Vicar of Stechford, an unlovely outer suburb that had grown up around the railway. Later that June, he took me to the city centre, to a news cinema in Station Street, to see the Pathé film of the Coronation. This cinema – still active today and called by its original name, the Electric Theatre – is the oldest working cinema in the country. Next door is the original Birmingham Repertory Theatre (now the Old Rep), founded in 1913 by Sir Barry Jackson, who was still its managing director in 1954 when my father took me there to see my first play, The Silver Curlew by Eleanor Farjeon. So I saw both my first film and my first play in Station Street.
The Birmingham Rep has an important history: it was the first purpose-built repertory theatre in England, and celebrates its centenary this year. During the First World War, its manager and resident dramaturge was John Drinkwater, and the Rep’s early links with the Georgian poets are clearly reflected in the plays Drinkwater commissioned and produced there. One writer who had good reason to be grateful was the poet John Masefield, several of whose plays had their first performances in Station Street.
I suppose Masefield is most often remembered today as the author of poems we used to recite at school: ‘Sea Fever’ and ‘Cargoes’, for example. We also learned to sing John Ireland’s setting of ‘I must down to the seas again’ (carefully omitting the word ‘go’). Although I no longer possess my coronation spoon, I have recently come by a copy of the Approved Souvenir Programme for the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (price 2/6d), and find in it ‘Lines on the Coronation of Our Gracious Sovereign’, written by the then Poet Laureate, Masefield himself.
The poem begins rather in the style of a village pageant -
This Lady whom we crown was born
When buds were green upon the thorn
- but I’m afraid it doesn’t improve: ‘The promise was on all fields sowed [sic]/ Of Earth’s beginning Spring’ is simply awful: ‘sowed’ rhymes with the previous, sub-AE Housman, line: ‘Nought but the cherry-blossom snowed’. But I do not want to be unfair to Masefield, a modest man who apparently always enclosed a stamped addressed envelope when submitting a poem to a newspaper, in case the editor thought it not worth publishing. So I am happy to agree with Professor Andrew McRae of Exeter University who, in an interesting blog on ‘The importance of Poetry’, describes this poem as ‘polite and stylised’, suggesting that those two epithets could equally be applied to the age, and the occasion, in and for which Masefield’s ‘Lines’ were written.
Actually, my Approved Souvenir Programme is full of poetry and drama, for it contains the full text of the Coronation Service itself, including stage directions. I’m not exaggerating. A dais erected in the area in front of Westminster Abbey’s High Altar is, for ritual purposes, described formally as ‘the Theatre’. The rubric for the service itself describes the Coronation almost in the language of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, including stage directions whose amplitude Shakespeare never matched:
¶ The Archbishop, together with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Great Chamberlain, Lord High Constable, and Earl Marshal (Garter King of Arms preceding them), shall go to the East side of the Theatre, and after shall go to the other three sides in this order, South, West and North, and at every of the four sides the Archbishop shall with a loud voice speak to the People: and the Queen in the meanwhile, standing up by King Edward’s Chair, shall turn and show herself unto the People at every of the four sides of the Theatre as the Archbishop is at every of them, the Archbishop saying:
SIRS, I here present unto you Queen ELIZABETH, your undoubted Queen: Wherefore all you who are come this day to do your homage and service, Are you willing to do the same?
¶ The People signify their willingness and joy, by loud and repeated acclamations, all with one voice crying out,
GOD SAVE QUEEN ELIZABETH.
¶ Then the trumpets shall sound.
At the end of the Coronation itself, there are further alarums and excursions, which prompt a closing reflection on immortality:
¶ When the Homage is ended, the drums shall beat, and the trumpets sound, and all the people shout, crying out:
God save Queen ELIZABETH.
Long live Queen ELIZABETH.
May the Queen live forever.
Of course, the Choir had just sung ‘May the King live forever’ in Handel’s anthem Zadok the Priest. Sixty years on, however, does the Queen sometimes ponder the last of these fervent prayers? The literary precedents are not encouraging. The Cumaean Sibyl bitterly regretted asking to be made immortal, having omitted to ask for eternal youth at the same time (TS Eliot includes her anguished cry ‘I want to die’ in the epigraph to The Waste Land). And there is surely no Parthian shot more lethal in all fiction than Trollope’s leave-taking of the termagant wife of the Bishop of Barchester: “As for Mrs Proudie,” concludes the narrator, “our prayers for her are that she may live forever.” (Barchester Towers, Ch.52)