Happy birthday, Ma'am

Queen Elizabeth turns 90 next week. Steve Braunias wanders the mall in search of what she means to New Zealanders.
Photo / AP
Photo / AP

Let us go, then, on the eve of the 90th birthday of Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor, officially aka Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God Queen of New Zealand and Her Other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, to one of the remains of Empire - the Henderson mall. What did her subjects think of her? Did they think of her at all? And what were they having for lunch in the foodcourt?

Henderson in west Auckland on Tuesday felt like England. It rained. The clouds were low and grey and damp, there were cans and straws littered on the pavements, a shopping trolley in the creek. Nothing much was happening. The people were only slowly going about their business. They waited for the 080 to Westgate and the 135 to Swanson. Some waited for amputation: there was a man in shorts with one leg in plaster and the other seemed to have gone septic.

What good was the Queen to this poor soul? Edward the Confessor, King of England between 1043-1066, began the tradition of royal healing; an unreliable account describes him dipping his hands in water and stroking the neck of a woman covered in scrofulous sores: "The tumours that were filled with worms and corrupt blood burst, and were healed." But the practise of the monarch's cure ended with Queen Anne (1702-1714).

Rita Gentle, 76, was sitting at the Westgate foodcourt with her mother Joan Tibbles, 94, on their regular Tuesday outing. They decided on Dilmah tea and a bag each of chicken fries from Burger King. Joan lives in a rest home in Henderson Valley. She had very strong hands; she'd worked in a fish and chip shop in the village of Headcorn, in Dover, where she raised her family. Rita's father operated the World War II air-raid searchlights at Dover castle.

"You should have seen our home at the Coronation," Rita said. "From the window down to front gate, all flags and balloons and streamers. Wow. What a day that was." In short: "We're all for the Queen. A lovely lady." Joan had actually met Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor once, and reported, "She's one of us. She's got varicose veins on her legs."

Rita said, "We've followed the Queen all our lives. We always listen to the Queen's speech on TV on Christmas Day, don't we, mum?"

"What?"

"The Queen's speech. We always watch it."

"Oh, yes."

Question: What does the Queen ever actually say in these famous broadcasts? There was a long pause. Another question: How were the chicken fries from Burger King? Rita was quick to reply, "Very, very good."

EACH MORNING after her maid brings in two silver pots of Earl Grey and draws her bath, the Queen eats breakfast, usually wholemeal toast with marmalade, and reads the Daily Telegraph and the Racing Post. The Piper to the Sovereign makes his way to the palace garden, and wails a selection of tunes below the Queen's dining room window.

Keith Guest, 63, commutes from Hamilton to Auckland at 6.30am each weekday as an industrial piping salesman. "I hold her in very high regard," he said, enjoying a flame-grilled feeling. "I think she has a good grasp on the Empire and world topics." He was born in the year of the Coronation and looked forward to seeing in the next one, even if it were her son who took the throne. What did he make of Charles? "Strange," he said.

Poor old Charles, always the duffer. Diana's former butler, Paul Burrell, kept some of the memos Charles sent to his staff, including this classic: "A letter from the Queen must have fallen by accident into her wastepaper basket beside the table in the library. Please look for it."

Why bother looking? The letter can't have said much, because what's she ever had to say to him? She's raised five awkward children; there's the famous 1950s newsreel of her returning from some sunny clime to her young family, little Charles racing out to meet her on the runway, and the Queen shaking his hand. Cold old biddy!

"I'm not a fan of the Queen," said Tereapii Michaels, 69, who had ordered a McTea and fries with that. She wore an enormous crucifix. Her husband, also from the Cook islands, smiled sweetly and said nothing. Tere said, "Her rank is too high. The Bible says we are all the same. We only have one God. She is not God. She is just like us. But," she said, with furious distaste, "she's lucky! She's a millionaire, and we are not."

Why should the poor worship the rich? What's the point of adoring someone mooching around in palaces with the help of such liveried lackeys as The Page of the Chambers, The Master of the Household, The Palace Steward, The Senior Dresser, and The Cracker of The Shell of The Boiled Egg? Of course that last one is made-up, and it's merely speculative to wonder about the terms of the Queen's tax scheme in light of the Panama Papers; all we know is that her original stockbrokers, Rowe and Pitman, were sold to London merchant bankers SH Warburg, which in turn was sold to UBS, a global financial services company which provides wealth and asset management services from its bunker in Zurich.

BACK IN the mall, the good people of Henderson clung to the average day. They ate at Mad Mex and Wok Wok. They shopped for specials at Countdown (three-litre carafe of Blenheimer, $19.99) and the Warehouse (Air Wick Apple Cinnamon Medley Air Freshener Aerosol, $1.99). There was a Hyundai in the carpark with the license plate AY JUDE, which is how Fonzie talks. Across the road, a Chinese woman spat on the footpath outside a junk shop managed by the African migrant centre.

But what was so great about the Queen's life? For all the wealth and the baubles, wasn't she as ordinary as any of us?

Perhaps the most exceptional thing she's ever done with her life was winning the London Bath Club Children's Challenge Swimming Shield at 13. To rule means to shuffle from one dreary appointment to the next, on average 430 every year; next week, she'll visit the Royal Mail Windsor Delivery Office in Berkshire to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Royal Mail. Send for Stephen Hawking! Only he might be able to calculate the black hole of that kind of infinite boringness multiplied 430 times a year. It gets worse. Every Wednesday at 6.30pm, she sits down and receives the week's political lies from her Prime Minister. Poor woman, listening to that claptrap!

But if sympathy was misdirected, then simple respect wasn't too much to ask. Carl Fuimaono, 22, was waiting for his brother to finish shopping at Number One Shoes. There was a very good special - buy two pairs of shoes, get the third pair free. "We should respect the Queen," he said. "She's getting old now."

He was born in American Samoa, and moved to New Lynn as a child. "We didn't know about the Queen before. Then I get here and look at the $20 note, and say to myself, 'Who is this lady?' Someone say, 'It's the Queen.' I say, 'Oh. Fair enough.' We learned about her at history in Avondale College. I think she's a good lady."

He seemed very tired. He'd just come off a 12-hour shift, 7pm to 7am, as a luggage handler at Auckland international airport. Shane Tweed, 20, also works in the same business, as an airline steward: "I'm seeing the world, I'm living the dream!" He was with Megan Lupton at Nando's Chicken. They were catching up, hadn't seen each other in a while; they'd gone to school at Rutherford College in Te Atatu, where Shane was deputy head boy.

"I'm all for the Queen," he said. "I think she's done great things." His great-grandfather received a card from the Queen when he turned 100. "We all looked at it very carefully to try and distinguish whether she really had signed the note. We felt that it was genuinely in her hand, which everyone was excited about."

Megan said, "We always watch the Queen's Christmas message." Question: What does the Queen ever actually say in these famous broadcasts? Shane answered, "It's quite boring."

He was recently travelling around England, and one of the highlights was Buckingham Palace. "Very classy," he said. "Very elegant." His awe at seeing that gilded cage, that rare and precious thing of beauty, revealed a truth about the royals. They still provided a kind of magic in the remains of Empire. They were, as writer John Osborne once said, "the gold filling in a mouth of decay".

Privileged old sponger, her duty to be bored senseless, her reward to lie in bed as The Maid of The Royal Faucet draws her bath - oh for heaven's sake, it's her 90th birthday next week. The people wish her well. You could call it the innate conservatism of New Zealanders (save the flag!) or recognise it as our familiar generosity of spirit. The royal family inspire that kind of affection. They bring out one of the most cherished qualities in ancient or modern life: kindness. "When I think of her," said Carl Fuimaono, wise, sleepy luggage handler, "I think of my Nana."

- NZ Herald

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