The Queen's Diamond Jubilee year is well under way in the UK and I find I've become a queen junkie. She is a wonderful story in her own right. There's nothing like a Diamond Jubilee to make us sit up and realise once and for all, to remind us anyway, what an extraordinary person she is and has been, what she has endured, and the wonder of her longevity and health after a career of private and public trials. The people of the UK are falling in love with her all over again. She deserves it thoroughly.
Sixty years on the throne and not a foot wrong, except for the week following the death of Diana when she felt it unnecessary to come back to London from her holiday at Balmoral and, in doing so, misread entirely the mood of the realm.
But I can think of no other moment of failure on the Queen's part in all the years, and I've been alive for all of them.
Of course, the Queen is an accident of history. And we wouldn't have her had it not been for a brash, self-obsessed and enigmatic American divorcee named Wallis Simpson, Edward VIII's crazy love for whom led to his abdication just before Christmas 1936, putting Elizabeth's desperately shy father on the throne.
When her father died, Elizabeth was in Kenya with Philip, at the start of a long tour of the Empire. She was 25, just a year older than my own daughter is now. She was beautiful. She had a tiny waist. Prince Philip's private secretary Michael Parker said that when he told Philip the news, he looked as if half the world had fallen on him. "He took the Queen up to the garden and they walked up and down the lawn while he talked and talked and talked to her."
Elizabeth flew straight to London, where she impressed everyone in those first few days, taking the throne of England, with her poise and her clear, crystal speech. England had another Elizabeth, a beautiful queen, a tonic for a country ground down by years of bloody war and economic collapse.
But this great gift of fate would not have happened without Wallis Simpson and a pathetic, half-child king, Edward VIII. The abdication story is too well known for me to cover it here, but nevertheless, I've been reading a new study of the affair, more from Wallis' point of view, That Woman, by British biographer Anne Sebba. But Wallis emerges still as a dark and unfathomable character.
Wallis was a well-born Baltimore girl who never had a cent, and was driven by a fierce desire for financial security. She arrived in London with her second husband, Ernest Simpson, a stolid but well-to-do businessman. But Wallis wanted to be someone. She set her sights on the Prince of Wales.
She was no beauty but she had something. If a man walked into the room, she lit up. So did he, apparently. Men fell off her. Before long the Prince of Wales, soon to be king, was hopelessly in love with her. He wrote letters in baby talk.
But was it love? It was, all agreed, a very weird obsession. It wasn't healthy. People could not believe the way he behaved round her. What's more, the same people would not believe the way she spoke to him. Next thing he's going to be crowned with her and that's that and she'll be Queen of England.
And before she knows it, the game has gone mad. She is in so deep there is no extrication. Suddenly she is the most hated women in Britain, if not the world. She told anyone who'd listen she wanted to run away but that there was no escape, he'd simply come after her. It was full-on obsession. The game had gone too far. He gave away the greatest throne on earth and set out to marry her. The story is nothing less than a psychological thriller.
We still don't really know this woman. Did she really believe she could be Queen of England? No one seems to know that. But she had no idea of the importance or the meaning of the role of monarch in the eyes of the British people.
Both she and Edward were too solipsistic to worry about that. There was nothing outside either of them. It was crazy. Stanley Baldwin concluded the man had no moral sense whatsoever.
Wallis was described by someone who met her years after the abdication as the oddest-looking woman he had ever seen. She may have been a man, according to Anne Sebba, well, half and half, the XY factor. She had a very square jaw, no waist and huge hands. She may not have had all the female organs. But then again, for his part, the king's girlfriends called him "the little man". Somehow, these strange two people completed each other and were oblivious to the outside world.
After he deserted his duty to the throne and they ran away to France, Europe was soon crumbling into war. The Duke of Windsor's only concern was getting a royal title for his wife who, he felt, had been intolerably insulted. His family were implacable. They never gave in to him. They're made of steel, the Windsors.
Sebba's book is a must read.
But it is because of Wallis Simpson that we have Queen Elizabeth and her marvellous Diamond Jubilee. Sebba concludes that it wasn't an "abdication crisis", rather, an "abdication solution". The British establishment got rid of a dud and a very strange, greedy woman who her former best friend once described as evil, like Hitler, and who between them might have brought the whole show down.