“Give my best to the Queen,” my boss, a woman in her 30s, said to me at the end of my summer job in September 1967.
“Yes, regards to the Queen!” her second-in-command, another woman in her 30s, put in.
I smiled a wordless second goodbye, and, carrying all that I cared to save of my government internship in a manila envelope, headed for the elevators to go down to Madison Avenue. The Queen! What a funny thought. But that might be the main difference that a pair of New York mayoral aides would see between the United States and Britain. The British had Queen Elizabeth, reigning but not ruling, and then people like Harold Wilson doing the dirty work. We had people like Lyndon Johnson and John V. Lindsay doing the dirty work and the reigning at the same time. In the previous year as a graduate student at Oxford, I had heard hardly a word about the monarchy, but from the New World that crown, those ermined robes, those ornate coaches and guardsmen, might seem, along with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Britain’s most visible symbol. In Britain itself, the Queen seemed to be no more than taken for granted. From postage stamps, from deep-red pillar boxes, from tea tins and Illustrated London News pages in ordinary homes, Elizabeth II’s small features (or initials, on the pillar boxes) looked forth at the British with, I thought, only a blank habitual acknowledgment in return. Princess Margaret’s visit to my college had caused some excitable students and servants to go gaga, but that was the exception. No one spoke of the Queen’s New Year’s list of honors as an ambition worth attention—John Lennon refused his honor in protest against the killing in Biafra. At a dinner with the fellows of my college, the talk had all been of Harold Wilson, not the royal family: Harold Wilson spoken of in “seditious” terms, as the master said to me when I turned my attention. When Edward Heath visited the Oxford Union, a mob of students screamed taunts at him with a ferocity beyond anything I had ever seen in the States; he endured them with his impassive, moonlike face, as if confident that the abuse would never reach the point of physical harm. Having moved from ancient intrigue to imperial expansion, Britain now had contracted to a tourist show whose parts, though ill-fitting, somehow never broke their prescribed bounds.
But then, as people reminded me, I was an American, so what would I know? (The British always referred to me as an American, never as Chinese or Chinese-American.) I even had to rely on publications of the British Council. An example: “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith etc. etc. etc. is empowered to make war, sue for peace, annex or cede territory, tax her subjects until they are blue in the face …” This faintly remembered trumpet blast from one British Council booklet raised the eyebrows of one who had been taught that even a monarch as far in the past as George III really wasn’t responsible for the actions taken in his name; his ministers, the government, were, no matter what Thomas Jefferson and the other rebels said in their fiery indictment. That war was long forgotten; the British had come to welcome Americans, and, in memory, still seem the most orderly, most polite, most reserved people I have ever met. This was almost too civilized a country, and those omnipresent initials on those deep-red pillar boxes seemed rather a personal authority to be implying over other people’s mail. One wondered if Leonid Brezhnev or Mao Zedong put their initials or seals on the mailboxes in their countries, and whether the people there walked past the boxes with the same blank expressions.