June 3rd 1952
In June 1953 I was nearly five and Susie next door, a year younger. We had special coronation dresses. These were a real treat as fabric was in limited supply so soon after the war. However, Susie’s great aunts ran the fabric department of the local store and her grandma was a tailoress, so we had the special dresses. The fabric was white with a frieze along the bottom which showed the coronation procession - the coach, horses and military escort. I have a colour photograph of us hand in hand in the dresses in the back garden - where the grass almost came up to our waists!
We had one of the few TV sets in our road so our front room was packed with people - Susie’s Mum, Dad and grandparents, three great aunts and one uncle. My Mum’s best friend and her husband and assorted neighbours. I think Dad was pottering in the garage as he had little patience with all the gossiping women. Susie and I were playing in the garden until the big moment when we were called to see the ceremony, which we did from broad windowsills as the windows were thrown open owing to the warm weather and the mass of people in the modest room. I remember feeling considerable resentment that my best friend and I couldn’t get a front row seat in front of my TV!
Later in the afternoon there was a street party for the children. There were about ten of us of similar age. This took place in the unmade cinder roads as our small estate was new and the roads had not been ‘adopted’ by the Council.
All the children were given coronation mugs filled with sweets. I still have the mug (plus a selection of older ones including Edward VIII and a Welsh language one). Sadly I have mislaid the coronation coin set which Mum and Dad gave me.
The overriding memory is of a happy, sunny day. However, I fancy it was quite an overcast one in London. However, my coronation took place in a pleasant village on the outskirts of Cardiff. Perhaps the Welsh weather was better!
My family and I flew to Australia in 1952 for a holiday and to meet my mother’s family. However, one look at the bananas and pineapples growing like weeds (or so it seemed to my ration booked parents) and it was decided that Sydney was the place to live! My father (Production Manager at Ealing Studios - and involved in making those glorious comedies), returned to England for a year to make another couple of films and to take part in the filming of the Coronation. This was still considered “early days” for outside broadcasts of this magnitude, and it was filmed in colour too! My father, many years later, spoke of the celebratory mood of the whole country, magnified in London, and the incredible feeling of pride and loyalty that welled up from the crowds along the procession route. Although my brother and I were twelve thousand miles away, it was as if those miles were merely inches! Australians joined in the celebrations just as enthusiastically, with flags, bunting, and cardboard crowns, and we were given a Dinky golden coach and horses and a book about the Royal Family.
My boarding school wisely chose to treat the Coronation as a family affair, so we were all encouraged to go home, and to invite any boys not able to make it there and back in the allotted time, to come with us as guests. My brother Malcolm and I had one guest each. My memories of the 48-odd hours spent back in Todmorden are divided almost equally between colour and black and white. Having been away from home in early summer for the previous four years, I was amazed by the vivid green of the hillside trees around our house, bursting out of oaks, sycamores, ashes and silver birches blackened by industrial soot, and the effect was heightened by the warm moisture-filled air, with rain never far off, and by the sight and sound of water overflowing from the dam behind our house. The old familiar place where I had played up to the age of nine seemed renewed and transfigured.
And the same was true of the whole country, where memories of the war and the 1951 Festival of Britain, the stress and austerity and the extraordinary new styles on the South Bank, were still fresh. It was then eight years since we had cheered the end of the War and got our letters from the King. War-time bulletins and battle-maps in the newspapers may have been fading in our memories (and were in any case pretty marginal when you were only five years old); but they had been revived by coverage of the Korean war. The black and white world of reported news, interacting with the coloured world of Britain as explored in touring holidays since the war and the crucial visit to London (as drab and battered as Manchester, but grander and with its dazzling temporary extension beyond the river) made somebody of my age and background pretty inevitably patriotic - the patriotism skewed by a selective view of history and an inadequate appreciation of what Atlee’s Labour government had achieved.
But all this larger world also seemed renewed by what we saw on the small, grainy, but remarkably revealing black and white screen with its wide veneered margin, guided by Richard Dimbleby’s painstaking but orotund commentary. I suspect that, even then, some of it seemed a little OTT - or as we might have said, overdone. At least one phrase sticking in my memory, ‘Princes of the Blood’, must have done so for a reason. Even so, what centred it all was the Queen herself - that beautiful concentrated face, obviously intent on so much more than just getting through it all without a hitch, lifting all the magnificence around her, weighed down by the first, sacramental crown but at ease, triumphant and happy in the second, workaday one - the one which has featured every year since at the State openings. By the end of the coverage - or by the time that we switched off and went to see how Todmorden was celebrating - we four adolescents all seemed to be in a state of chivalric adoration, combining mystical fervour with what used to be called calf love.
We would all, it seemed, in King Lear’s words but in a positive sense, ‘do such things’ to achieve ‘the New Elizabethan Age’ that the newspapers and magazines were talking about, translating one day’s emotion into intelligent choice, inspiration and resolute will. How long did this take to dissipate? Whether or not my memory is accurate, it’s significant that one thing I remember from the late-afternoon procession through the town, a float featuring a working loom with a comic weaver and overlooker (aka ‘tackler’) in attendance, is the loom stopping as it went by, and proving impossible to restart. And when, later that summer term, my school obtained a copy of the film ‘A Queen is Crowned’ and we all saw it again in Technicolor, I had the misfortune as it then seemed to be sitting just in front of the Birdsall brothers, one of whom was later to become (though with tragic briefness) a star of ‘That was the Week that Was’. Their commentary on the film ran counter to Dimbleby’s; and for me at that point - however irksomely - the Age of Satire began. But the Queen has kept her promises, and I am happy to celebrate that.