The diamond wedding anniversary of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh last November brought pages of nostalgic images in the British press. The people of 1947 look so physically different from those of modern Britain: thinner, more cheerful, more formally dressed, more active, the faces less inert, the features somehow more defined. Is it just the black-and-white of the photographs? The cut of the clothes? No one is obese (of course not — very little food about). No one is very casually dressed (of course not — jeans and sweatshirts, T-shirts with slogans, were all simply unknown garments). No one is wearing spikes through the nose or has flesh bulging through a massive gap between tight, low-slung jeans and a skimpy top.
1947 was a horrid year. Half of Europe was Stalin’s fiefdom, and misery was the lot of the people living there. Massive numbers of Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Poles, Hungarians, and others would end up in the gulag over the coming years. The threat of nuclear war stalked Europe and the world. In defeated Germany, it would be another decade before men returned home from the grisly Soviet prison camps — Communist Russia never signed the Geneva Convention and saw no reason to treat prisoners of war with any decency.
Across the continent — from Poland, where the war had begun with invasion in 1939, to France, where the D-day landings had occurred four years later — there were ruined buildings, food shortages, families aching for missing husbands and sons and fathers, hopes postponed, and a future that seemed uncertain.
In Britain — rightly considered among the most fortunate of nations at that time, and basking in the victory of 1945 — food was rationed more severely than it had been in wartime, with clothes worn out, many homes unheated as winter set in, basic household items hard to obtain, and all buildings, from schools and hospitals to bomb-damaged terraced houses, desperately in need of repair and redecoration.
Yet the pictures from November 1947, on a day of rain and drizzle, show people cheering and happy, confident and upbeat. They were celebrating the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to her naval, royal-born fiancé.
My purpose here is not to wax nostalgic about heart-warming stories of Britain’s wartime heroism, nor is it to note sneeringly that even after a world war the best that Britain could produce by way of raising national morale was the wedding of a princess to a man whose three sisters were all married to men who had served with the enemy forces. Nor is it a standard “let’s-dwell-on-how- things-have-changed,” much less a lament that all change has been for the worse — I am well aware that a thousand things, from dental anesthesia to central heating, from women’s educational opportunities to home computers, have made life better for millions.
No, what interests me is that, in a hungry Europe, with a Stalinist menace on its borders and a sense of so many things having been destroyed, the London crowds exude, somehow, a sense of normality. They look approachable, everyday, real. You feel that if you asked, “Is it normal for a man and a woman to marry?” they’d all say, “Well, yes!” as if it were indeed ordinary. Pressed to discuss whether two men could marry, or whether a child aged 12 should be encouraged in a sexual relationship and given contraceptives accordingly, they’d regard such ideas as abnormal, disordered, at variance with wisdom and common sense.
Oh, I know the standard response to such a statement is that they were probably hideously repressed, dishonest, or ignorant. But were they?
A London crowd for a royal event today would have big red-white-and-blue flags and funny hats. There would be helium balloons and various amusing things to wear with flashing lights. There’d be trinkets for sale and litter to clear up afterward, and giant TV screens and probably a laser-light show at night. It would all be fun, but would it be as realb– as normal — as the people back in 1947?
The London of that year took the opportunity to celebrate when its future monarch married, because it looked forward with hope — and rightly linked that hope to images of marriage and family, heritage and tradition. Even if there was a world war, marriage remained the basis of each new generation, so a nation could continue and something might be passed on. People married in church with an understanding that God, as author of life, would also judge us all in death, and we should live our lives accordingly. The faces in the crowd reflected those truths.
Not so with a similar crowd today, because the truth isn’t there. We think you can have a future without marriage and family, and without a sense of heritage and tradition — that God isn’t the author of life, and that at death He won’t mind how we have spent our lives.
There’s a lot that was horrible and terrifying in 1947. But at the heart of community life, there was a recognition of what we have lost — the truth about human beings, and marriage and family and the transmission of life. We’ve lost it, and you can see it in our faces.