As a quaint, archaic phrase inextricably bound-up with the monochrome optimism of the immediate post-war 1950s, ‘The New Elizabethan Age’ hadn’t stood the test of time until its recent revival (for obvious reasons). However, with the passing of the Queen whose name this imaginary era had rented, do we now acknowledge it was an authentic epoch in itself or do we accept whatever achievements history might like to squeeze under such a convenient umbrella label simply took place on Her Majesty’s watch even when she wasn’t watching? Will the future file this age away so that the past 70 years will retrospectively group together everything from The Beatles to Brexit, Bond to Bowie, Coronation Street to Concorde, Thunderbirds to Thatcherism, Paddington to Punk Rock, and from Tommy Steele to Tim Berners-Lee? Well, it’s probably in the hands of the generations who never lived through it, though many of us who lived through at least half of it recognise whatever creative and cultural renaissance this country coincidentally experienced whilst Brenda occupied the throne drew to a close long before she breathed her last at Balmoral.
As if to confirm this, a video that did the rounds on Twitter this week featured the contemporary ‘star’ Rita Ora labouring under the misapprehension that she’s Aretha Franklin reincarnated as a lap-dancer. The focus of said video was Ora’s attempt to turn Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’, into a sub-Beyoncé vehicle for the extended – not to say excruciating – practicing of scales. On the video, Ora evidently believes what she’s doing marks her out as an artist of some repute; the sycophantic encouragement of an audience perpetuating her fantasy is as sad as Ora’s embarrassing conviction of her own greatness, though both are victims of low expectations and an inability to question the hype. The Auto-Tuned digital trickery that fools some into believing deluded marionettes with all the soul of The Archies are worthy of bracketing along with the genuine articles who shone so brightly and so far-reaching in the first half of the New Elizabethan Age is never more exposed than in the live arena; but so desensitised are the Spotified public to the charade that convinces them they’re witness to landmark talents rather than average mediocrities, it already feels like it’s too late to extinguish the artistic inferno our Rome has long been engulfed in.
The last monarch to occupy the throne for over half-a-century, Queen Victoria, of course gave her name to her age and was witness to her own revolution as a society transformed by industry – everything from the railways to the telegraph to the telephone and the internal combustion engine – also saw imperial and civic expansion as well as the codification and professionalism of sports that are still with us; and as literacy grew, it was fitting that the written word became the prominent artistic medium. The great novelists of the 19th century stamped their art on their era as much as musicians were to do in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. But just as few of the novelists who came after Victoria were able to make quite the same immense cultural impact enjoyed by the giants of her era, the musical survivors of the 1960s and 70s remain the biggest draws on a touring circuit which would struggle to break even without the profitable presence of ‘Heritage Rock’. Perhaps future generations will discern the decline of the dominant creative form of the New Elizabethan Age and tie its end in with the death of Elizabeth herself, despite the fact it was wielding a walking stick well in advance of Her Majesty.
Those who find themselves prominent movers and shakers during an age – or at the very least find themselves reporting from the frontline of it – tend not to name their eras; as a term, the New Elizabethan Age seems to have been bandied about a lot up to and around the 1953 Coronation by that day’s media, almost imposed on the populace in the hope it would catch on. But it doesn’t recur much thereafter. When England swung a decade later, you’d be hard pushed to find Carnaby Street referenced as emblematic of the New Elizabethan Age; and I’ve no doubt the groovy guys and gals haunting that particular thoroughfare would have laughed if anyone had tried to pin such an antiquated label on their party. It probably sounded terribly ‘square’ by 1966 – just another dated and discarded piece of slang when the verbal lexicon was moving at a pace those beyond the bubble could never hope to keep up with. But if one were to return to the beginning of the Queen’s reign, perhaps the undeniable boost to weary austerity Britain of having a young woman on the throne instead of an old man tapped into something that was already slowly taking shape, something that would lead all the way from the South Bank to Soho.
Looking back, it’s clear that the confident Modernist architecture which received a nationwide window at the 1951 Festival of Britain anticipated the first flowering of something new. The sky-scraping, Dan Dare-like futurism of the Skylon and the equally Space-Age flourishes of the Royal Festival Hall pointed the way towards related edifices of the early 60s such as the BBC Television Centre and Coventry Cathedral. The consecration of the latter in 1962 was accompanied by the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’, an aptly moving piece aired in the shadow of the bombed-out ruin it replaced. Britten himself was perhaps the key artistic figure of that early Elizabethan Age, being an incredibly prolific and lionised composer nonetheless saddled with the antisocial urges of his sexuality at a time when the Law had yet to embrace the spirit of change. Like Philip Larkin, whose melancholy musings on the type of sexual intercourse that characterised the country after 1963 were laced with regret at missing out, Britten belonged to a generation still coping with the seismic interruption of global conflict to their lives, an experience that would always distance them from the kids searching for shrapnel on bombsites. Those kids were the ones in whose hands the glorious bloom of the New Elizabethan Age rested, and whose efforts would be most richly rewarded.
Britten’s sublime ‘Four Sea Interludes’ – which were originally composed as instrumental passages for his celebrated opera, ‘Peter Grimes’ – were already on my looped playlist before events at Victoria and Albert’s Highland hideaway pushed the New Elizabethan Age back onto the agenda. But as a suddenly poignant soundtrack, they seem to speak to something recent developments have reignited; they are the sound of an ancient island nation instinctively looking out to sea, evoking everything from the place names on the Shipping Forecast to the dying director Derek Jarman pottering about his garden as the toxic silhouette of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station loiters on the windswept horizon. It goes without saying that the history of these islands predates the awareness of those who dictate the popular narrative, so that any ‘age’ doesn’t take place in isolation; it usually has roots stretching back decades, even centuries. Maybe the passing of Her Majesty and the age to which she gave her name has simply brought everything we’ve taken for granted back into focus and provoked a little soul-searching. But we have been here before – just not for a long time.
Whether Vaughan Williams borrowing from Thomas Tallis, Fairport Convention electrifying traditional English Folk songs, or any updated production of Shakespeare you care to mention, little in British popular culture springs from the soil without having been planted there by our forefathers. And if the crown of the kingdom happens to remain on the same head for long enough, chances are history will round up every disparate collection of creative vagabonds and name the years through which they operated after the sovereign observing (and occasionally rewarding) their efforts. In this respect, the New Elizabethan Age was for real – a unique renaissance we’ve all been beneficiaries of.
© The Editor
6 thoughts on “IT’S BEEN AN AGE”
At best, coining terms like ‘Elizabethan Age’, acts as a shorthand for all the momentous events of that lengthy period, although whether any of them had even the most tenuous connection with the occupant of the monarchical seat seems dubious. They would have happened regardless of the enthroned character, merely reflecting progress in many different fields which can later be enveloped in a conveniently personalised term.
Without needing a person as its title, you can do the same with centuries – the 19th being the ‘British Century’, the 20th being the ‘American Century’, the 21st becoming the ‘Asian Century’, the time-period encapsulating the dominant region of the era. No credit is given to the number, it’s just how progress works out – same goes for Victorian or Elizabethan Ages, it’s more about the extended lengths of time rather than any determination made by the accidental nominee.
But having lived through all of Elizabeth’s reign (and unconsciously a little bit of her father’s) I don’t object to the shorthand, it neatly packages a set of events in a convenient form, I just don’t think she herself had much to do with it all. More a passive observer than an active operator.
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I guess such labels make the job of future historians easier and, through their works, easier for the scholar and student of history. Dividing eras either by centuries or the sovereign who happened to be on the throne at the time seems to be an exclusively retrospective habit irrelevant to those living through the chosen times. And as we lived through this one, I suppose it matters not to us, even if it will to whoever comes after us.
It’s indeed only with the hindsight of history that the context and content of any period can be evaluated, sadly we won’t be around to assess whether that eventual hindsight aligns with our own lived experience. I guess most agricultural peasants of the first Elizabethan age or the factory-fodder grafters of the Victorian one wouldn’t recognise much of their own menial lives in the histories we now read.
I suspect that the retrospective analyses of this latest Elizabethan time will strongly feature technical and social advances, along with significant international and commercial changes, but I won’t be around to disagree if they get it wrong.
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If nothing else, this period of self reflection has made me think about what we are, and essentially, what, as a country, we are for, and I think the end of the second “Elizabethan” age begs some rather discomforting questions. If you will permit me the conceit of personalising this, my Dad was born in 1931, and his childhood was marked by economic depression and war, and the social mores of the time that dictated that what Grandad didn’t drink, the family lived on. His adulthood, arriving slightly before the coronation of Elizabeth, however, was defined with the recovery from them; and, with national service then a trade as a skilled carpenter, he did reasonably well for himself and moved around the country, eventually meeting my mum and settling in a council house around the corner from where he was born, whereupon my two siblings were born in the mid sixties. In the early seventies I (ahem, surprised them) had arrived, and the NHS did a sterling job of saving a very, very sick baby, but my Dad was finding work harder to come by he had to go down the pit, something he’d promised to himself he’d never do. It kept us going, but my academic sister could not attend university, and my brother followed my father down the pit. That was my plan also but between my Dad being made redundant and me leaving school, it was all gone. I was fortunate enough to get an apprenticeship as an electrician when I left school but the firm went under. My sister joined the council, did everything she could and now acts as a consultant decimating local authorities for hourly rates Croesus would find uncomfortable. Me and my brother have jobbed to job, both ending up in public service (Railway and police civilian) just about making ends meet. We seem to have gone from a fairly, if not equal society, a society where there are opportunities for all and no-one is left behind and we are actually DOING something, to a free for all where if you don’t get on the merry go round you’re f***ed, and this merry go round doesn’t actually do anything. I really hope the third Carolingian era (is that right?) is one where we can reflect some of the early second Elizabethan, both economically and culturally, but I’m not holding my breath. Apologies for the length of post.
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No, I appreciate the contribution. Even if the Queen was merely a dependable figurehead in the background of our lives, the significance of her passing has prompted a pause, I think, amongst many of us who’ve lived through a sizeable chunk of that reign. I have to admit I found the funeral itself a surprisingly compelling viewing experience, though I suspect my reflections on that will no doubt follow…
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I suspect that all of us from modest backgrounds can see parallels in the connor36 report, in my case a couple of decades earlier.
We embarked on an initial chosen or available path, after that luck probably played a major part, a factor which we rarely acknowledge: simply being at a certain place and time can present opportunities which, if spotted and taken, can lead to a chain of further chances. Miss them and that whole chain goes unexploited. As Shakespeare wrote, there is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
We see the relatively greater success of others and may wonder what talents they have that we evidently lack – truth is, they were probably just luckier and, usually by accident, took the gambles that paid off. Serendipity just about covers it.
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