It wasn’t that we were lacking news of Queen Elizabeth II. We had just had a mourning period saturated with it. But when we sat down to think hard about her, we had to conclude, strangely, that we knew very little about the Queen’s intimate side, about her as a person. We knew less about her than we do of a character sketchily set down in a mediocre novel. The infinite flow past of her official and approved photographs made us more familiar only with her face as it changed from 1952 when she was crowned until her death. We were even led to the embarrassing thought that in fact our interest in Elizabeth II had been an interest in ourselves. While we had been seeing her all these years in pictures, our lives had unrolled. We had lived them. She was a witness to our doings rather than we were a witness to hers. It brought to mind friends who tell us exactly where they were and what they were doing the day John F. Kennedy was shot. His death marked a stage in their lives.
Enter Maria Rosaria Buri and not for the first time. The professor of translation studies at the University of Salento has once before let us in on secrets of her parallel career as a
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This time Ms Buri dwelt on those instances she found herself face to face with the Queen. After the ritual pageantry of the last weeks and the five-mile London queue to view the catafalque, these encounters—the two women sometimes on their own—seem all the more momentous. The interpreter after all is the professional invisible person whose shadow royal photographers are careful to keep out of photos. Yet there she was, one person speaking to another.
Ms Buri’s exchanges with the Monarch were not always concerned with finding the best word. The historical figure stamped on coins whose profile stared from postage stamps could let herself go to smalltalk, chatter, understandably in quiet, refined tones, royal. She had preferences in colours, landscapes and having her tea on time. This helps us to add to our own portrait of Elizabeth II, but, alas, only touches. She died without a celebrity’s confessional outburst or determined settling of scores. We shall never know what she felt about Megan Markle’s father or her son Andrew’s friend, Jeffrey Epstein. Which of her palaces she wouldn’t have minded being deprived of remains a mystery. We can only really be sure that she was very careful never to put a foot wrong and had a soft spot for dogs and horses. The rest is not silence but matters for the tabloid press to work over.
Maria Rosaria Buri was right to conclude her talk by inviting us to a tea party. Her time with the Queen had shown her without doubt that it was the Monarch’s favourite beverage. It would be our toast to her passing after all the dressing-up, fairyland ceremony and solemn dirges. We are even inclined to take up the theme of the Queen as a witness of our situation in the battle of tea versus coffee. When she succeeded her father in 1952, it was a struggle to get a genuine cup of of coffee in London. The real thing was only available in many-starred hotels and a few expensive restaurants. For everyday folk there were places called milk-bars that were in transition to calling themselves coffee bars. But what they offered was more what Brits called at bedtime “a hot drink”, and there was not anything more precise one could call it. Was Europe yet again at fault, or was it the general increased pace of life that threatened to unseat tea as the prime indicator of Britishness? By the 1980s everyone had heard an espresso machine sputter. In Third Millennium London, a decent cup of coffee was easier to find than a pint of beer. However and all the same, there is nothing in the world like a proper tea party with all the trimmings. Ms Buri’s was superb.