My mother’s life in Liverpool was a world away from the Queen’s. But they shared the values that shaped our greatest generation, writes BEL MOONEY
My mother died in Bath’s Royal United Hospital the day before Mothering Sunday last year. Our late Queen died six months later, on my 15th wedding anniversary.
And when I shed real tears for her, the mother of the nation, they were also for Mum, who always put her family first.
Gladys Mooney was 98; Elizabeth Windsor was 96. Mum was mourned by her daughter, son-in-law, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Elizabeth, our Queen for a magnificent 70 years, was mourned by her enormous family and by a country which often seems like the worst bunch of squabbling relatives, yet remains close kin for all that.
Those two mighty women would have been as one in agreeing that – for better for worse – family is the bedrock.
So different, their lives. Yet now, reflecting with sweet sorrow on both deaths, I can’t help but link them – matriarchs both, their lives containing precious lessons for those of us who are left.
Getting on with it: Gladys Mooney (pictured) said goodbye to her dancing days in 1944 to start a family
In 1926, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor (named after her mother, great-grandmother and grandmother respectively) had been born in London’s Mayfair into a world of unimaginable privilege. My mother, Gladys Norbury (the Christian name she loathed all her life), was not yet two – the youngest of ten children living in a three-bedroom rented house in the Old Swan district of Liverpool.
One the adored first-born of a future King and Queen; the other petted by all her older brothers and sisters, and barely registering the death of her father, who delivered coal, when she was two.
Both entered the world under the long shadow of the Great War, which was followed by the terrible Spanish flu epidemic. Both drew their first breaths in a land bruised and battered by the universal reality of grief, where savagely maimed veterans of the Western Front still begged in the streets.
(Later, all too soon, they would hear the bombs and witness the privations and grief of yet another hideous world war.)
The 20th century’s pace of dizzying change – which was to accelerate far faster than their generation could possibly have imagined – had already begun.
Yet the Crown remained the symbol of unity and even the shock of the Abdication in 1936 could not dent the calm confidence of the ten-year-old girl who appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, the new heir to the throne.
My mother died in Bath’s Royal United Hospital the day before Mothering Sunday last year. Our late Queen (pictured) died six months later, on my 15th wedding anniversary, writes Bel Mooney
All their lives, both my parents (my father was born in 1922) supported the monarchy – and brought me up to do the same.
My father’s father survived the Somme and Ypres and came back unscathed to marry his sweetheart – looking for work as a labourer yet never questioning the dogged, passionate patriotism which knew why he had fought for King and country.
Later, Churchill would articulate that belief with steely determination and galvanise a gallant nation. You never questioned it, my mother told me. Why would you?
By 1943, Elizabeth Windsor was being introduced to public life. The year before, at 16, she was made Colonel of the Grenadier Guards, while my mother was already walking out with Ted Mooney, a teenage dispatch rider who only joined up, he said, for the motorcycle and the gun.
In 1944, Elizabeth was a Second Subaltern at the ATS Mechanical Training Centre, but my typist mother’s days of dancing and freedom were over: at 19, after a shotgun wedding, she gave birth to my brother. My parents lived with my grandparents in their rented house, and my mother gave birth to me in 1946 when she was 22 (Princess Elizabeth gave birth to her firstborn in 1948, when she was also 22). It was to be three more years before Gladys and Ted could get a council house in bombed-out Liverpool.
What did those two young women – worlds apart – have in common? I would say a dogged acceptance of fate and total rejection of fuss. In 1943, my mother had no wish to get married – and it defies belief to think that 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth wanted to become Queen in 1952.
Gladys and her daughter Bel Mooney are pictured in 1968 on Bel’s wedding day
All my life the phrase I’ve most associated with my mother is: ‘You just have to get on with it.’ I’d ask her about rationing, having no nylons, the struggle for a home, being hard up and so on – and she’d shrug: ‘We just got on with it.’ Our late Queen would have smiled and nodded at that, for sure.
But get on with what? The job in hand. Making the best of what you have. Crying in private over a son who shames you. Being generous with calm advice but never gushing. Sadly shaking your head when a child’s marriage ends, but helping the new start. Witnessing family problems, again and again. Both women endured more than one ‘annus horribilis’. I recall how, in 1995, the Queen gave a terse order to her son and his estranged wife Diana that they must divorce.
And at the beginning of 2004, when it had become clear that my first husband would not return to me, my mother (who adored him) told me in no uncertain terms it was time to move on.
As ever, she was matter-of-fact. As ever, she knew you just had to roll with the punches.
Both women epitomised the vital quality of resilience, which feels sadly lacking these days. It’s become almost a cliche to talk of the stoicism of that wartime generation, yet what better word to use?
Some of the characteristics that saw them through were, of course, the spirit of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, of fellowship, make do and mend, selflessness, tolerance, generosity and optimism.
Historian Robert MacKay has identified the ‘morale derived from a very powerful feeling – ‘visceral’ would best describe it – which united elites and masses, haves and have-nots: that for all its faults, Britain was worth fighting for’.
Gladys Mooney was 98; Elizabeth Windsor was 96. Mum was mourned by her daughter, son-in-law, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren
‘Elites and masses’ … there’s a phrase to encompass my mum and her monarch. Another characteristic of their generation – all classes – was a belief that appearance matters. My mother adored the late Queen’s clothes, and I reckon the compliment would have been returned. Looking smart is a gift you give to others, as well as to yourself. On days out in the 1950s, working men and women liked to dress up; it was all the more important if you wore an overall for work.
In 1967, when I had a new boyfriend (the man I would marry) whom my family thought ‘posh’, Mum bought me a smart pinkish tweed coat, ‘so you’re as good as them’. She had pride.
The uniform scruffiness of modern actors and actresses appalled my mum, as did young mothers gawping at mobile phones instead of talking to their children.
So did the moaning and navel-gazing and wimpishness that characterise our age. Therapy? Oh, spare us. That generation believes in privacy. But Mum hated the nostalgia my father wallowed in; she knew you had to be fully alive in the present.
But although she’d always been up to date in her ideas and a merry, modern grandmother to both my children, the last decade saw her increasingly puzzled.
Queen Elizabeth II always moved with the times, too – how else could she have allowed the James Bond stunt for the 2012 Olympics and her ‘Ma’malade’ tea with Paddington ten years later?
But I suspect she despaired, too, as so many of the values cherished by their generation were trashed.
The age of deference – aka respect – and high standards that both women knew and accepted had dwindled into the age of crass disrespect when the Queen had to endure her own family life fictionalised and sensationalised on TV in The Crown.
‘Disgusting,’ said my mother, and absolutely refused to watch.
Until the day I die I will never forget our Queen’s calm, brave message to the nation during that first, frightening lockdown, reassuring us that ‘we should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return’ and ‘we will meet again’
She had no time for Diana or Meghan, but thoroughly approved of Kate, whose dignity and ‘lovely taste’ were such an asset to the monarchy. Might our Queen have echoed those views?
It was at Easter 2020, during the Covid pandemic, that I was struck most powerfully by the indomitable nature of these two women.
Until the day I die I will never forget our Queen’s calm, brave message to the nation during that first, frightening lockdown, reassuring us that ‘we should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return’ and ‘we will meet again’. How perfect to invoke Vera Lynn.
READ MORE: ‘We recall with great affection her long life, devoted service and all she meant to so many of us’: King Charles’s moving tribute to the Queen as he marks the anniversary of her death at Balmoral – and releases a never-before-seen portrait of Her Majesty
Of course, Mum made no speeches, but her private attitude echoed the Queen’s public determination and grit. What was the point of her and Dad being alive if they couldn’t be with their family? Better to be dead. ‘Rule of six’? Ridiculous! Let’s get on with life while we still have it.
And so they did.
Theirs was a special – now dying – generation, their steps increasingly slower, but as stalwart as ever, like the plod, plod, plod of Captain Tom’s walking frame.
During their long lives, they saw wildflowers bloom on bombsites, saw a country rebuilt, weathered so many storms yet never lost sight of the ‘bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover’.
So there is no need to mourn too long for the very old who gave so much, over so many years. Nor would they wish it.
On the contrary, one of their greatest legacies is the knowledge that life must go on, that we need to keep believing, and continually work at building and rebuilding our families, our communities and our nation – and that is a task too great for superfluous tears.
It is – both in the private and the public sphere – a duty.
Last year, I stepped forward sadly to take my place as the head of our little family. And good King Charles has donned his mother’s mantle at last, as the head of his large family, of Great Britain and of the Commonwealth.
You know, I can almost hear my mother and our late Queen joining in a loving but matter-of-fact chorus of ‘Don’t let us down. Just get on with it!’
And so we all must – with the stalwart common sense that saw them through.
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