Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?

“I’ve been up to London to look at the Queen…” So the old nursery rhyme has it. Before you read this, on April 21 in fact, Queen Elizabeth will turn 90 in real life.

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?

The next day, business as usual, she will lunch in the palace with Barack Obama. Anyway, stumbling across a piece on the birthday celebrations has set me thinking about ‘The Queen and I'. I’ve always had a strong sense of connection with Elizabeth II, since I was born shortly after her accession and, as an infant, was in London for her coronation. Or at least I thought I was.

My memory of the family story has been that, in keeping with my father’s knack for felicitous arrangements, we were travelling home from Washington, and in London, when someone held the tiny Bill up to watch Princess Elizabeth go by on her way to the Abbey. Probably some of you reading this have heard me tell the story, and certainly, without looking too closely at actual records, the general timing fits nicely. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Just this year I mentioned it to my sister, and she informs me, with all the authority of a girl who was 12 at the time, that we watched the coronation on TV in Washington. The special bit about me was that my godfather, being American and therefore romantic about royalty, insisted that I be woken up to watch the broadcast. I never ‘went up to London (as a baby) to look at the Queen’. Myth busted! Obviously I have rather embroidered my childhood memories of the story as I’ve recalled it, and retold it, over the years.

This recent experience has me thinking about memory. As I get older, mine is getting worse. This, of course, is not unusual, but the process has some odd features. Names, for example, are the worst. Anyone who works with me can tell you how bad I am at remembering names, even when I’m able to picture the person I’m trying to name. But the strange thing is, I’ve not really forgotten. Five minutes, or half a day, later, the right name will suddenly pop into my head, unbidden. It’s as if there’s an elderly filing clerk in there somewhere who can’t put his hand on the information as quickly as he used to, but he labours away in the background and sometime later throws the file down on my desk, long after the need for it has passed. And it’s worse when I’m tired. Of course, recalling things is a physical process in the brain, synapses firing and finding the right paths and so on, but we think of it as an electro-chemical process. It’s interesting that my brain ‘wants’ to rest when I’m tired, just like my body wants to stay in my chair.

And there are other strange experiences. Just a few days ago a phone call from a friend woke me from an afternoon nap. I’d been having a curious dream, and I regaled her with an account of the odd things in it, which included some people neither of us would have seen for 30 or 40 years. That’s strange, but what is stranger is that I now have no memory of the dream. I’ve discarded it, as I normally discard dreams within seconds of waking. On the other hand, I was recently talking to someone about my little house in the mountains, and I was on the very point of remarking that I used to have another house at Mt Victoria when it came to me that the other place had only ever existed in dreams; many dreams, admittedly, and in considerable detail. I could show you exactly where in Mt Vic this place ‘is’, except that it isn’t there. Nonetheless, it was the setting for a long sequence of dreams, and I recently came close, as I said, to endowing it with reality. And again, Cardinal George Pell popped up in a dream recently, perhaps understandably. I remember telling someone that, though I don’t remember the dream itself. I can only hope that, should I meet the Cardinal again, I don’t bemuse him with my recollections of some incident that he wasn’t really a party to. Life is strange, but memory is weird. Maybe I should re-read Augustine’s reflection on memory in his Confessions, which was a boring detour from the plot when I was younger. It might make more sense to me now.

Anyway, back to the Queen. I regret not having had an infantile sight of her. She has, nonetheless, ‘been there’ all my life, and that seems somehow significant. The other ‘fixed points’ of childhood are virtually all gone – Menzies, Bradman, Gough, my own parents – but the Queen and Prince Philip go on. Besides the comfort of familiarity, however, there is also the feeling that Elizabeth II is a remarkable and rather admirable old lady. She has always ‘done her duty’, which means that she has both stood for old standards and values and been graciously willing to adapt herself to the vast changes of six decades and more. So I wish Her Majesty a very happy birthday. Perhaps over lunch President Obama could, as a fitting birthday gift, give her back the colonies, thereby sparing the rest of us the prospect of either Trump or Hillary. Pure fantasy, of course. Feel free to “tell ‘im [me] ‘e’s dreaming”.

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The Aurora article Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been? first appeared on mnnews.today, your local source of Catholic news for Newcastle, Maitland and the Hunter Valley. Follow mnnews.today on Twitter and Instagram.

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