When I was a schoolboy in the 1920’s, I felt that the British monarchy should be abolished as an out-of-date institution. Like many young people in many countries, I was more interested in foreign countries and ideas than in my own. The good points of my own country I took for granted—in fact, I assumed that all other countries must have them too, and some special virtues of their own in addition. The foreign countries must therefore be better than my own.
My parents occasionally tried to correct this view. My father had travelled only to France and Germany, as a soldier in World War I, but my mother had been educated for a year, when she was 18, in France and Belgium. She knew French and German fairly well. Moreover, her family had some connection with the noble Hungarian family of Esterhazy, and she travelled with her parents to Hungary each summer to stay with them. She described to me once the fantastic display of jewellery at the opera in Budapest, and I said, “It sounds much more exciting than here.” She said, “It is alright for the rich, but there are a million beggars in Hungary, they say.
Those titled women there do nothing but show off their dresses and jewellery. It’s not a good country, Trevor.” Perhaps as a result of seeing the Hungarian nobility, she came to feel that everyone should know something useful, and she insisted on training as a nurse in a London hospital. She had a hard time, but she completed the training.
I did not really believe her criticisms of some European countries, but when I myself began to travel, I discovered some surprising things. I found that many young people in the foreign countries which I visited thought that Britain must be far better than their own land. They began asking me questions about Britain, and I did not know the answers. Some of them asked me about the King, and I felt as if I had no back to my head—that I was just a face with nothing behind it. (I see this look sometimes on the faces of young Japanese who are visiting Britain today when they are asked about Kabuki or Judo or Zen.) My own ideas had to be revised in the light of what I saw. For instance, in Britain a policeman is regarded by the public as a friend; he does not carry a gun, and we have great respect for him because, unarmed, he will tackle an armed criminal. So we help him whenever possible. This is still true today.
When I saw Hitler’s Germany soon after he had taken power, I was amazed to see the awe and fear with which the German police were regarded by the public. I was also amazed to find that speech was not free. I had always assumed that everywhere one would be free to speak one’s mind. In Germany it was quite different. A German friend said to me, “Hitler has done one good thing. Before he came to power, if twelve friends were sitting here and someone mentioned politics, then there would be twelve different opinions. And we used to argue endlessly, and sometimes angrily. But since Hitler came to power, there is only one opinion. Or, at least, we all say the same thing.” He said it half as a joke, but also half as a warning to me not to speak too carelessly.
As a matter of fact, I got to know a number of German policemen, and also SS men, rather well, because many of them were keen on Judo, and I was one of those active in introducing Judo to Europe. The Budokwai in London had the highest standard of Judo in Europe, and I was a Third Dan, which was a very high grade for Europe then. I was often invited to Europe by Judo enthusiasts there. So I had friends among the police in all the countries which I visited; they used to invite me to their police headquarters to give them some instruction.
I remember I was walking with a German police friend in the street, and we saw another policeman, on duty, shouting at a member of the public for some small thing. He said to me, “I suppose you are surprised to see a policeman shouting like that?” I said carefully, “I haven’t seen it in Britain.” He said, “The circumstances are different. I have been in London, and I think your people are very self-disciplined. But here it is not so. Our people have to be disciplined by someone else. And our people do not respect someone who is not strong and forceful. They admire the firm authority which that policeman is showing. They expect it, and they wouldn’t have any confidence in us police unless we were tough in behaviour. They wouldn’t obey us.”
For me, another surprise. I had always thought the British crowd’s patience and orderliness to be rather sheep-like, and here was this tough German policeman praising it as “self-discipline”. It was the Germans whom he thought to be sheep-like, requiring a resolute sheepdog to keep them in order.
I later heard something similar from a young Russian, who said to me, “You can’t judge the present Soviet Government simply on the ground that they have to have a secret police. The present government is, it is true, Hell, but even if it were Heaven, a secret police would still be needed.” “But why?” I asked. “Because so many of us Russians are professional revolutionaries,” he answered. “And professional revolutionaries are against all authority; whether the authority is good or bad is irrelevant—they simply oppose it. So there always has to be a secret police,”
Well, I have not lived in Russia, so I do not know whether this is true or not. But it certainly made me think; to hear such things was a revelation.
In Germany, again, I saw for the first time leaders who had to be protected from the public. In Britain I had never seen the King close up, but I had spoken to the Prince of Wales at a big sports festival, and my mother once met the Queen Mother shopping next to her at Harrod’s department store. I had several times seen the Foreign Secretary walking across the Park to go to his office. There was no one walking with him; I don’t know whether one of the other people in the Park was a detective. It was quite different in Germany; the big political leaders travelled surrounded by guards, or else in cars with bullet-proof windows.
I appreciated then for the first time how brave the British Royal family have to be. They mix quite freely with the public. Even at the big State occasions, like the Opening of Parliament, the monarch often travels in an open coach. I had seen a certain number of these ceremonies, and had vaguely liked the beauty of the old ceremonial in the old robes, but I did not know their importance till I went to Europe.
Then I felt that in the republics there, something was missing. There was a gap. The people were longing for some colour in their lives, some occasions to remind themselves of their history and identity. Hitler provided grand spectacles, and to my surprise, some of the Germans became very excited over them. I was used to such things; in a sense I had been ‘inoculated’ by seeing the State ceremonies in Britain.
In Britain they were purely historical in feeling, but the German ones were tied to a particular political party. Young Germans had not seen anything like it before, and they caught the fever of nationalism in its full force. In a way they knew that the nationalist doctrines were untrue: they had first-rate ethnologists who were quite aware that the ‘racial purity’ of the Germans was a myth, and they had first-rate scholars of Sanskrit who could tell them that ‘Aryan’ was nothing special to northern Europe, but was for instance a title frequently given to is the Buddha. But they ignored such things—as they used to say, “One must think with the blood.” And their blood was in a fever, because they had not been ‘inoculated’.
I came to see that a people wants, and must have, spectacles and ceremonies to reassure themselves of their identity. But these things should be historical, and nothing to do with a political party. At our State occasions, there are soldiers who form a body-guard for the monarch. They are, however, an elite horse-guard, mounted on pure black or white horses, and wearing breast-plates of highly polished armour in the style of three hundred years ago. The golden coach in which the sovereign rides is also over three hundred years old.
It is all very beautiful, very romantic, and enormously popular—and it has nothing to do with the politics of the day. One reason why it is very difficult for any dictatorial politician to build up a charismatic image in Britain is because the floodlight of splendour is already focussed on these old traditions.
The present queen is a very successful one. At her Jubilee procession in 1977, more than 1,000,000 people lined the streets in London. I drove along the route very early in the morning, and there were thousands of people, mostly young, who had camped by the side of the route, in order to have a good place. After the formal procession, she walked about among the crowds, and several times her personal police body- guard lost sight of her. She is often asked about the great risks which she takes, and her reply is generally the same: “My profession is a dangerous one, like a steeple-jack or a sailor. They don’t give up because of the risks, and neither do I.”
I find it interesting to compare the British Royalty in history as a symbol of the British people, with the Japanese Imperial family in history as a symbol of the Japanese people. Our British ‘Royals’, as they are affectionately called, have always had a great liking for the country, and for sport. The present Queen’s great-grandfather, George III, was nicknamed ‘Farmer George’, because he was so interested in country life. Her grandfather, George V, was the best shot in the country. Edward VIII her uncle was at one time a single-figure golfer, and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, an expert polo player. All our monarchs have been keen on the traditional sport of horseracing, and there is a ‘Queen’s horse’ running in many of the classic racing events each year.
The British people have a mania for sport, and this has been reflected in the Royal family.
But no one would expect our ‘Royals’ to write poetry, as every Japanese Emperor has done. Our Queen in her Xmas messages sometimes quotes a poem, but British people are very surprised to hear that at this annual Japanese poetry competition, with a huge entry, the Emperor and Empress always contribute a poem. People ask me, “What sort of poem is it?” I sometimes quote from memory the one just after the war, “Under the weight of the snow,
The pine-tree keeps its green always.”
I explain that in a way it was a message to the Japanese people, to endure the hardships without losing heart, and British people are often impressed by the poem. Well, the Japanese people are very fond of poetry, and that is reflected in the tradition of the Imperial family poems.
Some young Japanese say to me, “We are not interested in Japanese history.” But I tell them, “You are, you are. Look at your television programmes—they are full of Japanese men and women in Tokugawa era dress. Look at the comics which your children read—packed with sword-waving adventures. And you read them yourself, don’t you?” They usually admit this, sometimes rather shame-facedly. “Well then, how can you say you are not interested in your history? There’s a gap, and you feel it and try to fill it in this indirect way. I would guess that what you probably want to see is big open-air historical occasions like we have in Britain; that’s why so many of you go to matsuris, even though you don’t really believe in them altogether. You feel it’s a part of your history, and that’s the attraction.” They sometimes mumble some Marxist phrases, and I think to myself, “Yes, I too when I was young used to mumble Marxist phrases. But I soon found out that wasn’t what I really felt. And perhaps you’ll find it out too.”
The British Royal House has managed to adapt to the changing times with extraordinary success; they have often managed to break through the barrier of formality, and create feelings of real affection among ordinary people.
Some years ago, the Queen visited a remote country district, and she stopped at one of the villages to talk to some of the people. An old lady standing at her gate looked at her, and the Queen asked, “Can I come in and have a cup of tea with you?” The old lady was taken aback, but she invited the Queen in.
In the deep country, it is still the custom to have tea in very big mugs, with big saucers. Because the mugs are big, the tea is often very hot; there is a country habit of pouring the hot tea into the saucer to cool it, and then pouring it back into the cup. This is a very vulgar habit by the standards of polite society, but some of the country people even now do it. The old lady served tea to the Queen in the big mugs which were all that she had.
A reporter afterwards asked her how it had been, to have the Queen to tea. The old lady blushed and said, “While I was talking to her, I found myself pouring my tea into my saucer, like I always do. And then I remembered that my grandson had told me it was a very vulgar habit—and I realized I had done it in front of the Queen! I felt so ashamed, but then I saw her do the same and I realized my grandson had been quite wrong—they do it at Buckingham Palace too!”
© Trevor Leggett 1976