God bless the Queen! And God bless lovely Alice at Bloomsbury, who recently sent me a copy of Paul Gallico’s Coronation (1962). I wish I’d had this in my hands over the Jubilee weekend, because it would have made perfect reading. It still made pretty darn brilliant reading this weekend.
Here’s how the novel opens:
The wheels of the Coronation Special from Sheffield, due at St. Pancras Station at six o’clock in the morning of Coronation Day, 2nd June 1953, sang the steady, lulling dickety-clax, dickety-clax of the British Railways. Approaching a crossing, the engine shrieked hysterically into the drizzly night as it pulled its heavy load through the countryside, London-bound. In the third-class compartment occupied by the five members of the Clagg family and three other passengers, no one slept, though Granny kept nagging at the two children to try to do so because of the long exciting day ahead.
The Clagg family are absolutely adorable. One can’t help love them. They are the every-family, so resolutely normal, and excited to be on this once-in-a-lifetime trip. The Claggs are Will (salt-of-the-earth foreman at a mill, hard-working and kind, never quite as eloquent as he’d like) and Violet (slightly fraught wife, anxious to please her children and society equally), Violet’s crotchety mother (known simply as Granny) and two children, Johnny and Gwenny (11 and 7 respectively.) They’re both rather lost in worlds of daydreams – for Johnny, it is the prospect of being a soldier (preferably one who dies to save the Queen – good man!) and for Gwenny it is princesses et al. Not really challenging gender stereotypes, Mr. Gallico, but nobody could describe Coronation as a challenging book in any way. No, it is instead a delightful whirlwind through the Claggs’ day out in London for the Coronation, with occasional parallel glances towards the service itself.
The Claggs have managed, through Cousin Bert, to secure rather impressive tickets. Initially 25 guineas each, they snapped them up for only £10 a piece (still rather a hefty sum in those days, of course – they have had a family vote to forfeit the annual seaside holiday in favour of the Coronation trip, despite Granny’s moanings.) The tickets include shelter, seating, and – to Violet’s almost childlike excitement – champagne. It isn’t just the children who engage in daydreams; Violet is pondering how it will feel to be like a lady in the films, having champagne poured for her by a butler…
Over this first section of the novel, as the train speeds towards London, there is an undertone that, perhaps, things are all a little too good to be true…
I shan’t spoil anything, but let’s just say that things don’t go entirely according to plan…
But this is not a dark tale like Gallico’s (brilliant) Love of Seven Dolls, nor overly sickly-sweet, as I found Jennie. Although it does have something of the structure of a fable, the utter believability of the Clagg family prevents it feeling like something Aesop would have penned as a moral warning. Each member of the family has their vices and irritations, but you can’t help desperately wanting good things to happen for them. Creating one well-rounded, sympathetic, good-but-not-cloying character is impressive. To give us five in one cohesive family, each yet different from one another, is sheer brilliance.
And then, of course, there is the Queen. Although we don’t see anything directly from her perspective, Gallico captures the love which many Britons (and others) felt towards the Queen – and which monarchists like me still feel: ‘the journey to London was something very ancient in his blood, a drawing of himself as a loyal subject to the foot of the throne, a gesture, a fealty and a courtesy as well.’ It is too great a feat for me to put myself in the mind of a republican, but I’ll go out on a limb and assume that you would still be able to love this novel for its delightfully accurate portrayal of family dynamics, not to mention Gallico’s wit and sensitivity.
Oh, what a lovely little book it is! It doesn’t match Love of Seven Dolls for me, because I think that is a novel of very rare excellence, but, in a different mould, it is a sheer joy. I raced through the novel in less than 24 hours, and I’m sure I’ll read it again. Hopefully for the Queen’s 75th Jubilee!
To finish – it doesn’t hurt that Bloomsbury have produced an exceptionally beautiful volume, with the incomparable David Mann designing the cover. It’s a special little book – and perfect to read in this Jubilee year.
(Long live the Queen)