Nine days of state mourning at the passing away of Britain's queen mother, will mark a unique era because the racehorse loving, gin and tonic drinking 'grand old mum', as the Brits called her, literally lived through the entire 20th century. While TV channels put out some black and white archival footage from another age, the formerly reverential BBC attracted criticism because its newscasters did not wear black ties and they discussed the event with a frankness that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
She was widowed 50 years ago. A relic I still have in my possession amongst my naval memorabilia is a black, mourning armband issued to us when king George VI died on February 6, 1952. It was dispatched by Messrs Gieves of Old Bond Street in London, the naval tailors 'By appointment to the King'. I recall listening to the last Christmas day broadcast of King George VI, with his consort by his side, while sitting at a dinner to which my fellow cadet, Narinder Lal Khullar, and I were invited by an English family in Surrey and how by tradition they listened in rapt attention. Then a few weeks later we were to receive news of his death while we were at sea on board our training cruiser HMS Devonshire headed for the Caribbean. As we proceeded to drop anchor in Barbados harbour, we were struck first, by the magnificent sight of flying fish which kept darting across the placid blue waters, and then, by the great alacrity with which mourning bands were delivered to us for the funeral ceremonies. Inevitably, we were billed by 'Messrs Thieves' for five shillings, a princely sum then, because our pay was four shillings a day.
Brought up as I was in a family known for thrift, I had put that piece of uniform safely away and which, as it happened, came in handy a year later following the death of the then queen mother, Mary. Our pay had doubled to eight shillings by then, we having been promoted as midshipmen, and the commander-in-chief in Malta was Louis Mountbatten. He was a close member of the royal family, a cousin of George VI and of course he and his wife Edwina flew to London for the funeral service in Westminster Abbey. But the formalities connected with a royal funeral were meticulously observed by all ships of the Mediterranean fleet and thus that black armband became an absolute necessity.