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The Johnston Letter, Volume 5, Number 5
Your Royal Highness

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2011 Jill Johnston

(The Jill Johnston Literary Archive needs your support to preserve Johnston's distinguished legacy, including original manuscripts for her Village Voice reviews and columns, and for her 10 books and reviews and articles for the NY Times and Art in America; research material; a photo collection; correspondence; and over 270 journals which need to be preserved digitally before they decay. For more info, click here.)

December 11, 2009

Your Royal Highness,

You are more difficult to meet than the Pope, and I can't stand behind a rope any more to try to shake your hand. Anyway to shake your hand on the street would not accomplish my purpose. Even attending one of your garden parties would be a long shot for shaking your hand and engaging your interest in my objective. I learned last year that people at these parties, and only a few of them, are pre-selected to meet Your Majesty. I can understand this. You can't just be wandering round in a milling crowd, greeting your guests by chance. Lines would surely form, and lines for me would be as bad as ropes. I can't even stand in my kitchen long enough these days to boil an egg or cut a tomato. I could however make it across the ocean on the five or six hour flight from New York, provided I'm transported by wheelchair at every checkpoint. And once deposited at your Palace, I could actually walk from gate to boudoir or wherever our appointment had been arranged to take place, to meet you. I'm learning to walk again, having given up walking very gradually over a period of years, due to pain in my left foot. After learning I could lose the foot if I failed to begin using it again, I got very busy trying to walk. Should you agree to see me, I would begin running if necessary. I have a really important mission to see you about.

Though I was born in London, and sired by an Englishman, I am not technically one of your subjects, but I would like to know if I could, or should be. I was raised in America from the age of two. As an American, through my mother and upbringing, the word "subject" rings wrong to me. I don't like being subject to anything. If I'm a subject at all, it must be to my maker. And on that score, we are surely equal. So my "mission" is compromised right off. In the earthly sense, it may be nothing better than the challenge of not being able to meet you. Americans feel they should be able to meet anyone. Had I spent my life till now with the sole objective of meeting you, I'm sure I would have succeeded. My resume would be minimal but impressive. Recently a couple here managed to crash a State dinner at the White House, and meet the president. The security system is frantically investigating itself to try to find out how this could have happened. The couple meantime will perhaps try to change their looks and identity in order to survive and be known as something other than the two people who managed to crash a Washington D.C. state dinner. You, Your Majesty, seem very stuck as a queen. You were practically born that way, and I know you have a family and various hobbies, but you can't go far without operating as a queen. Hardly further, I suspect, than your boudoir. And even there, only sleep can transport you from the knowledge of your royal imprisonment. You'll have to pardon me for making up your reality. I hate it when people make up mine. Even if they're right, I want to have the sense of having made it up myself. On the subject of who we are exactly, I believe we are all stuck to begin with, just like you. The American love of freedom is a grand illusion. Our choices are said to be unlimited, but in reality we are constrained no less than yourself or any of your subjects, by our birth circumstance.

Those two words, "birth circumstance," sum up my main preoccupation in life. For whole stretches of time, I forget about it, occupied with the daily business of maintenance, work and distraction. In the work department, I have used it endlessly in making my living as a writer. Through writing, I have done my best also to elevate it as a cause de politique -- an affair of state -- an example of birth that I have long felt an obligation to make public. We want to belong to the human family, impossible as that may seem in its vastness, and keeping in mind how blighted many parts of this "family" around the world are, with newborns barely making it past that state if at all, with violence or malnutrition threatening their existence the moment of their first cry. So "belonging" from my perspective, notwithstanding its relativity, is very privileged. It's all that I really know in any event. My objective in wanting to meet Your Majesty is purely over belonging. Put simply, do I belong to you or not? According to my birth certificate, which resides at Somerset House, if you are the queen of a "fatherland," I do not. The space beneath "father" on my certificate is a blank. It shows me under my mother's maiden name, a paternal name of American origin. I'm an American who happened to be born in a foreign country. But am I really an American when my father, blankly or not, was an Englishman? I do have proof, by the way, of his paternity. If I'd been born in America, the birth certificate would register the same absence. And America, like every other country, is a "fatherland." I think I have a better chance of belonging to Britain than America. You are a queen, and my father was your subject. It's late in my life to be weighing this kind of balance. Yet it seems that the older I get, the clearer this murky issue becomes. One example of "belonging" sticks out in my mind. I was arriving at Heathrow in 1968 with my American passport, re-acquainting myself with my city of origin. As I trudged through passport control, the man in the booth, seeing my undistinguished green-bound document, presented the peremptory post-WWII air of disdain for America, and asked me the requisite skeptical questions ? what was my purpose in visiting his country, and how long did I intend to stay? However upon noting my birthplace -- "born in the U.K." -- he changed his tune immediately, saying enthusiastically, "Welcome home," and, "You can stay as long as you like."

I was of course amazed and delighted. My birth certificate meant nothing to him. You were suddenly my queen, and I had a father, of whose blank he was unaware. If not at that moment, very soon I developed the fantasy of being English. Actually I believe this happened a long time ago. I was eight; your parents were visiting America, and I was hanging out a window with my mother and her friend Bertha in Bertha's apartment on 116th Street and Riverside Drive in New York, to see them drive by in a closed glossy black limo. (1) The excitement was intense. People were lining the street 10 or 20 deep. Your mother's white glove was waving from the car window. Royalty was rolling by in America! We had not stolen your Empire yet, and Anglophilism here was still powerful. But even after the War, when the spoils of victory belonged mainly to us, the sentiment was strong. It still is really. Whenever someone in your family dies or is born or married or crowned or acts out badly, the tabloids here, and mainstream media also, give the news prime coverage. America was hugely entertained by the tragedy of your Uncle Edward's abdication and unwanted marriage to our American, Mrs. Simpson. More recently, there was the disastrous union of your son to Diana, with its fateful ending in Diana's premature death, and the plunge in popularity Your Majesty endured. Throughout these years, I was visiting Britain a lot, the pain in my foot growing exponentially, investigating your deceased subject my father -- an illustrious man in the obscure field of bellfounding, decorated with an OBE by your own father in 1948 -- toward publishing a book about him. A comment I have made about the nature of my birth certificate points up the mystery I like to claim for my parentage. "A soothsayer posing as a clerk might have inked in, 'will eventually write a book by way of explanation.'"

So eventually I wrote the book. It was published, a copy was sent to you, and I received a most gracious reply from one of your deputies. I had more satisfaction at my post office when mailing the book, with the postal worker looking up in bewildered astonishment and deadpanning her words, "We don't send things to her every day."

With "England" in the title, the book did much better in your country than in mine. (2) Comparing our countries this way, I seem to have settled the question on my own of where I belong. But I haven't really. I say "mine," meaning America, but I'm a woman without a country. I prefer being without a country than having "dual citizenship" ? a most dubious phrase in my opinion. Anyway without country, I can better see myself as belonging to the whole human family, blighted and all. I wonder if the possibility of a "nuclear winter" has not occurred to you. Should one crazy nation or another (and I think every nation with just one of these warheads is crazy) drop a few, or even less, the borders of nations would disappear. In the meantime we have them, and since they all delineate bodies of earth known as fatherlands, whether so identified or not, I have more restrictive and cultural reasons for not belonging to them. If you'll forgive me, as I see it Your Majesty, you are minding England for your father. Not exactly the way your ancestor the great Queen Elizabeth I was -- but similarly enough to draw the comparison. Her father Henry VIII was of course so desperate for a male heir that he got a female one. And as she was the last in his line of Tudors, she did a heck of a job holding onto it for so long, from 1558 clear up till her death in 1603. I know that you know she maintained her father's name and reputation successfully just by preserving the country as Protestant, and holding the papal forces at bay. Also by staying unmarried, a brilliant move as you must have learned from your own history books. No foreign prince could steal the crown for his country. A native husband with pretender aspirations could easily have got away with murdering her. There was to be sure a lot of chaos over the succession when she died -- but never any doubt over what the gender was going to be.

In the case of Your Majesty, you are, as I need hardly say, blessed, with three sons and two grandsons in the direct lineage. The orderliness of succession is not in question, and you must be proud to be able to deliver your crown to one of these heads of the proper sex. To come directly to my own point ? and for better or worse with a breathtaking disregard for reality: No woman, female child of any "fatherland," has a country. Syllogistically speaking, since I am a woman, thus born without a country, and all women are like me, you and I are the same. I can't belong to you. We belong to each other.

So can't we get together?

I have a garden. It's small enough I can walk around in it.

We could play catch with my exercise balls.

Springtime would be great.

Yours respectfully,

Jill Johnston

(1) King George VI and his consort, Queen Elizabeth, visited the United States in May 1939, the eve of WWII, having arrived on the "Empress of Australia." (2) "England's Child: The Carillon and the Casting of Big Bells," by Jill Johnston. Cadmus Editions, San Francisco, 2008.


©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click here.

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