Shortly after Greece’s independence in 1821, the Great Powers determined that what Greece really needed, after centuries of arbitrary rule under the Ottoman yoke, was a family of Northern Europeans telling Greeks what to do.
If you know anything about Greeks, it’s that they have enough trouble following instructions from each other, let alone from a foreigner in a sash.
And yet, after some false starts a suitable family — the Danish Glücksburgs — was installed and various dynasties proceeded to fall in and out of favour over the next century-and-a-half. One king was assassinated while out for a stroll. Another king, George II, said this: “The most important tool for a king of Greece is a suitcase.”
After decades in exile, ex-King Constantine II recently packed his suitcase and moved back to Greece because it’s cheaper than London. He’s a first cousin of the Duke of Edinburgh and I’m told he makes a mean mousaka.
History’s long tail
I don’t know how the day began in Catholic schools, but in the English Protestant one I attended in Park Ex, we stood beside our desks, faced the flag and sang “God Save the Queen.”
This is impossible to imagine in French Catholic schools. French Quebecers could never quite stomach, nor understand, the Anglo fetish for royals. (To them, naming Montreal’s flagship hotel the Queen Elizabeth was one of countless “provocations.”)
Just about every Canadian town and city has its Queen and King Streets, its Victoria Hotels and Duke of Edinburgh schools. It must seem odd to our American cousins, whose only titled citizens are Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
In school we also sang “Marching to Pretoria,” from the Boer War, where Churchill made his reputation as a war correspondent and thousands of black Africans perished serving one or another of the white teams. Thousands more perished, black and white, in the innovation for which the Boer War is most famous — concentration camps.
Cheer up boys and sing good luck to all our gallant men
Who fought for the Empire out in Africa and when
They have brought the seas once more we welcome home again
Conquerors of proud Pretoria
Empire was everywhere. Aromas of leather and wet wool, mothballs and fried fish. War memorials of identical boys with clipped moustaches. Photos of ladies knitting socks. It was all very far away, but also at the heart of the world around us.
The long tail of history and of Empire is still with us. I had cause to reflect on Empire and past mistakes throughout this week.
Last Friday I posted a short story titled “The Imperial Matinée.” A reader gently reminded me that the Park Ex cinema where some of the story unfolds was actually the Empire Cinema. I fixed my mistake.
But it also reminded me that Montreal once had two cinemas, separated by maybe a dozen stops on the number 80 bus, both paying tribute to the idea of Empire.