Thursday, 19 October 2017
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QueenofEnglandYesterday saw the Trooping of the Colour in London. The annual parade to celebrate the Queen’s birthday took place beneath a blazing sun and no less than five guardsmen fainted from the heat.

The Queen in fact has two birthdays. Her real one on 21st April – the monarch turned 91 this year – and her official one, which usually falls on the second Saturday in June, a time of the year when the dodgy English weather is supposed to be more indulgent to outdoor celebrations.

Personally I can’t imagine anything more awful than having two birthdays, apart from two Christmases of course, but the Queen puts up with this distinction with her customary stoicism.

This year, however, there was not a lot to smile about. In the morning the Queen remarked that it was “difficult to escape a very sombre national mood.” She was referring of course to the three recent terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom as well as to the horrifying destruction by fire last week of Grenfell Tower in London, causing enormous loss of life.

Last night, fire once again claimed dozens of victims. This time it was a forest fire in Portugal, in the central region of Leiria. Many of those who died were trapped inside their cars. In London, many of the Grenfell Tower victims had also died trapped, unable to escape from the burning torch that had been their home.

Serving others

During her long reign the Queen has paid two state visits to Portugal, Britain’s oldest ally. The first of these was in 1957 and the second in 1985, the year before Portugal joined the European Union, the same Union which the United Kingdom is now so shortsightedly preparing to leave.

For the first of her state visits, the Queen arrived in Lisbon aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, that splendidly effective diplomatic tool latter scrapped by the Blair government for reasons of petty accounting. We can imagine the prestige the Salazar regime extracted from the visit of the pretty young Queen and her glamorous consort. In a contemporary black and white documentary film of the events I recently watched, the Queen looks positively delighted by her welcome. This included a magnificent military parade in the Praça do Comércio and a ride in a carriage drawn by eight greys. Among the huge crowd of Portuguese watching her arrival was a small boy, Marcelo.

Although Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is now the President of Portugal, he is still often affectionately referred to as 'Marcelo.' A man of considerable empathy and no less considerable energy, the President was at the scene of the Leiria fires within hours, giving his support to people who had lost their homes and sometimes also their loved ones.

In London, the Queen accompanied by her grandson Prince William, visited the scene of the Grenfell Tower tragedy soon after it occurred. Perhaps she remembered how much the people of London had appreciated the frequent visits made by her father, George VI, and mother during the war time bombing. Meeting with fire services and members of the local community, the Queen showed her compassion and enduring interest in people’s lives.

The straightforward humanity demonstrated by the British and Portuguese heads of state has been in pitiful contrast to the performance of the hapless British Prime Minister, Teresa May.

Already surpassed by recent political events, Mrs May omitted to meet with local people the first time she showed up at the site of the tragedy. An attempt was then made, with unbelievably insensitive tactlessness, to spin away this oversight as being due to “security reasons”!

A second visit was organised for the Prime Minister: this time May did meet with local people and community workers, inside a church surrounded by understandably angry demonstrators. At the end of her meeting, the Prime Minister had to be exfiltrated from the church by the police.

Terrible fires cannot always be avoided. It is nonetheless deeply shocking that the authorities had already been alerted by local representatives as to the potentially horrific consequences of Grenfell Towers becoming caught in a fire. This social housing tower block was part of a number of pockets of poverty that subsist in one of London’s most expensive and privileged areas, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Let us hope that the government will now act vigorously to review building materials (and in particular cladding, believed to have been largely responsible for spreading the fire) and fire and safety procedures, and then continue to act to enforce the necessary changes. Pressure needs to be maintained on this government until it has done whatever is needed to protect the lives and homes of the people it has been elected to administer.

At least two European countries, Spain and France, have already sent fire-fighting equipment to Portugal. Whoever said that the European Union was not needed?



The author, James Mayor, is the founder of Grape Discoveries, a wine and culture boutique travel company

See the 'Grape Discoveries' website