Ex-Queen Juliana of the Netherlands died yesterday morning at the age of 94; this morning her eighth great-grandchild was born. My family lived in the Netherlands for a year in 1979-80, just at the time when Juliana abdicated in favour of her daughter Beatrix, and I’ve always had a soft spot for the Dutch royals. They somehow seem a lot less stuffy than the British and considerably brighter than the Belgians, not just on TV but also in person – I’ve met three of Juliana’s grandsons one way or another, and find them – this sounds dreadful – surprisingly intelligent given their family background. Also, though this is irrelevant, Robert Heinlein makes them supreme rulers of the solar system in his novel Double Star. I’ve never dared ask any of the Dutch royals if they have read it. Perhaps at the wedding next month I will acquire enough Dutch courage to do so.
My favourite Dutch royal anecdote
At these conferences the Queen used to hang around in the back just to keep an ear on what was going on. At one such conference in the late 1980s, Dr David Owen, then the leader of a failing British opposition party, was invited to make a presentation on something or other. He misjudged his audience, his speech went down badly, and he stalked down from the lectern. He spotted this woman he vaguely recognised and assumed, in the heat of the moment, to be one of the conference secretaries, thrust the notes from his speech into her hands and snarled at her that he needed thirty copies of it done immediately. She did the photocopying and had it delivered to his room with a slip of paper saying “with the compliments of Her Majesty the Queen of the Netherlands”. Dr Owen was not invited back to the conferences again for several years.
But what was striking about the Dutch press coverage of Juliana’s death was the sense of emotion even from those who surely cannot remember her as Queen – it’s 24 years ago next month that she abdicated – and also a sense of continuity – the coincidence of the royal birth certainly helps – and of a life lived to its proper span – she abdicated on her 71st birthday, having reigned for more than three decades, and enjoyed a long retirement before old age took its toll a few years ago. Quite different from what I remember of the mood around the British Queen Mother’s death two years ago at the age of 101; there the sense was of the end of an era; I happened to be at a meeting in the Foreign Office when the cortege went past down Whitehall, and one of the younger diplomats present sighed and said, “There’ll only be one more like this.” Somehow the Dutch royals have managed to tap into the Zeitgeist in a way that the Windsors have not.