THE playground sloped down to the rhododendrons and the railway. It was a pitiless expanse of sharp-edged gravel on which we cut our knees playing "rescue" during morning break. I can remember the exact spot I was standing - towards the bottom, near the fence - when the headmaster came down to tell us that the King was dead.
His tone was solemn, but nothing to the almost unbearable solemnity that immediately suffused me, a grave, heavy feeling that was also in some way elevating and even exciting, sweeping all of us up into some greater occasion. "History is now and England," I would have thought if I had known T S Eliot's line. No public event since, certainly no death - not Kennedy's nor Churchill's nor that of Diana, Princess of Wales - has had this effect on me.
Since that damp February morning 50 years ago, journalists, politicians and even courtiers have been hard at work trying to empty the Monarchy of any such heavy significance, stripping down the institution into something that is at best a homely convenience, at worst an obsolete piece of machinery that ought to be left to rust in the corner of the field. From Malcolm Muggeridge and Kingsley Martin in the 1950s to Roy Hattersley and the entire staff of the Guardian today, they have
derided the "royal soap opera" and instructed the lower orders to grow up and discard these childish superstitions.
When Ian Bradley, reader in practical theology at St Andrews, recently set out to write about the spiritual dimension of monarchy (God Save the Queen, Darton, Longman and Todd), he was told he was wasting his time on an eccentric and futile project. A senior courtier discouraged a journalist who expressed interest in the Prince of Wales's spiritual leanings: "I think we've had rather too much of the sacred, don't you? He needs to be seen as a good bloke." Studies of the Monarchy at its finest these days concentrate on the strictly constitutional aspects (Vernon Bogdanor), the philanthropic (Frank Prochaska) or the biographical (Ben Pimlott); lower down the scale, it's all sex and corgis.
Yet even modern republicans such as the Scottish nationalist Tom Nairn can't help admitting that "popular royalism is visibly not
passive and mindless. It has something highly positive about it - an apparently inexhaustible electric charge. People enjoy the monarchical twaddle and show very little sign of being robotised or brainwashed."
One man's twaddle is another man's epiphany. "Ordinary people" seem to find no difficulty in understanding the symbolic qualities of the Monarchy. They readily discern, behind the little rituals of receiving bouquets and opening hospitals, the continuation of an ancient contractual relationship between monarch and people.
It is bizarre that post-modern intellectuals, who are so obsessed with symbols and semiotics, cannot grasp this. It took perceptive sociologists such as Edward Shils and the late Lord Young of Dartington - neither of them exactly sentimental Tories - to see that the Queen's Coronation had "touched the sense of the sacred" in people and heightened a sense of solidarity in both families and communities.
Those feelings were rudely damaged by the Queen's annus horribilis, Andrew Morton and those creepy tapes. Since then, public opinion has revived in favour of the Monarchy, and the Royal Family approaches the Queen's Golden Jubilee chastened but not as apprehensive as it would have been if it had come five years earlier.
All the same, you can still feel the undertow among the intelligentsia in favour of either an immediate republic or a Monarchy so deconsecrated and deprived of institutional support and political relevance as to represent only a mournful little halt on the line to a republic.
But if you bleach out the numinous element, you leave a materialist, secularised nation in rather bleak surroundings. Diana, Princess of Wales's funeral - both a royal and an anti-royal occasion, as Dr Bradley points out - provoked an outpouring of grief that made many observers uncomfortable, because it so clearly signalled the
desolation in which millions of their fellow citizens lived.
In a world already so disenchanted, is it desirable to remove any lingering social experience of the transcendent, leaving the metaphysical imagination confined to the private realm? And isn't it odd that so many of those who claim they want to promote a sense of community should be so keen to dismantle the one focus of national community that indisputably exists?
Dr Bradley argues that we should do exactly the opposite: far from being further secularised and the Church disestablished - which would leave the Queen isolated and therefore vulnerable - the Monarchy should be "re-sacralised" and the Church "re-established", but on a fresh basis which provides an honoured place at the Coronation service for leaders of other faiths - including non-Christian ones - and which reforms the Act of Settlement to permit a Catholic monarch.
In any case, people
don't just switch over to a republic as blithely as they change their washing powder. It usually takes a violent revolution or a catastrophic military defeat or economic collapse for a nation to alter its fundamental constitutional arrangements (look how the sceptical backwoodsmen outvoted the trendy reformers in the Australian referendum on the Monarchy). And this is for a good reason - because achieving agreed authority within a territory is hellishly difficult. Three quarters of the world's horrors derive from the absence of any such agreed authority - Afghanistan, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Rwanda.
The oath of allegiance to the monarch isn't simply a piece of antiquated flummery but the precondition of politics. Betty Boothroyd's revulsion against allowing Sinn Fein MPs to use the Palace of Westminster without taking the oath was soundly based. And Douglas Hogg's assertion - that he didn't see what taking the oath had to do with his duties in the House -
was more than usually fatuous.
Besides, if you undermine customary loyalties, there is an alternative that tends to bob up in their place, and it is raw, unrestrained nationalism. The injection of nationalist feeling that is required to hold infant republics together gives their politics a querulous, paranoid tone.
For those loyalties are not simply decorative icing. The practical advantages of constitutional monarchy - its ability to accommodate different races and religions, its assistance in securing smooth and peaceful handovers of political power, its restraints on the abuse of power - derive from its deep-rooted hold on the hearts of the people. Loosen that hold and you might loosen a lot of other things as well.
~ Ferdinand Mount is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement