London — "Isn't she beautiful," said a woman in the crowd. "A human face of deep but unparaded faith," said the Archbishop of Canterbury in the official address.
"I can't explain it -- it's an aura about her," mused a Briton about her charm.
The subject: Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, the much-loved centerpiece of one of the world's most famous families, who was given a thanksgiving service at St. Paul's Cathedral July 16, honoring her 80th birthday Aug. 4.
Even the persistent July rain droke up into sunlight when the "Queen Mum," as she is affectionaly known, rode smiling and waving in lilac and feathers from Buckingham Palace to the cathedral -- the twin poles of the monarchy.
In an almost unprecedented gesture, the Queen had ceded to her mother the privilege of arriving last and leaving first -- and had surrendered to her the 1902 state landau drawn by four grays and flanked by the sovereign's escort of the household cavalry.
As she went, a crowd estimated at 1 million people, from bowler-hatted businessmen to T-shirted tourists crowded the railings along the route, cheering and singing "Happy Birthday to You."
In an age that chews up and disposes of popular public figures at an alarming rate, how has she survived with such evident affection?
One answer is the recollection of her past and its associations with the era of Britain's greatness -- from her marriage to the Duke of York (later King George VI), through the hardships of the war years in London, where her walkabouts in the bombed-out East End are still remembered endearingly by the working-class populace.
Others point to her unruffled equanimity, the public serenity captured in her unforced smile and characteristically dainty wave.
Even her daughter, the present Queen, occasionally gets caught by a photographer looking as though she had bitten a bad plum. The Queen Mother, however, radiates cheerfulness wherever she goes.
But most cite her genuine interest in others. Displaying what one observer called a "granny" personality, she still has plenty of energy -- enough to attend a reported 65 ceremonies and 35 receptions this past year. Archbishop Robert Runcie, speaking to a brightly dressed crowd of 2,700 guests at the cathedral, praised this "astonishing taste for new experiences and new friendships" and her ability to put "a human face on the operations of government."
One official credits the Queen, who visited Lusaka, Zambia, last summer as head of the Commonwealth, with "setting the tone and the mood of concilition" that later allowed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Lord Carrington to build the foundations for what would ultimately become the settlement of the Rhodesia question.
A British civil servant who has accompanied the Queen Mother on a number of visits sums up her appeal in an acecdote. On one occasion, he says, the Queen Mother noticed a little girl in the crowd tyring to take her picture with the camera held backward. He saw her go over to the child and gently turn the camera right way around. Then, stepping back, she asked, "Are you ready?" And waited until the picture snapped.
That attention to human detail, in the midst of all the cares of official duties, is he says, "remarkable."