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My Appointment with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace

I’ve never been a big fan of telephones, especially when they interrupt you when you’re really busy doing something important. Us telephonaphobes have to accept that it might be something important or even urgent, but nothing riles me more than cold calls, which are quite often coming from a call centre on the other side of the world and delivered in a completely unintelligible accent; if only the marvels of modern communication could deliver a high-voltage shock along the phone line in response to such gross intrusions of your privacy. I was at my mother’s house and she had already received one annoying cold call so I was ready to pounce on the next one with a blast of venomous breath. But the next one was for me and I didn’t know why I was being called there on her landline. I was patiently biting my tongue when a woman answered, and then it went from being a potential cold call to a prank call when she asked me if I would like to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace. My first thought was to play along with it if it was a prank call and respond that I would have to check my engagement diary to see if I could fit her in, but a simple incredulous why sufficed. She informed me that to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Sir Winston Churchill there was going to be a special reception for the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust at Buckingham Palace on March 18th as the Queen is the royal patron of the trust that I’m a lifetime fellow of after being awarded a travelling fellowship to circumnavigate Madagascar by kayak in 2003. There were only 200 tickets available for a possible 2,000 plus fellows still alive and my name had been drawn out of a hat at the second opportunity after someone else couldn’t attend. I wanted to use one of my favourite expressions: is the Pope a Catholic, rather than does the bear shit in the woods, which might have been a little disrespectful given the circumstances. I couldn’t have been more shocked and surprised if the Queen had actually rang the door bell and asked me personally. I’ve had a lot of quirky things happen in my oddball life but this one would take some beating; it was the mother, or Queen, of all you’ll never guess what just happened moments. I was feeling a bit dazed but my mother was straight on the phone to notify other members of my family. It didn’t become completely real until I received the official invitation with the Queen’s gold embossed seal through the post informing me that HRH had commanded the Master of the Household to invite me……..how could I possibly refuse! Apparently it was either that or spend a night in the Tower of London.

 

 

 

 

 

I left it until the night before to make a final decision on that much-asked question: what was I going to wear for my date with the Queen? Dressing any other way than casually is very rare for me, and even rarer for me to have to dress for such a consummately formal occasion as this. As I am viewed as something of a sartorial pauper by members of my family, I had several offers of suits. It was assumed that I would be wearing my brother-in-law’s suit, but I decided that it was going a bit too far and made it me feel more like a member of the household staff rather than just a guest. I ended up cycling home from my Mother’s bungalow at 10 pm to grab my favourite 25 year old Principles jacket, which I would wear with a 30 year old black Italian leather tie, and a black pin-stripe shirt and dark blue M&S trousers that I bought in a Mare and Foal Sanctuary charity shop for £3.50 each; I was quite sure that her majesty would approve of that.

I walked into Paignton the next morning and caught the coach to Victoria Station in London. I changed in the toilet on the coach and did my final grooming in the station toilet. I walked the short distance to the palace and arrived 45 mins early so that I would have plenty of time for taking photos outside in daylight. I asked some people from New Zealand to take some photos of me at the Queen Victoria Memorial with the palace in the background. I mentioned that I was going to see the Queen, and why, and immediately another Churchill Fellow announced his presence there and showed me his medal. Trevor Graham from Belfast, Northern Ireland, did his fellowship the year before mine, and his was for dog welfare in the USA. I struck up an immediate rapport with this very friendly, down-to-earth dog groomer, and his wife and daughter who had travelled with him from Belfast. He operates a mobile dog parlour, and has launched an innovative cross infection-free happy pet mat! It took me a while to grasp the concept and benefits of a happy pet mat, but I’m quite sure that it will bring happiness to dogs and owners alike. It was good to link up with another fellow like Trevor who was as incredulous as I was about the bizarre make-believe situation that was unfolding for both of us. He referred to us as “Churchillians”, which gave us even more make-believe gravitas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The heavily-armed security police at the entrance accepted our frivolity with a good measure of humour, and Trevor continued to disregard the restriction on taking photos inside the gates, which was much easier with a phone than my chunky camera. We proceeded across the forecourt into a square leading to the entrance for the reception. This strange fantasy became a confirmed reality when we were greeted by numerous members of the household staff in their immaculate anachronistic uniforms. Surplus items like my camera were deposited in the cloakroom and then we ascended some palatial stairs beneath an ornate glass dome, and our heads swivelled in awe at the ambience of opulence. We had left the grubby spittoon streets of London behind and entered the stately realm of chandeliers and corgis. We had to examine the toilets to see if they matched the grandiose interior, but actually it was more like a temporary transfer to an airport, although the hand soap dispensers ordained one with a scent and sense of decadent extravagance. At every turn there was a member of staff to assist and guide, and make one feel awfully privileged and obsequiously waited on. Every ornate door that opened before us seemed to herald a stately entrance, even if we were just a couple of plebs in disguise. Eventually we arrived at the main hall for the reception, which appeared to be the main painting gallery of the palace because the wall was dripping with Old Masters such as Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Reubens and Vermeer. I had to immerse myself in art history first before mingling with all of the fellows that were gathering there.

It was a pity that they didn’t issue a programme of the fellows who would be attending before the reception so that you could seek out ones with similar interests, but I was very happy with the ones that I randomly talked too. Trays of champagne and divine canapés were constantly orbiting us, and my radar was ever alert to their passing. I mingled, munched and slurped in my usual unrefined manner and drifted into another large opulent hall where there were more fellows assembled. It had already struck me that the vast majority of the 300 fellows invited to the reception were in the older bracket, making me feel more like a “younger” gatecrasher. I had an enjoyable long chat with one of the travel team at the palace who make all the travel arrangements for the Royal Family. There are about 400 staff at the palace doing everything from unplugging the drains to hand-crafting the exquisite canapés that I was stuffing down my gullet…..I’ll have another one of those rhubarb tarts please! The beauty of canapés is that they are such tiny sensory sensations that you can maximise their intake without any undue discomfort. I could see that some of the fellows were starting to flow into a smaller room; smaller inasmuch that it couldn’t double-up as an aircraft hanger. The room was more brightly lit and then I had my first glimpse of the Queen wearing one of her radiantly lime coloured dress suits, minus hat and handbag, so seemingly quite naked. I wasn’t quite ready so I carried on cruising and mingling, and gravitated to a couple of black ladies who I very much enjoyed talking to. One of them did a fellowship for helping to improve treatment of spinal injuries in the countries she visited. We were getting drawn inexorably towards the Queen, and I went with the flow as I thought this radiant pair of black ladies would be nice additions to my photo. But I couldn’t see any photographers in sight until a man pointed out the automatic droid camera positioned near the Queen that looked more like a traffic camera than a recorder of high society.

I didn’t have a clue what I was going to say to the Queen, but as most people know I’m very rarely stuck for words, and the first thing that popped out when I bowed towards her majesty was “I’m pleased to meet you”. She beamed back at me with the same unjaded smile that has served others with great warmth and diplomacy all her life. She was even shorter than I had expected but her radiance more than compensated for her diminutive stature. She asked me where I went and when I informed her that I had kayaked around Madagascar she replied that it must have been very exciting. I didn’t tell her that I could have died on numerous occasions but as we parted I just shook my head and said it was a crazy thing to do, to which she smiled a lost for words smile back at me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then I moved on to Prince Philip who had the comparative charismatic radiance of a bowl of cold lumpy porridge. He mumbled “Where did you go? ” and thinking that he might be remotely interested because of his Presidency of the World Wide Fund for Nature I blurted back at him with the bounciness of a ring-tailed lemur, “Madagascar!!” I might as well have told him that I’d kayaked to the moon on the back of a turtle wearing roller skates, for all the interest it engendered. I should have expected that weary look of somebody who has had to play second-fiddle to his ebullient wife for most of his adult life, and who was just shaking hands to get back to his slippers and favourite armchair as quickly as possible.

Shortly after briefly engaging with such a short sweet old lady I was approached by an equally short older lady, and we spent the next half hour bemoaning the state of young people after telling me about her grandson who is “training” to become a professional gamer. After the introductions had finished the Queen entered the main hall and drifted amongst all of the fellows with the consummate ease of a Queen Bee sliding through honey. She started talking to a group of men right behind me but I was still talking to the other little lady, and I spent the next 10 minutes back-to-back with the Queen, which I suppose was quite an interesting adjunct to meeting the Queen face-to-face. She eventually turned around and smiled at both of us, by which time I was too awestruck by this perpetual social butterfly with a constant air of graceful serenity to say anything apart from an indecipherable mumble. One of the most striking things about her is how mobile and upright she is. My mother is just a few years younger but she is crippled with arthritis and can barely get across the kitchen without getting breathless. The Queen has certainly lived a dutiful but most enjoyable life; I’m quite sure of that, and that has enabled her mind and body to keep upright to her daily tasks.

 

 

The reception was drawing to a close and a line of staff had formed to gently usher us towards the doors. I held back as long as possible and ducked into the toilet to make sure that I was the last person to leave. I walked back down the palatial stairs feeling as if I had risen a fraction above my station, but as soon as I got back out into the unrefined, polluted air of London my pumpkin would soon burst, and it would be back to the secular struggles of being just a lowly member of the proletariat again…… but what a jolly good wheeze it was at the palace for one enchanted evening!!

 

 

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