I had one pressing question about meeting the Queen: What happens if you don’t curtsy? Fortunately, as I stood in a long receiving line at Buckingham Palace, a sardonic footman provided the answer: “You can curtsy or not, as you like,” he replied, rolling his eyes. “She’s not going to send you to the Tower if you don’t.”
With relief in my heart, I inched forward. It was 2005, and this was the first, but not the last, time I would meet the Queen. That makes it sound as if we were just two gals named Liz who got together for gossip over tea and Peek Freans, which is sadly not the case. But when you’re one of the London correspondents for The Globe and Mail (my husband, Doug Saunders, was the other), meeting and reporting on royalty is just part of the job.
A meet-and-greet with the Queen and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace, in advance of their Canadian tour, was just another assignment. That is, once I got over the fact that I’d be looking at a face I was used to seeing every time I opened my wallet.
Let me set the scene for the reception, because it was quite surreal. First, an invitation, printed on cardstock as thick as a mattress, arrived from the Master of the Household of Buckingham Palace. Then I had to find an outfit that qualified as “day dress.” (No cleavage or glitter, the man from Selfridges told me.) Finally, after our papers were checked at the entrance to the palace, we were led into a crowd of other nervous Nellies gathered underneath the Rembrandts and Titians, while footmen circulated carrying trays of alcohol and crystal bowls full of potato chips. The British party tradition of “all booze, no food” was also observed at the top.
Just as there are no atheists in the foxhole, there are no cool people in line to meet the Queen. Everyone, even non-monarchists like myself, became giddy. When we were finally face to face, I was surprised that she was so small, a sturdy and brightly wrapped package balanced on two sensible shoes. Her skin was stunning, glowing and lightly powdered. She exuded an air of calm interest, which seemed extraordinary given the thousands of people she’d had to be interested in over the years. Or at least feign interest.
She held out one gloved hand and I took it tentatively, not wanting to be the person who caused the Queen to lose the use of her working hand. She nodded pleasantly to me but said nothing. She asked Doug “What do you do?” and when he told her that he was a journalist, she maintained the implacable façade of a woman who had long learned to keep her thoughts to herself.
The Queen and her husband circulated for a bit; you always knew where they were in the room because the crowd was much thicker there (and sparse around the lesser aristocrats). We knew it was time to go when the footmen formed a line and marched down the room toward us, like a human squeegee, forcing the plebeians out into the night.
The next time I met the Queen, we talked about horse racing. No, really, we did. There was another Canadian tour, another reception, and another receiving line, this one at the Canadian High Commissioner’s residence in London. I racked my brain for something to say, and finally I hit upon our common love of horse racing. When it was my turn to shake the gloved hand, I asked the Queen if she’d be attending the celebrated race in Toronto that bore her title, the Queen’s Plate.
She suddenly looked interested. In that famous, precise voice she said that she was sorry she would miss it that year. But she lingered a moment and said, “My mother loved that race.” I’d forgotten the Queen Mother was also a racing fan. And then our brief interaction was over, to be forgotten by one of us and cherished forever by the other.
Meanwhile, my husband was beside me asking Prince Philip why he had a bandage on his hand. Obligingly, the prince put down his rather large tumbler of gin and began unwrapping his hand to show off his scab to an impressed (and slightly disgusted) Doug.
The Royal Family: just like us, except not. Did you know that at the High Commissioner’s residence there’s a washroom set aside for the Queen’s exclusive use, on the rather infrequent occasions she visits? Or that when she stays in a hotel, the sheets must be washed four times? (I found that out by interviewing Robert Hardman for his book A Year with the Queen.) Or that in Balmoral’s drafty halls, she likes a hot-water bottle, which she calls a “hottie?” (That tidbit came from an interview with screenwriter Peter Morgan, who wrote The Queen and The Crown.)
I would see the Queen many times over the eight years we worked in London. Whether she was in a landau at the Ascot racetrack, or arriving at her grandson William’s wedding at Westminster Abbey, or braving the freezing rain from a gold-festooned barge on the Thames for her Diamond Jubilee, she was always irreplaceably herself. The slight smile, the singular wave, the unshakeable sense of duty that carried through decades of tumult and trivia.
Every year, the Queen held three garden parties and invited local dignitaries, performers of good works, and bemedaled members of the military. I went one year, quite proud of my Marks & Spencer fascinator until I spotted at least three women wearing the exact same one.
The Queen wore a mint coat and hat (not from M&S) when she appeared at the top of the garden. Every eye was on her, and I wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to be stared at for one’s whole life. Her staff fanned out through the crowd, looking for worthy folk like the head of the Girl Guides or the Vice-Reeve of Bognor Regis to introduce to the monarch. They would find a likely candidate, lean in and discreetly inquire, “Would you like to meet the Queen?”
Then the chosen ones would hastily put down their cups of tea and plates of Battenberg cake and straighten out their hats and sweep lint from their lapels. No one ever said, “No thanks. I’m happy here by the pies.” Everyone wanted to meet the Queen, and shake the gloved hand of history.