AMONG the millions of words that will be written and spoken about the late Queen over the next few weeks, many will pay tribute to the sheer professionalism with which she carried out her endless and varied duties. Those of us fortunate enough to have had even the most minimal contact with her – or indeed with the new King Charles III, while he was Prince of Wales – will know this to be true.
As an editor, I was invited to a Royal Garden Party. I was incredibly lucky that it was in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year, and fortuitously was the first garden party attended by the Duchess of Cambridge. The garden parties are an institution and you quickly (if you are an observer, and after all, that’s what we journalists are) spot the patterns of behaviour of the various groups attending.
The huge tea marquee was crowded, some with sandwiches stacked high like wobbly tower blocks. Suddenly there was a great tidal movement. People seemed to know exactly when the royal party would emerge from Buckingham Palace, and a crowded aisle opened up across the lawns towards the palace steps.
As the royals made their slow progress towards their tea tent with its windowed sides, many of the onlookers followed, crowding close to watch. Good lord, they actually drink tea and eat cake and sandwiches – just like us!
We had our tea then, chatting to the waiting staff, hearing hilarious stories of over-excited guests and overcrowded plates and then wandered off around the garden. Surprisingly in such a large crowd, we met a few people we knew, including our local MP, and we sat on a bench and chatted with the Canadian ambassador, near the famous long herbaceous border.
We also talked to one of the Girl Guides on duty, who told us a very revealing story. She and her fellow Guides had been housed overnight in a mews close to the Palace. They were up early for breakfast before their long and exhausting day of running errands and standing around in case of need. The Queen came in, apparently alone, and talked to all of them. Later, when the royal party was coming out, one of our Guide’s friends was on duty and the Queen saw her and greeted her by name. That’s class; that’s professionalism. I’m a lot younger than she was then, and I struggle to remember names of people I have just met, let alone one of many hundreds on a crowded day!
But that name-check will stay with the Guide, who was so excited that she had run to tell her friend and then rushed back to her post. She may well remember it today as we all reflect on the loss of a monarch who has simply been The Queen all our lives.
The famous sparkling blue eyes and that dazzling smile said a lot about her engagement with people – smiling, recognising and greeting people, exchanging just a few words, these things made a unique connection between the Queen and the individual.
My meeting with the then Prince Charles was at Poundbury, his flagship “village” project in Dorset. I was there with friends representing various aspects of the county’s food scene – farming, food production, farmers markets and the Dorset Food & Arts Festival, which was held in Queen Mother’s Square and had begun in the Diamond Jubilee year.
We were the last small group in a hall full of representatives of organisations across the West Country. The Prince was making his way around the room, speaking to every single person. We rather thought we would be by-passed because his time was tight. When he got to us, he knew whom he was meeting – OK, that’s just proper professional briefing. He was introduced to each of us, and proceeded to ask searching questions (happily we were all able to answer them), which demonstrated his deep knowledge of food and farming issues.
Say what you like, you can keep your celebrities, that day the three of us had stars in our eyes. In those few minutes you knew you were in the presence of a remarkable man.
Now, ten years on, he is our new King. For us – as Fine Times Recorder and the authors of the Deepest books – there is a special pride: last year, as we were finishing our Somerset book, we were thrilled to be able to include a foreword written by the Prince of Wales, voicing that same deep knowledge and passion that I heard back in Poundbury.
RIP Ma’am. Shakespeare, as always, has a phrase for the occasion. We will not see your like again. God save our new King Charles III.