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Going to the Queen's Garden Party

Blog Category: Uncategorized
Posted on: 13 July 2011

It’s not often that authors get to move in Royal circles, but this week, for the second time in my life, I found myself in Buckingham Palace.
The first time was when, about a decade ago, I was invited as part of what was termed the British Book World. It was a markedly jolly occasion for several reasons. One was that authors (unless excessively shy and retiring souls) love a party, especially one which is packed with several hundred of your best friends and enemies. Although it was a moot point whether we were more intimidated by the Queen or by JK Rowling, the drink was either orange juice or gin. You can guess what happened. Hardened Republicans who, with the exception of Will Self, had compromised their principles out of sheer curiosity found themselves warming to the whole concept of Royalty as never before, and the ice was cracked long before the Canongate publisher Jamie Byng reputedly offered Her Maj a line of cocaine. A children’s author countered this by whipping out his book, The Queen’s Underpants. She coped admirably, of course.
All the same, when I was rung up by the retiring Chairman of the Society of Authors, the saintly Mark le Fanu, to ask if I’d accept an invitation, I hesitated for a second, largely on sartorial grounds. I can scrub up reasonably well, though with increasing reluctance as middle age advances, and there has been no end of post-Kate talk about fascinators replacing hats. As it happens, I have a nice collection of hats from a period when my innate eccentricity of dress overlapped with the 1980s fashion for neo-Edwardian clothes, and everyone I knew was getting married. These days, my hats sit in their boxes at the top of the wardrobe collecting dust and awaiting the time for my children and godchildren to be matched. Time one of them had an outing, I thought, and besides, I’m always curious about everything British. I took advice from various friends (including the elegant historians Amanda Vickery and Catherine Horwood, herself a recent invitee) and said Yes.
Getting into Buckingham Palace is a bit of a palaver. About a month before, an envelope arrives containing not only a stiffie with the information that “The Lord Chamberlain is commanded by Her Majesty to invite X and X to a Garden Party” but several more important pieces of paper, including the pale green piece of card that actually admits you, a big bright green card with a black X on it to stick into your windscreen if you drive, and instructions. You have to come with two items of photographic ID, one of them a passport. Women must wear a dress or trouser suit, and a hat; men a morning coat, lounge suit or uniform (no medals).
I made no special attempt to buy a new outfit, because I can't at present afford one due to what is happening at The Times thanks to the News International debacle, though I had my hair done and my husband sheepishly bought new shoes. We left work at 3pm to meet outside the gates just before 4, naively surprised by the great numbers of cars parked in the Mall which had got there earlier. It’s an odd business walking past people pressing their noses to the gates and looking longingly at the inside, especially as we were just ahead of the Changing of the Guard. One Anglo-Asian couple had really gone to town, in full morning dress, and had hired a photographer to snap them looking resplendent -  but cameras are forbidden which is why I’m not putting in a picture of us. For those interested in these things, I wore a navy chiffon outfit with a cream and navy hat, and a lot of pearls, but I saw women of every shape and size and dress, some in wonderful hats clearly bought specially for the event, some in fascinators, so in long jackets and skirts and some in frocks with little shrugs or even shawls. The sensible ones wore comfortable shoes.
Inside, the Palace is much less heavy than its exterior suggests (not surprising, given that its core was designed by Nash) and is strangely reminiscent of Disney’s Cinderella in that its white paint is off-set by quantities of gilded moulding. Compared with the amazing palaces we saw last year in St Petersburg, lovingly rebuilt by the Russian people, it all looks quite modest, with family portraits and displays of porcelain as the only decoration.
I was struck by how elderly all the staff were. They were impeccably courteous, but from the liveried waiters handing out lemon barley water to the Beefeaters, they all looked well past pensionable age. The Beefeaters (sternly told not to talk by their leader as they headed for the tea tent with their heavy haulberks or is it halyards clanking dismally against each other) are pretty much walking costumes but when you looked past the gorgeous scarlet and gold, they were a group of tired old men. It felt just like Alice in Wonderland, especially once the Queen and Prince Philip arrived.
The reverential hush was broken by the sound of soft applause, and then the brass band, after playing God Save the Queen, broke into Isn’t She Lovely and various other numbers from My Fair Lady. The crowd, which snaked around the lawn, was about ten deep; arriving late, we had the best view of the two tiny, very upright figures, one in primrose yellow, the other in uniform, making their way slowly along. For over forty minutes, the Queen and Prince Philip dutifully talked to their people.
What a life! No wonder she always ends up asking if her subjects have travelled far. It was immediately evident that the people whom she wanted to meet were not obscure writers, but those for whom meeting Royalty was a tremendous event; people who were in wheelchairs, or uniform. Quite right too, but I saw absolutely nobody I knew (which, I confess, is a rare event for me in London). Normally, this isn’t a problem, because we like meeting people - only hardly anyone dared talk. There were plenty of nervous smiles but even the tea, self service on an elegant white rectangular plate with an indent for the tea-cup, failed to encourage people to relax. The presence of Royalty made everyone stiff and self-conscious, fearful of talking normally, so that the whole afternoon had a kind of hushed murmuring sound to it instead of the bee-like hum of a happy crowd. Now, in these raucous, informal times this may strike many as no bad thing, but it could have been so much less artificial. Many, like ourselves, got more pleasure out of wandering round the gardens with their splendid trees, than any human contact.
This struck me as a shame, because some – notably the clergy and the military, who were able to identify each other through their uniform – were having a jolly time. The secret of any good party is to have at least seven people present whom each person knows, and many more whom they might want to meet.  I am not sure of the history of the Garden Party, and whether they were started by Her Majesty or some forebear, but they are a wonderful idea which, despite tremendous good will and effort all round, don’t quite seem to work. Surely the solution is simple? Given that there are more people invited (about 1000) than can possibly even glimpse the Queen, it would seem sensible for there to be one day for, say, the Arts and Sciences, one for Business and Charity, and another for Sport and the Armed Forces. That way, even if not everyone could meet the Queen (or King), we could at least meet each other – and be reminded that, in a democracy, this is just as important.

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At 12:57:53 on 15 July 2011,  Amanda wrote:

Elaine, I wouldn''t dream of competing with HRH!

At 16:04:25 on 18 July 2011,  Amanda wrote:

Quite right! I stand corrected on Prince Philip but only saw him from behind.

At 15:54:44 on 30 July 2011,  Delving Eye wrote:

Fifty years ago almost to the day, on July 6, 1961, while my parents were in London (they were Americans, just beginning their Grand Tour of Europe), they too happened upon the Queen's Garden Party. Here is my mother's entry from her travel diary: "Coming back to the hotel [the Mayfair], we got tied up in traffic -- the Queen's Garden Party. I was dressed for it, but we hadn't let her know we were in London." If only my mother had known what a stuffy affair it was!

At 10:57:12 on 20 August 2011,  Bee wrote:

It sounds rather awful, but made for fascinating reading. I'm really curious about the ancient retainers. I suppose, considering the Queen's age, that there is no age of compulsory retirement in the Royal Firm?

At 01:50:41 on 16 September 2011,  Anil Balan wrote:

Great article, really made me think. http://anilbalan.com/

At 02:16:02 on 16 July 2011,  M. le Cte. R De Bois De Mantes wrote:

typo: you state "...we had the best view of the two tiny, very upright figures, one in primrose yellow, the other in uniform..."; however HRH The Prince Philip was wearing morning dress as your photo above shows. Thanks for the article anyway.

At 02:45:55 on 20 July 2011,  Nuala Ni Chonchuir wrote:

'An experience' as my Ma would say. We love the Queen over here now (in Ireland) since her triumphant visit in May when she smiled and smiled.

At 04:31:35 on 13 July 2011,  Philip Ardagh wrote:

Makes perfect sense, Amanda. I'll have a word in her royal shell-like.

At 15:31:51 on 13 July 2011,  Elaine Showalter wrote:

But where is the picture of YOU, Amanda?

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