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How meeting the queen made me pity her

How meeting the queen made me pity her
Queen Elizabeth II on 11 June 2021 in St Austell, Cornwall, England. (Photo: Oli Scarff - WPA Pool / Getty Images)

For a second, with all the trappings of her gilded cage stripped away, she seemed both vulnerable and old. I experienced a sudden surge of affection for this short, hunched, white-haired lady.

I went to Buckingham Palace once to meet the queen. I spend a lot of time trying to think of a way to drop this into conversation — and finally I have an excuse.

Before I get ahead of myself, the question that may understandably be foremost on your mind at this point is: “Why on earth were you — you! — invited to Buckingham Palace?”

The most plausible answer to that is: “An administrative error.” I had to borrow shoes, for God’s sake. And a handbag. That is probably not a situation that most visitors to Buckingham Palace normally find themselves in.

It was 2010, and Her Maj was about to host former president Jacob Zuma for a state visit. In advance of that, she threw a reception for South Africans in the UK. I had been working for a networking organisation dealing with that precise demographic, and I had assisted the palace with some contact details. Either due to the aforementioned clerical error, or out of pity, or because they simply have awfully good manners, they chucked an invitation my way too.

I do not recall the palace security measures as being particularly onerous. In fact, I have been more rigorously searched at the Chamber of Mines in Johannesburg. We weren’t allowed to take our cellphones in, though. This was obviously devastating, since what is the bloody point of going to Buckingham Palace if you can’t have some kind of lewd selfie on a throne?

There were matching his-’n’-hers pink thrones, by the way. The queen’s was embroidered with the ERII heraldry, and Prince Philip’s with a simple “P”. They were, in a word, kitsch.

The palace toilet paper is not, contrary to what you may have thought, embossed with any royal logo. Just as well, or whole rolls of it would have ended up in my borrowed handbag. You need to take something with a logo, my friend Cristina informed me sternly in advance of my visit. Anything with logo. But there was nothing with logo, other than the thrones, which would have presented difficulties to smuggle out.

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Shortly after I had cased the joint for potential merchandise, we were shepherded into line like feudal serfs to be introduced to Elizabeth II. As you advanced upon the monarch, a court functionary intoned your name and designation.

I had been instructed in advance that to squeeze the queen’s hand was a treasonous no-no. Naturally, I went too far in the opposite direction: by laying my sweaty palm in her glove with the softest of touches and withdrawing it immediately, like the old “too slow” faux high-five.

To compensate, I went on to crunch Prince Philip’s hand as if we were engaged in an arm-wrestling competition, and then lingered in the hope that he would deliver some racist non sequitur to me that I could sell to the tabloids.

Instead  he beamed at me perfectly benevolently and politically correctly, and I felt ashamed.

When we had paid our respects in this fashion, we proceeded to a large reception room. Waiters whisked past with endless Champagne flutes. The queen made her way from one conversational group to the next, never lingering for more than about two minutes.

When she reached us, some grizzled old expat seized his chance.

“And have you been to South Africa, Your Majesty?” he asked. Not the most intelligent of questions, since the woman was the head of the Commonwealth.

She took it well. Perhaps she heard similar things from Prince Philip every day over breakfast.

“Oh yes,” she said. “I visited for the first time in 1947.”

And then she said something that sounded extraordinarily sincere, and oddly personal.

“I remember horse-riding with my sister on the beach,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so free.”

It struck me as a moment of exquisite poignancy. Can you feel sorry for a woman born into unfathomable wealth and power? I think you can, when the trade-off has been any semblance of a normal life. For a second, with all the trappings of her gilded cage stripped away, she seemed both vulnerable and old. I experienced a sudden surge of affection for this short, hunched, white-haired lady.

When the queen unobtrusively made her exit, a certain excited frisson to the environment evaporated, but it was replaced with a kind of relief, like being released from the headmistress’s office. I got properly stuck into the Champagne.

At the boozy tail end of the evening, after cornering singer Annie Lennox in a way I do not care to recall, I met the management accountant of the Royal Household.

She was an Afrikaans woman from the Klein Karoo, with an accent so thick and warm I wanted to spread it on my toast. She had weekly one-on-ones with the queen, she told me, where the queen pored over the figures for all her properties with steely vigilance, alert to sudden upturns in the quantity of dishwashing liquid purchased for Balmoral, or the volume of lamb chunks for the corgis they’re going through at Windsor.

“And you know the thing about the queen?” she said earnestly. “She don’t take shit, hey.”

With those words echoing, her colleague gently but firmly began to usher us towards the palace doors. DM

This is an adapted excerpt from Best White and Other Anxious Delusions by Rebecca Davis, published by Pan MacMillan in 2015.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    What a lovely story, thank you.
    RIP Queen Elizabeth the Great.

  • allan j whitehead says:

    Not impressed Rebecca, at all with this rubbish dialogue…

  • Danial Ronald Meyer says:

    THANKS for sharing the lovely incident – your encounter with our beloved Queen Elizabeth II. Much appreciated Rebecca Davis.
    Since birth us ‘oldies’ have ‘known’, and we highly respected, admired and appreciated our Sovereign. She always placed service above self. Servant leadership par excellence. Her death draws an era to its end. MHDSRIP

  • Michael Kihato says:

    Not one of your best.

  • Paul Putter says:

    Great story, Rebecca.

  • Pat Collett says:

    Rebecca you have to tell us more of the Management Accountant. There is surely a story there!

  • Bas D says:

    “Every class in society save royalty, and especially British royalty, has through some of its members contributed something to the elevation of the race. But neither in science, nor in art, nor in literature, nor in exploration, nor in mechanical invention, nor in humanising of laws, nor in any sphere of human activity has a representative of British royalty helped forward the moral, intellectual or material improvement of mankind. But that royal family has opposed every forward move, fought every reform, persecuted every patriot, and intrigued against every good cause. Slandering every friend of the people, it has befriended every oppressor. Eulogised today by misguided clerics, it has been notorious in history for the revolting nature of its crimes. Murder, treachery, adultery, incest, theft, perjury — every crime known to man has been committed by some one or other of the race of monarchs”
    from James Connolly writing in 1911.
    Not that much is changed.

  • Anne Felgate says:

    Love the story
    And especially the South African accountant
    She was an amazing woman and an inspiration

  • Peter Dexter says:

    Lovely!

  • Richard Thompson says:

    Wonderful story. I love memoirs, and this is a delightful one 🙂

  • Fran Gebhardt says:

    In true Rebecca Davis style. Loved it. Wishing I was in my homeland just now but gobbling everything up on the BBC whilst realizing I need something else for more balanced coverage of the history unfolding before my eyes. Thank you DM.

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