I’ve just seen a photograph of this radiant elderly woman coming out of hospital, her immaculate white hair shining against the bright red, exquisitely tailored coat which she wore adorned with a simple diamond brooch( if any diamond brooch is simple). Her eyes were shining and her smile sparkling.
She’s eighty-six and the most photographed woman in the world, one of the busiest and most active, and these days, one of the best dressed women in the world too. Once Bobo, her Scottish nursery maid from childhood -who became her dresser – died at 89, Angela Kelly, the new dresser arrived. Suddenly instead of the frumpy clothes chosen by the un-imaginative Bobo who was the despair of all the couturiers who dressed the Queen, the vibrant and now beloved Angela, has transformed the Queen’s clothes and her image.
Angela, who has a broad Liverpool’ Scouse’ accent, and was the daughter of a crane driver, is a creative and vivacious woman with a wonderful sense of colour and design. She designs most of the Queen’s clothes now.
So the once dowdy but beautiful Queen has now blossomed into this stunning looking woman who wears clear jewel-like colours – purple, primrose, turquoise and leaf green, bright red, and pure white with the matching hats that define her inimitable style. Her see-through umbrellas have a matching coloured handle and are edged with the matching colours.
She wore white decorated with sparkles like her predecessor Elizabeth 1, on her Jubilee cruise down the Thames, gold to echo the gold statue of Queen Victoria at the Buckingham Palace Jubilee concert, shamrock green to go to Ireland, and a smashing pale primrose for her grandson’s wedding, each outfit beautifullly cut and tailored. And of course black with diamonds to Diana’s funeral. (I’ve wanted some fabulous diamonds to wear with black ever since) Her eyes are still as blue as when she was young and her complexion still as clear, though she’s lost her tiny waist and elegant legs in old age – haven’t we all?
But nothing much else has changed. She still walks her corgis every day and feeds them herself, cutting up their meat and dishing it out. She still rides her favourite horse, though not as energetically as she did, and still refuses to wear a hard hat, preferring her trademark head-scarf. She still breeds her racehorses and gundogs (black Labradors to you and me) and goes to the races. She still adores her ninety-two year old husband. She still performs investitures and receives ambassadors, foreign sovereigns, dignitaries, heads of state and travels on Royal tours.
She still carries out between four and five hundred engagements a year; she still spends hours every day reading and signing all the documents in her red boxes, and she still receives her prime ministers every week for an audience to bring her up to date. Actually it’s usually the other way around. She’s so well informed that both Churchill and Wilson left discomfited after their first audiences, having assumed it would be a walk in the park, not a penetrating inquisition.
She’s had twelve prime ministers, and they all loved her – even Maggie Thatcher – and valued her support, knowing she was the one person who really wanted them to succeed for the country’s sake. Rab Butler, often described as the best prime minister England never had ( like the late Adlai Stevenson in the US ) often had audiences when he was acting prime minster.
No mean intellect himself, he was impressed by her intelligence, and also said that she never tried to behave as anything but a woman. He was fascinated by her constant anxiety over inflation as prices began to rise, saying it struck him as “inconsistent in someone who did not do her own shopping.” But this was the frugal mother who sent her small son Charles back to the garden at Sandringham to look for a lost dogs lead – saying “ Leads cost money.” This was also the little girl whose nursery maid Bobo taught her to unwrinkle and fold the wrapping papers on Christmas presents, and re-use the paper and ribbons – in the depths of the Depression.
When she came to NZ for her 25 year Jubilee tour in 1977, a hard-boiled cynical anti -royalist was assigned to cover her visit to Auckland, the thinking being that there would be no sickly sycophantic reports. He came back to the office a shaken man. “I’ve just stood in the crowd as they walked up Queen Street and felt wave after wave of happiness,” he marvelled. He was amazed and mystified by the joy and excitement of the people overflowing the pavements on both sides.
On board the Royal Yacht Britannia I stationed myself at the end of the line of guests being received and was fascinated to watch the Queen. The first impression was one of innate shyness being overcome with a huge effort of will. She began shaking hands with a long line of people she would probably never see again in her life. As each person bowed or curtseyed, she gazed penetratingly at them, and followed them with her eyes as they moved on, before giving the next in line the same full attention. It was a simple act each time, but she gave it her total concentration. It made it a special moment for each person she met.
Later, as she circulated, chatting, and joined the group I was standing with, she was asked how she had enjoyed drinking kava, the Fijian fermented drink in a huge wooden bowl. She and the Duke had just come from Fiji. She laughed, and started to say: “Oh it tasted like” – when she stopped, remembered she could be reported and it would hurt the feelings of the Fijians, and ended mischievously – “like a nice cup of tea”.
Those who know her say she has a wicked sense of humour and is a brilliant mimic. Angela Kelly, who has become one of the people closest to her, says she’s very good at mimicking her Scouse accent. Nobody knows what books she reads, or what music she likes, and she hides her boredom at what must be excruciatingly boring banquets, lunches, receptions, concerts, parades, factory and hospital visits, and she never tries to be charming or popular.
She sees herself as the servant of her people, so along with presidents and prime ministers, she’s also had to entertain crooks and clowns – including the late and unlamented Romanian dictators, the Ceauscescus, who were preceded by a phone call from Paris where they’d been staying, warning that they’d steal everything, including the gold taps – and Berlusconi at a conference, who she ticked off when he was loudly showing off, asking why he had to make so much noise.
The one thing we do know is that she loves things to go wrong… and then the routine is disturbed, the pomp and ceremony are disrupted, people become real, they stop being formal and become spontaneous, and she really enjoys herself! She’s a countrywoman, who is happiest living in her country houses enjoying picnics and field sports (stalking deer, fishing, shooting and generally killing for fun) in the Highlands like all her ancestors before her; and riding and presiding over shooting parties (perish the thought) in Norfolk. She dotes on her grandchildren and is a devout churchgoer..
She’ll be 87 this year, and it’s hard to imagine a world without her… which was how people felt about her great- great- grandmother Victoria. Informed sources comment that she’s fitter than her mother was at this age, yet her mother lived to a hundred and four. So it looks as though she’ll probably outlive me, and I never will experience the world without her. God Save the Queen!
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
I read an article about sandwiches in the paper yesterday, and it had all my taste buds twitching. But to my mind all the mixtures and combinations people said were their favourites just didn’t compare with a simple egg sandwich. So while my husband chomped through his chicken salad for supper, I made myself the perfect egg sandwich.
It has to be fresh soggy white bread! Thinly sliced. Buttered right up to the edges so that the butter acts as an impermeable layer between filling and bread. Hard boil the eggs, chop and mash them up with salt and pepper and enough good bought mayonnaise to moisten them. Spread this mix over the bread, cut off the crusts and cut into four. (soak the crusts in water to give to the birds) Some people would add lettuce, but that’s a different sandwich – this is my comfort food, what we always ate on childhood picnics.
Food for Thought
Close your eyes and you will see the truth,
Be still and you will move forward on the tide of the spirit,
Be gentle and you will need no strength,
Be patient and you will achieve all things,
Be humble and you will remain entire. Taoist meditation