Once upon a time, as all good fairy tales start (does anyone tell them nowadays?) I was commissioned to write a book about the Royals who had visited this country (New Zealand). They were many, beginning with the first Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Victoria’s second son, and continuing with today’s crop of Royals, including Charles and Diana.
Though I was only given five months in which to write this masterpiece, (I deduced that someone fitter than I had dropped out of the project at the last minute) I couldn’t resist doing a mass of quite unnecessary research, which meant that in the end I was reduced to writing from seven am in the morning to seven pm at night.
I was already well placed to write this book, though when I received the phone call from the publishers asking if I would a write a book for them, my flippant reply – ‘as long as it’s not a book on engineering…’ – did not endear me to the humour-less editor I worked with.
But years before, in idle moments in the magazine office I worked in, I had found a tome on Queen Mary. It was written by James Pope-Hennessey, who was what the Royal family call “a safe pair of hands”, meaning they were prepared to talk to him, open the archives, let him read letters and trust him not to say anything derogatory. His book started me off on all the other Royal biographies long before writing my book. Thus, Harold Nicolson writing his matching tome on George V, Queen Mary’s husband, was also considered a ‘safe’ pair.
So Pope-Hennessey for example, refrained from telling us that Queen Mary was a famous kleptomaniac. And well-placed gossip has it that after her death, her grand-daughter, this Queen and daughter in law, Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, had to make a number of embarrassing visits to stately homes around England in order to return various items of value to their rightful owners.
I am not a ‘safe ‘pair of hands, but I am a ‘truthful’ one, and was therefore quite bothered when watching Netflix’s work of fiction masquerading as fact. So much so that when I read they were hoping for a congratulatory phone call from the palace, I laughed out loud… I don’t think they should hold their breath. I don’t think the Queen would appreciate seeing her handsome intelligent, hard-working husband portrayed as a temperamental, insensitive, adolescent lout.
He once wrote, in a resigned letter to the film and stage star Pat Kirkwood, with whom he was accused of having an extra-marital affair: ‘Invasion of privacy, invention and false quotations are the bane of our existence.’ The facts in this case were that Baron the photographer, was Pat Kirkwood’s boyfriend and he took Philip to meet her after her show. They spent the night dining, dancing and ended up in Baron’s flat having scrambled eggs for breakfast. (more on this later)
Philip’s ancestry was much more royal than the Queen’s (she was only half royal, her mother simply being an aristocrat) and he was as accustomed to princes and palaces as she was. He had experienced the discipline of the navy since he was a teenager, and had a gallant war record, so he would never have shirked his Royal duties in the adolescent way Netflix writers portrayed… but back to him in the next blog.
There’s so much to say that I just have to take it in chronological order. Eileen Atkins does a peerless job at portraying Queen Mary, but lots of fictional scenes there too… on the other hand, they missed a wonderful true moment of the real Queen Mary advancing on the prime minister, Mr Baldwin during the Abdication crisis, wringing her hands, and exclaiming in a distraught and un-queenly fashion quite unlike her – “Here’s a pretty kettle of fish!”.
The subject of this remark, her son and son of her husband, George V, who had said: “The boy will ruin himself in twelve months,” was the new King Edward. (He did it in eight months.) Alex Jennings who plays him- and who played Prince Charles memorably in the film ‘The Queen’ – portrays a much stronger and slightly more likeable character than the real flaky king and prince.
Private secretary Sir Tommy Lascelles – played with great veracity in the film – had resigned from his service when he was Prince of Wales, appalled by the Prince’s louche and reckless way of life, woman-ising, drinking, and neglecting his duties. Now the reluctant new King Edward inherited the reluctant Lascelles from George V who had re-employed Lascelles, and the carelessness and irresponsibility of Edward were even more marked now, to the dismay of everyone close to him, not just his private secretary.
Government officials began censoring the documents they sent to him for signature in the red boxes for example, after state papers and documents were returned with wine-stains and finger marks, and it was rumoured that they were being passed around the social set partying around his desk – Mrs Simpson among them. It’s notable that in all the years of this Queen’s reign she has never shown the contents of the red boxes to her trustworthy husband.
It was strident, social-climbing, twice married Mrs Simpson who is credited with links to Ribbentrop, the infamous German ambassador hanged at the Nuremburg Trials and influencing Edward in his notorious pro-Nazi views. She was also famous for flaunting around London the wonderful jewels the besotted Edward showered upon her, and which caused so much gossip at the time. (There were people who felt a statue should be raised in her honour, they were so thankful to her for being instrumental in getting rid of a king who would probably have brought down the throne.)
Unlike the Netflix version, the ex-king was never short of money – he was in fact, a very rich man, having amassed a fortune from the Duchy of Cornwall all the time he was Prince of Wales, (like the present holder of the title) and sold Balmoral and Sandringham to his rather more cash-strapped brother, the reluctant new King. Once on the loose, married to the woman he loved, the now Duke of Windsor set the pattern of endless socialising he and the Duchess became famous for.He also gallivanted off to see Hitler, who planned to re-instate him, and went on record as saying that the Duchess of Windsor ‘would have made a good queen’ – nuf’ said.
I won’t go into their disloyal war record, which began with the Duke (who had been given the rank of general) deserting without leave his military post in Paris when the Germans were arriving, without even letting their devoted, but unpaid staff know. On the other hand, they arranged for the Germans to guard their Paris apartments, which the Germans did, sealing and protecting them throughout the war… the Windsor’s were probably the only people in the whole of Europe whose home and possessions were intact after the war.
Windsor never had cosy little breakfasts discussing helpful tips on kingship with the present Queen, a la the Crown and Netflix. Apart from his visit to England for George VI ‘s funeral, she didn’t meet him until 1965 when he came to England for a visit, and then in ‘67. Finally, on a state visit to Paris in 1972, she took tea with him.
Sir Tommy’s Lascelles diaries are an invaluable record of much of this time, witty, irascible, authoritative, erudite, in the know… and almost family. In the photo of his daughter’s wedding in ‘45, the whole Royal family (what he termed a ‘pride of Royals’) were there, from Queen Mary and the King, down to Princess Margaret – with Townsend in the background.
The good looking and elegant Townsend he termed: ‘a devilish bad equerry’. Among other true-to-life portraits was his picture of Churchill dining at Buckingham Palace the night news from Alamein was hoped for. At last, unable to wait any longer, the Prime Minister excused himself and went off and telephoned his office.
He returned with Lascelles, ambling down the golden corridor singing ‘with little evidence of musical talent’ in Lascelles’ acid account: ‘Roll out the barrel’ with gusto, to the astonishment of the footmen standing to attention. This story, as with so many other references to Churchill dining at the palace, gives the lie to the ridiculous scene of the Prime Minister refusing to sit before his new sovereign with all the daft waffling about not sitting in her presence.
He’d sat in her presence and that of his previous sovereign, plenty of times over the last eight or more years, and had known Elizabeth more or less for most of her life, remarking favourably on her appearance when she was two and taking time out from running the war and the country in 1941, to send her red roses on her fifteenth birthday.
I can’t resist writing in my next blog about the skewed facts and in-accuracies about George VI and his daughters – Princess Margaret and the present Queen – and the truth about Prince Philip. The same writer who wrote the successful West-end play and film called ‘The Audience’, about the Queen and her prime ministers, wrote this series.
I walked out of that film after half an hour, in spite of Helen Mirren, as I found it painful watching so many imaginative reconstructions then! So no wonder I find this series hard to swallow. I know it’s meant to be entertainment but the facts are just as entertaining as the fiction being served up… and the fiction seems rather hurtful to some of the characters.
“More to come”, as we used to write at the bottom of each page of a story in the newsroom before the days of computers ended hand delivered copy! As a journalist for most of my life, facts matter. Concocting a good story is not my line…
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
It seems appropriate to share a recipe with a Royal theme, so the first version of this dish known as Coronation Chicken was created for the Queen’s coronation. This version by Lady Maclean is the one I prefer.
Taking enough cold cooked chicken for four, stir it into a mix of good mayonnaise, curry power, golden syrup and cream to make a creamy consistency, and deliciously tangy and sweet taste.
The key is the cold rice which is served with it. Make a good vinaigrette dressing with a teaspoonful each of Dijon mustard, and sugar, plus plenty of black pepper. Defrost a cupful or more of green peas, and soak them in boiling water until soft.
Do the same with a good handful of sultanas. In a frying pan quickly toast a generous cupful of slivered almonds (watch them – they burn quickly). Finely chop a generous handful of parsley, and just before serving, mix all these ingredients with the rice.
Food for Thought
This poem was written by fifteen -year- old Minnie Haskell, and George VI recited it in his 1939 Christmas speech, the first Christmas of the war. The Queen, who was 13 at the time, gave it to him, she had found it in a privately printed book of poetry….
THE GATE OF THE YEAR
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”