One of the many virtues of my late seventh cousin twice removed (on the wrong side of the blanket, via the Second Duke of Portland) was Her Majesty’s seven decades of dedicated silence. A constitutional monarch, like a child, should be seen and not heard, and should adhere to the ancient Chinese proverb to the effect that “Those who speak do not know: those who know do not speak”.
With fitting reluctance, Her Majesty was induced by the Johnson administration to attend the 26th Gabfest of the Parties in Glasgow last winter (amusingly, Glasgow has not warmed in several decades). There, she let slip a rare indication of her thinking, when she pointed out the hypocrisy of those who preach about the imagined catastrophe of unabated global warming but do nothing about it personally. Think Gore and his private jets.
In private, Her Majesty was famous for her sense of humor (which she needed – just look at her last few Prime Ministers). At Balmoral, her favorite royal residence deep in the Aberdeenshire countryside at the foot of the Highland scarp below Lochnagar, she was prone to drive herself around in a Land Rover. She used to tell the story of a tourist who had lost her way in the hills. The tourist rapped on her window to ask for directions.
Balmorale, as Her Majesty loved it and called it
Her Majesty wound the window down and the tourist, suddenly recognising her, jumped and let out a shriek of astonishment. When visitors to Balmoral (or “Balmorale”, as she called it, for it cheered her up to be in her beloved Scotland) asked Her Majesty to tell the story, she would perform the jump and the blood-curdling shriek for them at the dinner-table.
Her Majesty’s humor – a gentle and always kindly exercise of statecraft – won her the devotion of all who were close to her. Here are a couple of examples.
By tradition, a regiment of the Guards is always stationed at the Victoria Barracks, just below Windsor Castle. Every night, one of the young officers was Captain of the Guard at Windsor Castle and was obliged to take up residence in the Captain’s Quarters just to the left of the main gate.
In the late 1970s, the Irish Guards were on public duties. From time to time, if an extra man was needed to make up numbers at the Royal dinner-table, the Queen’s Equerry would telephone the guardhouse and order the Captain of the Guard to attend. All of the young officers had thus been invited to dinner at least once, except one, who – by an accident of statistics – had never received the call and was known to be upset about it.
My old friend the late Captain Nigel (Nosher) Morgan, a.k.a. Football-Face, a Boris Johnson lookalike, was the regimental jester. He was wickedly good at imitating accents, including the icily snotty accent of the then Equerry to the Queen. One evening, the officer who had not yet dined with the Queen had just settled into the Captain’s Quarters when the phone rang.
The Equerry, in his customarily peremptory voice, said that Her Majesty was short of a man for dinner that night; that the officer should get into his mess kit at once, and should present himself at the door to the Maiden’s Tower, where a footman would be waiting to take him up to the Drawing-Room. “If not, just carry on up the helical stair to the drawing room and help yourself to a drink.”
[Architectural footnote: The Royal Household does not perpetrate the transatlantic solecism of describing a helical stair as a “spiral stair”].
The delighted officer struggled into his Gilbert & Sullivan mess kit and went to the Maiden’s Tower. No footman being in sight, he carried on up the helical stair to the drawing room, where Her Majesty’s guests had not yet begun to assemble. After a few minutes, Prince Edward came in with a catapult and began to play Ping the Ming, long a favorite game of the young Royals.
Shortly thereafter, the Duke of Edinburgh arrived and chased Ginge away. He saw the officer and said, “What the *!?= are you doing here?” The officer explained that he was under the Equerry’s orders to make up numbers at dinner. By then, the guests were beginning to gather.
The Duke hissed: “Well, you’re not on the list. Somebody (I can guess exactly who, and so can you) has played a practical joke. So Go. Away. Now!”
Faced with that direct order, the disconsolate Captain of the Guard returned to his quarters, where an unaccountably large number of his brother officers were waiting to console him by helping themselves to his whisky.
A few days later, the officer was Captain of the Guard again. The phone rang. The Equerry’s cut-glass tones shivered the instrument: “A man short … Gilbert & Sullivan … Maiden’s Tower … footman … helical stair.”
The officer replied: “Morgan, you prize ass, you can’t work the same trick twice!”
There was a curt, frosty silence at the other end, following by the shattering of over-stressed Bakelite as the telephone disintegrated [the Royal Household does not use plastic]. “This is Her Majesty’s Equerry. You will attend, or you will face a Court Martial!”
The officer duly attended as ordered and found that he was not there merely to make up numbers. The Duke of Edinburgh, who had told the Queen the story, personally introduced him to Her Majesty, who sat him at her right hand at dinner and regaled him with a string of anecdotes, and he gave as good as he got. She enjoyed his company so much that she went on to invite him and his belle to attend the annual Summer Ball at Buckingham Palace. None of his brother officers had ever attended that swankest of cotillions.
The second story also concerns the regimental jester. Football-Face had written a spoof article for The Soldier, the Army’s monthly magazine for the troops. His men, who adored him, had selected the handsomest four to attend a local barber’s shop, where they sat in a row in the chairs to have their bearskin hats trimmed, while a photographer took pictures.
The article duly appeared in the April edition of The Soldier, under the authorship of “Colonel I.A. Prylle”, who explained in scientific detail that bearskins contained so much natural sebum that the hair on the Guards’ bearskin bonnets continued to grow for up to 25 years. Therefore, before every State occasion, it was necessary to arrange for those on public duties to have not only their own locks but also their bearskins trimmed, for which each Guardsman received a special allowance, voted annually by Parliament, to pay the barber’s extra charges.
The Commanding Officer of the Irish Guards, affectionately known to those under his command as the Plank (thick as two short), immediately on seeing the article, put Football-Face on Part One Orders (disciplinary action, for the use of).
When the Regimental Sergeant-Major marched Football-Face in, the Plank, bright red in the face and seething with fury, hollered: “This latest Billy Bunter jape is the vewwy last stwaw. You do wealize, don’t you, that Her Majesty personally weads evewy issue of The Soldier fwom cover to cover evewy month, and she will be FUWWIOUS!”
At that pwecise instant (so goeth the tale, and who are we who were not there to argue with Tradition?) the telephone on the Plank’s desk shattered. The Plank picked up the receiver from among the pieces, went down on one knee (for it was indeed the Queen’s Equerry in person) and went even redder in the face.
“Yes, sir, I’ve got the perpetwator wight hewe in fwont of me. Yes, Part One Orders. I’ve told him Her Majesty … Er, … Eh? What? Her Majesty is delighted? Indeed, fwilled? She says it’s the funniest fing she’s wead in a vewwy long time? And that it’s bally good for mowale? Yes, yes, I’ve already congwatulated Captain Morgan. Yes, him.”
I once had a taste of Her Majesty’s humor myself. On the 25th anniversary of the Queen’s Jubilee, I wrote a leading article for the Yorkshire Post recalling the last speech addressed by Queen Elizabeth I to the Speaker and Members of Parliament, all of whom she had invited to Whitehall Palace a few months before her death:
“Mr Speaker, We perceive your coming is to present thanks to Us. Know, then, that I accept them with no less joy than your loves can have desire to offer such a present, and do more esteem it than any treasure or riches; for those we know how to prize, but loyalty, love and thanks, I account them invaluable.
“And though God hath raised me high, yet this I account the glory of my crown, that I have reigned with your loves. This makes me that I do not so much rejoice that God hath made me to be a Queen, as to be a Queen over so thankful a people, and to be the means under God to conserve you in safety and to preserve you from danger.
“It is not my desire to live or reign longer than my life and reign shall be for your good. And though you have had, and may have, many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat, yet you never had, nor shall have, any that will love you better.”
The leading article ended with the heartfelt statement that the second Elizabeth, like the first, might justly say that she reigned with our loves. The BBC World Service cited it in its review of the British Press. The Queen’s Equerry heard the broadcast and put the leader before Her Majesty, who bade him invite the Editor of the Yorkshire Post to lunch tête-à-tête at Buckingham Palace.
The Editor picked his way though the shards of plastic where his telephone had once stood and came to find me at the leader-writers’ station. He plonked himself into a chair and groaned, “Oh, God, Monckton! Now look what you’ve dropped me into.”
“Not to worry, chief,” I responded cheerily, “I’ll go in your place.”
The Editor wasn’t having that. He muttered darkly about the need to preserve the last shreds of the Yorkshire Post’s reputation. He sighed and said that he had been summoned and it was his duty to go.
He thought for a bit and said, “Christopher, the problem is this. You toffs know just what to say, but we horny-handed sons of toil don’t. What happens if we’ve done the weather and we’ve done the cricket and she looks at me and I look at her and neither of us can think of anything to say to the other?”
“Oh,” I said cheerily, “That’s easy. Just explain to her that your leader-writer is her seventh cousin twice removed” [I thought it tactful not to mention the wrong side of the blanket].
He groaned and tottered off to get the train to King’s Cross.
That evening, he returned and re-plonked himself into the chair. “Oh, God, Monckton!”
“How did it go? Tell all!”
“Well, we did the weather, and we did the cricket, which she knows a lot about. But then she looked at me and I looked at her and we couldn’t think of a thing to say to each other. So, I blurted out the one thing I’d sworn I wouldn’t say. I said, ‘Ma’am, do you know that my leader-writer is your second cousin twice removed?’”
He swears that Her Majesty replied: “Oh, really? Well, kindly have him removed a third time!”
And who are we who were not there to argue with Tradition? How sorely we shall miss her, and how fondly we shall remember the feast of innocent merriment she laid before us, as the reign of the Climate King begins.
The Heir, the Climate King and the Spare at Balmoral