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'She's really determined to finish everything she started.'
Judging by the internal memos, it's surprising that the Queen was able to see her audience – or indeed breathe. This was to be her finest hour, a gathering of the mightiest in the land to salute the all-conquering heroine of the seven seas. Less than a year after her Coronation, the dizzyingly glamorous young Sovereign and her consort were to be welcomed home from what, to this day, remains the greatest royal tour of all time.
So there was to be no holding back on the vital ingredients as the Lord Mayor of London and his court started planning the grandest post-war feast the capital had seen. No less than £174 – more than 10 per cent of the entire food budget – was to be spent on tobacco. There were to be individual mixed boxes of cigars (two sizes) and cigarettes (both Turkish and Virginia) for each of the 401 Mansion House guests, plus red leather match cases and extra supplies of Punch cigars and Fribourg & Treyer cigarettes just in case anyone ran out. And why not? The Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, would expect nothing less.
The bill for musical entertainment, on the other hand, was not to stretch beyond £50 (only £11 more than the budget for 'white gloves'). Fortunately, the Band of the Royal Artillery was happy to oblige for £47. The well-nourished members of the food-tasting committee were eventually able to agree on a menu and the invitations were finally dispatched. And thus began an ill-concealed scramble for the hottest ticket since the Coronation itself.
On 2 June 1953, Westminster Abbey had staged the first global television spectacular in history as the Queen was crowned. Five months later, she departed on a journey which would take her all the way around the world. Her purpose was to greet and be greeted by the newly rebranded 'Commonwealth', even if most people still insisted on calling it 'the Empire'. To celebrate her return in May 1954, the City of London would stage this official state luncheon. As plans for the royal homecoming were being drawn up in the capital, the tour had reached its zenith inAustralia. That country had never seen a sovereign in the flesh before. The adoration and adulation were astonishing, even by the standards of Coronation-era Britain. On one Sydney evening, more than a quarter of a million people turned out just to watch the Queen return from the theatre. When the Lord Mayor of Sydney held a banquet, there were two thousand casualties on the streets at what became known as 'sardine corners'. The entire rail network was shut down when thousands spilled on to the tracks to wave at the royal train.
According to Australia's Dr Jane Connors, who has studied the social and cultural impact of the tour in depth, even the most remote parts of Australia experienced mayhem. The dairy town of Lismore saw the first traffic jam in its history. More than 30,000 people squeezed into the town of Casino (population: 8,000) to welcome the Queen, including the injured passengers from an overturned bus who refused to seek hospital treatment until the royal couple had left. Despite heavy flooding, remote communities tackled mudslides and swollen rivers to see their sovereign. Mr and Mrs Allingham of Southwick, both aged seventy-five, spent three days on horseback, swimming across several creeks en route, to cheer the Queen in Townsville. A million people lined the road into Melbourne from Essendon Aerodrome. More than five hundred were hurt, one critically, when a stand collapsed in Cairns. The Melbourne Age found a group of Aboriginal children who had collected enough dingo scalps to pay for a two-thousand-mile round trip by bus.
The British press decided enough was enough. 'GO EASY,' demanded a Daily Mirror headline. 'YOU MAY HARM THE QUEEN'. But as the Queen headed for home via the Indian Ocean and Malta, where she joined the stylish new Royal Yacht Britannia, the excitement in Britain was reaching similar levels. Documents in the City archives show that the Lord Mayor was batting off requests thick and fast. One City councilman lobbied the organising committee to find a seat for the American preacher Billy Graham (he was informed that there was already a surfeit of 'Ecclesiastical representatives').
Churchill himself elected to join Britannia off the Isle of Wight on the eve of a triumphal journey up the Thames. When the Queen caught him nodding off during the after-dinner film, she urged him to go to bed. 'Now we have you home,' he replied, 'I shall sleep very well.' A day later, he was standing at the Queen's side as the Royal Yacht sailed beneath Tower Bridge, to the cheers of a city en fête. To this day, she likes to recall his running commentary on the approach as he proclaimed the Thames not as 'a muddy old river' but as 'the silver thread that runs through British history'.
Ahead of the great luncheon, the Queen travelled in state through the capital. At Temple Bar, the historic gateway to the City itself, there was a formal welcome from the Lord Mayor and his panoply of fur-hooded, velvet-robed, cocked-hatted, sword-bearing sheriffs, aldermen and remembrancers – almost everyone, in fact, bar Dick Whittington and his cat. Shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, the leaders of the Church, the judiciary, the Forces, the Civil Service, the City and 'the Learned Institutions' were assembled in morning dress at the Mansion House to welcome the Queen plus her husband, mother, sister and cousins to lunch. A suitably colourful menu (by the austere standards of the day) had been prepared in honour of such an exotic tour. 'Avocado pear and shrimps' was to be followed by 'Scotch Salmon Hollandaise', 'Spring Chicken St George' and 'Strawberry Melba', accompanied by Australian wines and a 1945 Krug champagne (plus 'cold luncheon' for staff and 'beer and sandwiches in the Gaoler's Room' for the BBC).
Through the plumes of post-prandial smoke, the Lord Mayor, Sir Noël Bowater Bt MC, summed up the tour as follows: 'As an achievement of inspired conception and brilliant execution,' he told the Queen, 'it will ever remain a glittering jewel in the casket of a nation's memory.'
The Queen's equally colourful response captures the energy and sense of purpose of those early years of the reign. 'Mount Cook soaring above the snows of the Southern Alps of New Zealand is but remotely related to the scorched rocks of Aden,' she declared. 'Yet, in these lands, their peoples hold strongly to certain common principles which all of them believe to be vital. In all of them, the idea of a parliamentary, democratic form of government is accepted and respected ... part of the ultimate heritage of every one of my people.' Even in the midst of all this euphoria, though, she readily acknowledged that there was no point in maintaining a monarchy simply for the sake of it. 'The structure and framework of constitutional monarchy could easily stand as an archaic and meaningless survival,' she went on. 'But wherever we have been, we have received visible and audible proof that it is real and living in the hearts of the people.'
Tens of thousands were waiting outside the Mansion House, demanding her appearance on the balcony. The same crowds which had cheered her carriage all the way through London to the luncheon cheered her all the way back to the Palace. Were there no bounds to the heart-soaring brilliance of this new Elizabethan age? Who could possibly dispute Cecil Rhodes's axiom that to be English was to have 'won first prize in the lottery of life'? The whole world, it seemed, was in love with the twenty-eight-year-old Gloriana. As Churchill put it: 'Even Envy wore a friendly smile.'
Nearly sixty years later, the Queen is on her way back to London's ancient financial district. But today's crowd is no more than a hundred-strong. Most are just passers-by who have noticed a small cluster of television cameras. A celebrity must be imminent. But which one? All are delighted to discover that it's the Queen, yet a little surprised at the absence of fuss. But that is how the Queen likes it these days. And today she does not want to meet the great and the good. Just the good. As the capital's financial district continues to recover from the self-inflicted wounds of economic meltdown, the Queen is coming to salute those who do not move money around but simply keep the Square Mile going – the Tube staff, the police, the caterers and so on. She will not meet a banker all day. And there will be no cocked hats and swords at Temple Bar, either. Her car will just drive straight past.
She starts with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's Tower Station, the busiest in Britain. The small floating base below Waterloo Bridge has had three thousand 'call-outs' and saved 183 lives in the last eight years. Today, it is low in the water, weighed down with all the staff, the fundraisers and the top brass who have descended from elsewhere. No one wants to miss the R in RNLI.
A Palace press officer informs the media that the Queen will be wearing a Stewart Parvin red rusted tweed coat and a Rachel Trevor-Morgan hat. It's raining when she arrives. She has no umbrella but does not appear to mind. She meets the duty crew and watches video footage of a disturbed man jumping off Westminster Bridge three months earlier. She shudders as he lands in the water but the crew have him out again within seconds.
As she makes her way around, it is clear that what interests her most is not the mechanics of lifesaving but the voluntary dimension to the entire operation. She talks to Roger Cohen, fifty-four, who commutes from Sussex to do shifts here every few weeks. Gary Pittaway, forty-four, mans a lifeboat when he is not doing his day job with the Metropolitan Police. The Queen learns that one of her own officials, Major General Keith Cima, Governor of the Tower of London no less, is also a volunteer here. He may be a major general at the Tower but down here he is expected to make the tea like everyone else. He is not here today. It is later explained that he has ample opportunity to meet the Queen in his other life and is letting others take his place on this occasion.
It's a warts-and-all tour. The Queen is even shown the changing rooms. She stands in the rain for a photograph but there's so little space that the photographer has to climb into a boat and move offshore in order to squeeze everyone inside the shot. 'Thanks very much,' she says almost jauntily and heads off to Aldgate Tube station. There she meets the staff who handle six million commuters a year. Some were on duty the July day a suicide bomber killed seven people here in 2005. They present her with a Tube sign for a non-existent station called 'Buckingham Palace'.
And so to lunch. It could scarcely be a more different affair from that sunny fiesta of quasi-imperial effusion in 1954. Back then, the Lord Mayor wore robes over his velvet Court suit. Today's Lord Mayor, Nick Anstee, is in a lounge suit with only a small chain of office to denote his position. Some City grandees are said to be miffed that they have not been invited to a royal lunch attended by bus drivers and secretaries. There will be no Mansion House silverware or portraits, either. The lunch is on the thirty-ninth floor, the top tier of one of the City's most modern buildings, the glass-fronted 'Gherkin'. At the very top, there is a final flight of stairs up to pre-lunch drinks on the observation deck where a hundred guests are sipping champagne. It's one of the best views in London but no one is admiring the scenery. All eyes are on the stairwell. A hush descends as the top of that Rachel Trevor-Morgan hat rises into view.
A lunch of salmon terrine, loin of lamb and bread and butter pudding is being cooked by young chefs from the Hoxton Apprentice, a restaurant which turns the long-term unemployed into catering professionals. Until recently, many of these cooks had no skills and no prospects. Head chef Leon Seraphin, twenty-nine, had been homeless when Hoxton turned his world around. He ended up working at White's Club where he served both Prince William and David Cameron – 'nice chap, salads only' – before returning to Hoxton. He cannot wait to get home and tell his family that he has cooked for the Sovereign. Upstairs, Hoxton's founder, Gordon da Silva, chats to the Queen and is astonished when she mentions that two of his apprentices have worked at the Palace. He knew that – but didn't expect that she would.
At lunch, the Queen sits at a round table of ten who include two train drivers and an administrative assistant from Tower Bridge. In 1954, the Queen dined on a raised platform. Today she is on 'Table 3'. She has the head of London Underground on her right and the Lord Mayor on her left. He delivers a short speech at the end in which he thanks the Queen and praises the 'indispensable' work of the City's service workers. There is no smoking, no port and no brandy. There is no band or entertainment, for that matter, and no one is wearing white gloves either. The Queen thanks the cooking team and leaves for her next engagement at Tower Bridge. In 1954, it raised its two one-thousand-ton arms to their full height as HMY Britannia sailed through with the Queen and Churchill on board. Today, staff have already been told not to open the bridge in her honour. She has seen it all before, thanks very much, and does not want to disrupt the traffic. As she leaves the Gherkin, she is greeted by the first decent crowd of the day. Word has spread among City workers that the Queen is having lunch in their midst. Several hundred are waiting to see her leave and, in the finest traditions of the City, they all get a bonus – because the Queen leaves twice. The Lord Mayor sees her safely into her State Bentley, the four-ton flagship of the royal fleet. And then nothing happens. The car will not start. There is an awkward pause that must seem a toe-curling eternity for the Lord Mayor and the Queen's chauffeur. And then she gets out of the car. With certain heads of state, there would be panic stations, much yelling into electronic cuffs, a public inquiry and high-level redundancies. But the Queen seems to be rather amused. 'So much for new technology,' she says in mock despair to the Lord Mayor and cheerfully climbs into the 'back-up', a police Range Rover. And off she goes in a convoy of two cars and one police outrider – the sort of modest motorcade which might be laid on for, say, a middle-ranking trade minister from the European Union.
What is she thinking as she hitches a ride in a borrowed car through the City? A stranger comparing the bugle-parping newsreel coverage of 1954's royal progress through the Square Mile with today's modest events would conclude that the monarchy had endured a catastrophic decline during the intervening decades. From global adulation to a conked-out car? What a comedown for a sovereign who could once precipitate the greatest voluntary assembly of people ever seen in whichever country she chose to set foot.
There will, though, be no complaints from the Queen today. Nor will there by any grumbles from her family or her advisers. She has led her country for so long – far longer than any Western leader since her great-great-grandmother – that she knows that it is not a numbers game. She is well aware that loyalty and affection are not solely measured by the depth of a crowd or the viscosity of a formal welcome.
Fifties Britain was another world. As the figurehead of a nation in desperate need of revitalisation and reassurance after an exhausting battle for survival, she could hardly fail in those early days. The true mark of her success is that, six decades later, she remains, by a considerable margin, the most popular figure in British public life.
It has not been a simple case of good fortune or of reacting to events as they unfold. There has been a game plan running through this entire reign. And it is one which continues to serve the Queen well according to the second in line to the throne (or, as he puts it, 'the young bloke coming through').
'She's so dedicated and really determined to finish everything she started,' says Prince William. 'She'll want to hand over knowing she's done everything she possibly could to help and that she's got no regrets and no unfinished business; that she's done everything she can for the country and that she's not let anyone down – she minds an awful lot about that.'
Having inherited an Edwardian (some would say Victorian) institution in 1952, she has not merely kept it going. She has put it through the most vigorous reforms of modern times. She has managed to remain simultaneously regal, popular, inclusive and relevant in a twenty-first-century world. She sits at the head of a hereditary institution often associated with rigid tradition. Its critics might even call it an anachronistic pantomime. Yet that same institution is busier and more dynamic than ever, with more going on around the Queen the older she becomes. It's not merely about developing a royal presence on Facebook or Twitter. Internal records show that, between 2005 and 2010, the amount of hospitality at Buckingham Palace actually rose by 50 per cent. Shortly after her eighty-fifth birthday in 2011, the Queen was presiding over three of the most exciting but demanding royal events of the twenty-first century within the space of a remarkable month – Prince William's wedding, that state visit to Ireland and only the second state visit to Britain by an American president.
Excerpted from Her Majesty by Robert Hardman. Copyright © 2012 Robert Hardman. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
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Posted August 7, 2012
This book covers the actual management and growth of the Court through the past 60 years in detail and explores the queens integral roll in the process. It is not a biography of Queen Elizabeth II, but covers many aspects of her life from the viewpoint of her place as a constitutional monarch and head of state.
If you are looking for tiaras and gossip or a People magazine approach to the British monarchy, then you will be bored, but if you want to really understand the Palace, then you will appreciate this book.
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