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About the Author
Major Colin Burgess worked as equerry to the Queen Mother and was made a Member of the Victorian Order by the Queen at an investiture at Buckingham Palace. He now works television production and management.
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Behind Palace Doors
My Service as the Queen Mother's Equerry
By Colin Burgess, Paul Carter
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2006 Colin Burgess and Paul Carter
All rights reserved.
A Sleeping Lunch
The summer of 1995 had been glorious. There had been constant blazing sunshine since Wimbledon and this particular day was no different. The Queen Mother was enjoying lunch in the garden of Clarence House with her 'home team': her treasurer, Sir Ralph Anstruther; her private secretary, Sir Alastair Aird; her senior lady-in-waiting, Dame Frances Campbell-Preston, and me. By 'home team' I mean her top staff, the people she relied on day in and day out to get things done and make her life as comfortable as possible. So there we sat – I had no reason to suspect this day would be any different from ones that had gone before, but I was wrong. We had finished the main part of the meal which had consisted of an egg starter followed by chicken and potatoes, mashed potatoes because they were the Queen Mum's favourite. The wine, a full-bodied claret which wasn't really conducive to a hot summer's day, had been passed round and a few bottles drunk, and conversation dipped in and out of subjects as diverse as World War II and the latest episode of EastEnders. About five minutes after we had finished our main course, though, I began to notice that the chatter was slowing down, rather like a record meanders to a gradual stop when you turn the speed off. Then I saw Ralph nodding off and I just thought, oh well, never mind. He had done this before and age was catching up with him, plus we weren't entertaining guests or anything so it didn't really matter. But no sooner had he started snoring than the Queen Mother closed her eyes and she was asleep. This was a first for me. I had never seen the Queen Mother fall asleep during any meal. I turned to Alastair to ask his advice because I really didn't know what to do. I mean, what is the correct procedure for waking up a member of royalty who has nodded off during a meal? Did any exist? Alastair was unable to answer me because he, too, had fallen asleep. The next thing I heard was a gentle thud on the dining table as Dame Frances's head hit it and she had gone as well. The four of them sat there absolutely out of it with Alastair gently buzzing as well and the Queen Mother's head slumped forward.
I sat there for five minutes, which became ten, and all the while I was thinking, someone is going to wake up any minute, but they didn't. All in all, I sat for a full thirty-five minutes not knowing what the hell to do. At one point, I actually got up to stretch my legs and go for a bit of a walk round before coming back to sit down again among the sleeping throng. The merest hint of an idea hit me: I imagined what it would be like to draw comedy moustaches on their faces, just as Steve Harmison did recently to Freddie Flintoff during the Ashes celebrations! The whole situation was bonkers. I was banking on a waiter appearing to clear the plates. But he wouldn't appear until the Queen Mother rang the bell, and she wasn't going to do that because she was gently contemplating the events of the day behind closed eyes. Eventually, it got to the point where I felt something had got to happen otherwise I would be spending the rest of the day just sitting there. So I thought, damn it, and I rang the bell that summoned the servants in a desperate attempt to rouse them. Now this was a major breach of protocol. Nobody can ring the bell unless invited to by the Queen Mother. And blimey, as soon as it rang they all sat up and just carried on from where they had left off with Ralph exclaiming, 'And of course the Italians simply gave in once the Germans had gone.'
Alastair added, 'You know I just don't know, anyway ...'
And off they all went, chattering away as though the whole of the previous thirty-five minutes had never happened.
I tried not to look too surprised and thinking to myself that, in all the time I had been working at Clarence House, this was possibly the most bizarre moment I had witnessed. But in the end nothing really surprised me about working in a royal household because I had met some of the most eccentric, entertaining and charming people that I had ever met in my life and the opportunity arose completely by chance.
I was about to leave the Army, in 1994, at the age of twenty-six, having spent three years in the Irish Guards. After completing the one-year Army pilots' course, I had then flown helicopters in the UK, Northern Ireland and, finally, in Australia. I felt I needed a fresh challenge and an opportunity came up to fly with the Air Ambulance in Sydney, a challenge that I was looking forward to. But this was to pass me by with just one telephone call from my regimental adjutant. He asked if I would be interested in looking after the Queen Mother. This completely threw me. I asked him in what capacity would I be looking after her? I kept thinking: what does he mean 'look after'? He told me the position was as the Queen Mother's equerry. I had heard of an equerry but only in the old-fashioned sense of it deriving from the Latin eques, meaning knight or horseman. But the job had nothing to do with fillies and mares and stables. Instead, it involved being around the Queen Mother for the majority of the day as what you might call her fixer and organiser for the two years that each equerry held the post. The role itself didn't really have a set job description, or any training as such. You couldn't apply for it; you were invited to do it by the Army. I was a bit confused and mightily surprised. I wondered why the hell anybody would want me looking after the Queen Mother; it would be like putting Paul Gascoigne in charge of a brewery or something. I didn't come from a wealthy background and, to paraphrase Tony Blair, I was just a regular kind of guy. Surely the job would go to someone of a much higher social standing than I had. Previous equerries had included such luminaries as Earl Spencer, Princess Diana's father, and Captain Peter Townsend, who almost ended up marrying Princess Margaret. I then discovered that they had head-hunted two other people, both with double-barrelled surnames, and I was up against them for the job. I was sure I was only being put forward to make the process seem fairer; that is, to tick the right boxes in terms of giving everyone from each social bracket a fair whack. The other two were much more what I would term upper class in their manners; at least what I thought that was at the time. They were a bit stiff and a little aloof, things that to me seemed to be necessary requirements of the job and which therefore would make them far more suitable than I could ever be. I had a tendency to crack jokes and my experiences as a pilot, where you are left very much to make your own decisions, had made me less in-tune with the Army system, and had given me a healthy scepticism of unnecessary protocol. But I was invited to lunch with the Queen Mum's treasurer Sir Ralph Anstruther at Pirbright Army Barracks in Surrey and I thought, well, I'll give it my best shot and just be myself. If he didn't like me, then it would be providence and I would simply continue with my plans to fly in Australia.
Sir Ralph, a seventy-two-year-old former Coldstream Guards Officer, was in charge of the Royal purse, which meant he oversaw the Queen Mother's spending, and was feared by all the staff at Clarence House because he was a stickler for the rules and vigorously enforced them. I think it all stemmed from his time in the Second World War. He had fought in the Second Battalion that landed in Algiers in 1942. Some months later, in 1943, his company attacked an enemy stronghold north east of El Aroussa in Tunisia, nicknamed 'Steamroller Farm'. As they approached in Churchill tanks, Anstruther and his men had to march the last mile towards the enemy on foot and exposed to intense enemy fire. It became obvious to him that the battalion needed cover and, despite being wounded, he refused any medical attention until his men were safely withdrawn. He achieved this with such skill and direction that there were no casualties and he personally shepherded the wounded back to safe ground to be treated. For this he won the Military Cross. But his heroism didn't stop his commanding officer berating him from time to time for not having his tie done up properly or for having muddy shoes, and it was this attention to detail that he had somehow inherited from the Army and brought with him to the Royal Household which sometimes made the Old Etonian, who still called airports 'aerodromes', exude an air of crusty formality that made him seem horribly stiff and unapproachable to other members of staff. But actually, I liked him. He was 'old school' Army, a dying breed nowadays, and wanted everything to be done properly. That's why he went on constantly about shiny shoes and starched collars and having the proper clips and pins. Staff would live in fear of his daily inspections. Even senior staff, including the private secretary and the equerry, were not spared the eagle eyes of Sir Ralph and we would all subtly and almost subconsciously check ourselves over before he came into the room. But, to me, that was how you did things in the Army, so I didn't mind so much. I just utilised the things I had picked up in Her Majesty's Forces and made sure I always had polished shoes and wore the correct apparel for each occasion. One of the few times I did see Ralph drop his guard was during a State banquet, when a young lady waltzed passed him and he turned to me and said, 'Look how high that girl's dress is. You can almost see her crotch.'
I remember thinking, did he just say what I think he said? This went way beyond accepted protocol and certainly was not part of the list of things an equerry had to check out! It was akin to the first time you hear your father swear in front of you in the sense of it seeming rather surreal, and I couldn't have been more surprised than if I had woken up with my face sewn to the carpet.
So there I was sitting across the table from this fairly frail old man, who was dressed immaculately and sported a neatly trimmed moustache, and the other two men up for the job who were either side of him. I thought to myself, they have smoothed themselves into position already and I have no chance. So I relaxed completely and, thinking the job was out of my grasp, I became chattier. About half an hour into the buffet lunch, Ralph discovered that I had an uncle who was in the Coldstream Guards, and that seemed to swing the whole interview my way. The other two candidates were suddenly left out in the cold. All we talked about for the rest of the meal was Ralph's time in the Army and my uncle's history. At some stage during the interview, my two rivals for the job left the table to get some pudding. As soon as they were out of earshot, Ralph turned to me and said, 'Don't think much of those two. They're far too oily for me.'
I suddenly realised I had moved from rank outsider to front runner and sure enough, less than a week later, I got a call to go and have lunch with the Queen Mother at Clarence House. She wanted to assess my suitability. I was told to turn up wearing a suit and a detachable, starched collar.
I had eaten with royalty before. It was at Windsor Castle where the Royals had converged for their annual winter break – they moved to Sandringham after the fire – and I was invited there as an Officer of the Guards for dinner in 1987 and had sat between Marina Ogilvy and Princess Diana. It was an amazing evening. Diana was lovely, really lovely, and we talked about life, relationships and a whole host of other fairly innocent topics. She really did come across as this very pleasant and extremely charming young girl, and if she and Charles where having problems at that stage, then she hid them very well. The experience was enjoyable, if a little daunting.
Fast forward seven years and in the summer of 1994, it appeared that I was faced with an even more daunting prospect: a mid-week lunch with the Queen Mother who was then the most senior Royal on the planet. I arrived at her London home and was led through rooms containing porcelain Limoges eggs, amazing paintings that were mainly by British artists of the early to mid-twentieth century, antique grandfather clocks and all sorts of grand objects that made you think you were walking through an old museum; but it wasn't a museum, it was a working house where every morning a clock-winder would come round and wind up all the clocks. I fell instantly in love with the heritage of it all; it was a house that seemed lived in. Critics have said the Queen Mother allowed Clarence House to fall into disrepair in her later years. I disagree. I would compare it to a fine wine in that the more you leave it the more character it seems to develop. It was wonderful, even down to wearing those starched collars which gave me a terrible neck rash for the first year of my employment there, until I discovered I should have worn them one size too big for comfort. With the strict dress code and the antique furniture, it did very much resemble an Edwardian household and this was in some ways a tribute to its history. Historically, it has been home to some of the world's most prestigious aristocrats. The three-storey mansion was built by John Nash between 1825 and 1827 for Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence. The Prince lived there as King William IV from 1830 until 1837, and it was the London home of the Queen Mother from 1953 until her death. In 1942, it saw war service when it was made available for the use of the War Organisation of the British Red Cross and the Order of St John of Jerusalem where 200 members of staff of the Foreign Relations Department kept contact with British prisoners-of-war abroad and ran the Red Cross Postal Message Scheme. As I walked through the house, soaking up the atmosphere and the history of the place, I just thought, wow!
As I lunched with the Queen Mother in these fantastic surroundings, I wondered how many people got the chance to have even ten minutes with her, never mind enjoy a full and rather personal meal. I kept experiencing moments of sheer exhilaration during which I would be thinking, if only my family could see me now.
The Queen Mother broke the ice by saying to me: 'So, Colin, tell me a bit about yourself. Do you have a girlfriend?'
'Erm, no, ma'am,' I replied, thinking this was all a bit unusual.
I had expected a much more formal kick-off, but I suppose it was a great way of putting me at ease.
'Oh, why not?' she asked.
'I'm just waiting for the right girl to come along,' I said.
And she just left it at that, no follow-up question, nothing. However, she didn't seem displeased. The job was, after all, only given to single men on account of the unsociable hours that included late duties, entertaining and other things. So to have a full-time girlfriend would not have been easy. I felt I had somehow passed the first test. In hindsight, of course, that is exactly what it was, a test. We then went on to another subject and in her own very informal and very chatty way she proceeded to extract all the information she needed while very subtly assessing my suitability for the position. Luckily, things seemed to be going in the right direction.
For the next two hours, we talked of my family, where I lived, my education and a whole host of other personal things such as where I liked to go on holiday, whether I had pets or not, which also seemed to be quite important to her, and I remember her being keen to talk about the fact that I had boxed when I was younger. She also steered the conversation towards horse racing which I knew she loved but which I knew very little about myself, so I told her that I had the odd flutter now and then, which was a bit of an exaggeration because I only betted on the Grand National and I even missed that some years.
At the end of the first course, she showed me a rather sinister-looking pointed pearl embedded in a bejewelled box on the table. From its underside were wires trailing to the edge of the table. This was the bell that she used to summon the servants. If you pressed the pointed pearl which was on the top of it, it would ring, summoning the butlers or whoever was needed at the time. She said, 'Now, Colin, I call this the Borgia bell.'
Excerpted from Behind Palace Doors by Colin Burgess, Paul Carter. Copyright © 2006 Colin Burgess and Paul Carter. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 A Sleeping Lunch,
2 Don't Mention the War!,
3 Shooting Squirrels With a Sniper Rifle,
4 When Is Nelson Mandela Going To Stand Up?,
5 'Will One Of You Old Queens Bring This Old Queen a Gin And Tonic?',
6 'Have I Died Again?',
7 'Oh, Bloody Hell!',
8 The Reluctant Royal and A Man In a Hurry,
9 Princess Margaret Is On Fire,
10 Setting the Hounds On The Boys From Eton,
11 'Go On, Go On, Hit Him, Go On Punch Him!',
12 'Get Your Black Tie On Because One Of The Guests Has Died',
13 'Did You Get Lucky This Weekend, Colin?',
14 It's Groundhog Day,