A witty and passionately argued essay calling for a return to good manners, using the Queen (the mother of all Brits) as the ultimate example. Mary Killen is an expert on manners and social etiquette, and her humorous advice column in the Spectator provides original solutions to the problems of modern life. In a world currently ruled by reality TV, over-sharing through social media, and an increasingly fractious and fractured public space, we could all do with a lesson or two in from Her Royal Highness. Examining such under-rated virtues as discretion, politeness and kindness, My Queen is a humorous celebration of long-held British values in an age where discretion is not generally the better part of value. Never mind the curtsey, where's the courtesy?
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About the Author
Mary Killen grew up in Northern Ireland. A journalist since l984, her career began on Mark Boxer’s Tatler. She has since written weekly columns for the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Express, and has written monthly columns for Marie Claire magazine and Harpers & Queen. She writes a weekly advice column for the Spectator, a column for House & Garden magazine, and freelances for many other publications.
Read an Excerpt
How the Queen Can Make You Happy
By Mary Killen
Elliott and Thompson LimitedCopyright © 2012 Mary Killen
All rights reserved.
'Man was made for joy and woe', observed William Blake, adding words to the effect that, once we accept that's the nature of being alive and stop taking the setbacks personally, 'then through life we safely go'. Betty Parsons, the late childbirth expert and fountain of wisdom, agreed when she said, 'Life is a jigsaw', and that, 'At the end of it, you look back and see that you cannot separate the dark pieces from the light – they go together.'
Mrs Parsons is known to have been integral to royal pregnancies, including the Queen's with Prince Edward. She never divulged a detail, but the royal patronage assumes an accordance with the 20,000 other women who attended Betty Parsons' London clinic between 1963 and 1986, and who believed that she was far more than a 'birth guru'. In fact her words had a resonance of truth to the extent that most of Betty's 'girls' report that, even now, they continue to hear her voice telling them what to do.
At Betty's ninetieth birthday party at Brooks's Club, St James's, in 2005, women she had not seen for decades swarmed in to pay tribute and lined up to tell her 'what you taught me for childbirth was so helpful, but what you taught me for life was invaluable.' One of the nuggets of wisdom our Queen would have learnt from Mrs Parsons is, 'Plan for tomorrow, but live in today'. In other words, there is no use 'catastrophizing' about what disasters may lie in store. Disasters are part of life – but so are enjoyments. Enjoy.
The Queen could be in mourning every day of her life. For over 86 years she has had social access to top-of-the-range human specimens from all points of the globe, and these crème de la crème must die off at the rate of about five a day. Imagine having to cope with serially losing people of the standard of Sir Winston Churchill and Ted Hughes, om, the Poet Laureate. But as Churchill himself pronounced, 'If you are going through hell, keep going.' On the afternoon of the death of her sister, Princess Margaret, the Queen was visiting Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children to celebrate its 150th anniversary. She was clad in black but smiling.
How does she do it? She compartmentalizes. Her philosophy seems to be, there may be trouble ahead and behind but, at this precise moment, I am enjoying doing something useful and cheering people up so I will concentrate on that.
Clearly, she plans for tomorrow but lives in today.
Moving constantly between houses and palaces helps to inculcate compartmentalizing, not only of the different aspects of life but also of the people in it. If a guest is particularly tiresome, they won't be there for long – and neither will you. If they are fabulous, like Sir David Attenborough, anyone would make the most of every second. Of course we can't all move constantly between palaces but we can get away from ourselves by going to stay with friends. What blessed relief to get away from the physical objects that remind us of our problems and undone chores. By going away, we too can learn to compartmentalize. Distance lends enchantment and perspective and, no matter how humble your hovel, you can play your part in the Big Society by inviting people to stay with you. Let them get away from themselves.
Your own premises need not be four star. It is widely observed that, unless there is a food-poisoning risk, few people mind eating or sleeping in chaotic houses owned by their friends. On the contrary, they almost prefer a friend's house to offer inferior standards of comfort to their own. They can then gain a warm glow of superiority as they count the blessings of their own more streamlined homes.CHAPTER 2
Concentration is a lot easier for a member of the Vieillesse dorée – the Grade One generation from which the Queen hails; they were born in the days when all food was organic and before flashing lights and swiftly changing images on screens had corrupted the brain's ability to make dopamine as a reward for concentration.
The brain is a muscle and it responds to use. The Queen has always read all her briefing papers and, at 86, is unfailingly up to speed. In order to keep your own brain fit for purpose, like the Queen you also need to shut out distractions. Concentration – almost a lost art – is not just useful for processing paperwork and making decisions, it is also a remarkably useful social skill. How else could the Queen deal with, say, an investiture of more than 100 people in less than 90 minutes and leave none of them feeling short-changed? Her secret is to properly engage so that, even though she may move on from person to person about every 60 seconds, or even less, each gong-winner is left with the sense of having commanded their monarch's full attention.
Never was such a skill more highly valued than today. No one likes being on the receiving – or should it be the withholding – end of the sort of behaviour that requires us to queue for someone's attention as they first process the demands of their mobile and their apps. (Ed Balls was apparently even seen checking his emails in company when a guest at Windsor Castle.)
Anyone can learn the skill of concentration; it requires only practice, and the rewards are well worth the effort. We have all come across someone enjoying a mysterious social or romantic success while appearing, on the surface, to have nothing going for them whatsoever. 'Yes,' breathe the members of their fan club, 'but they are so incredibly charismatic. When you talk to them, it's as though you are the only person in the room.'
It was Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, who first identified the key secret of social success – listening, and not being distracted while you do so. He described a famously popular man who rarely said a word in conversation, except to prompt his interlocutor. Invariably, as the man walked away, the latter would turn to someone else and say, 'That was the most fascinating person I ever met in my life!'
Don't misunderstand, I am not saying that the Queen is insincere. On the contrary, her magic is entirely linked to the fact that she genuinely is interested. It is your duty to become so too.CHAPTER 3
'It is a question of maturing into something that one's got used to doing, and accepting the fact that it's your fate, because I think that continuity is very important.'
The Queen in a BBC documentary, 1992
The vast galaxy in which we live is spinning at the incredible speed of 490,000mph. Even at this breakneck speed our galaxy still needs 200 million years to make just one rotation. And while the planets make their predictable round of the heavens, down below the Queen can be relied upon to be in a certain place, at a certain time of year, every year. So ...
Autumn: Buckingham Palace
Christmas: Windsor Castle
Easter: Windsor Castle
Early summer: Holyroodhouse
Summer: Balmoral Castle
Furthermore, for 15 minutes of the Queen's breakfast every morning a Pipe Major from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders marches outside the Queen's dining room playing the bagpipes (a tradition started by Queen Victoria in 1843). Changing of the Guard always takes place at exactly 11.30am. And at Trooping the Colour, the Queen's birthday parade, the clock in Horse Guards Parade is adjusted to ensure that it strikes 11 exactly as the Queen enters the parade ground.
Like her or not, she serves as a focus for national unity, not to mention continuity. It is also useful for us to have a Head of State whose authority remains unaffected by government failure. A monarch who reigns without ruling enables at least one institution to inspire popular trust. So, while times and people move on, the Queen is always there as a totem of reassurance and the eternal verities. She reassures us with her presence while at the same time adapting and moving in tandem with change.
While simultaneously endorsing many quaint traditions – for example, barristers dress as they do because they are still in mourning for Queen Mary who died in 1694, and Etonians because they are in mourning for George III – she opens up Buckingham Palace for public scrutiny, allows the gardens to be used for rock concerts and permits her son and heir to become yet another grocer in this nation of shopkeepers.
So, embrace continuity as part of your lifestyle but don't take things too far, as did Scottish landowner John Ouchterlony of The Guynd, near Arbroath where, for more than 400 years, each successive male laird has sat on the same furniture looking out through the same windows of the Georgian mansion at the same unchanging view. Ouchterlony was so resistant to change of any kind – even though money and light would have cascaded into the mansion if he had allowed Belinda Rathbone, his dynamic American wife, to move with the times – that he drove her back to America. (The full tale is recounted in her instructive 2005 memoir, Living with the Laird.) Ouchterlony's mistake was to conflate continuity with former grandeur.
However, benign continuity is a different matter. When planning holidays, we could take our lead from the Queen, as do various notables. The late Sir John Betjeman went to Trebetherick in Cornwall every year of his life and said he always felt safe once he had crossed the Tamar. There is a lot to be said for knowing exactly what the score is – what the weather will be like, who else is likely to be around, which roads are dangerous and where you are likely to be beaten up or sucked out to sea. Once you have 'learned the ropes' of people and places, it frees you to get on with other activities.
Remember being at school and checking the term dates? Admit it, far from being oppressive or restricting, it was liberating to know the boundaries. Just think of all the time freed up in not having to look at catalogues or websites to choose a new holiday destination, all the while wondering what the hidden defects might be. Moreover, doing the same things each year helps you to monitor your progress and compete against yourself. Last year I was able to climb Snowdonia; if I can't do it again this year, I will have to go to the gym when I get back. No one place (or person) is necessarily better than any other, but repeated exposure to each helps you to get the best out of both. Also, in today's hectic world, one of the ways to filter or control the barrage of stuff coming at us is to have non-negotiable timetables. 'We always go to Consett for the first two weeks of August,' you can tell those trying to invade your space.
And as for continuity of marital partner, don't divorce. There won't be anyone better. Every domestic partner is annoying these days. Better stick with the devil you know – the children far prefer it and you can go slowly downhill together with your shared memories of the days when you were young and fit for purpose. Just think how wonderful it is to have a live-in prompt to remind you of people's names from 50 years ago. Of course the Queen is so busy that she need not see too much of her own husband if she does not want to, though apparently they get on extremely well. Incidentally, of the irritable-seeming Duke who apparently suffers no fools gladly, the late Commander Michael Parker, his private secretary and close friend for 60 years, has revealed, 'no one has a kinder heart nor takes more trouble to conceal it'.
But for those of us who are trapped in small houses with irritating husbands, and who just want to ride out a decade or two until nature takes its course, the thing to do is to simply start going to bed four or five hours before or after he does, and ditto with getting up. Then you only need to see him for seven hours a day – surely that's manageable?CHAPTER 4
Sitting up straight at a table with a ramrod posture, as if with a book on your head, is unfashionable these days. But there was a health agenda driving the tradition that saw generations of children strapped into straitjackets until they had learned to sit up properly. The junior Queen Victoria was even made to wear a sprig of holly on her neck while eating, to ensure that she sat up properly and looked straight ahead.
Correct deportment was considered the cornerstone of good health for a reason, and not just because it eliminates back injuries, which afflict one-third of Britons at some time. Sitting and standing up straight is the best way to ensure your food can be digested. The intestines are lengthy and they have been carefully designed by nature to include villi, miniscule projections that propel the food through to its natural exit point.
If the intestines are compromised or cramped through people sitting hunched, in a bunched posture or lolling on low sofas choking down TV dinners like dogs, it doesn't happen. The food gets stuck. In addition, it gets stuck because bread made with the Chorleywood method (i.e. most bread these days), which dispenses with proper fermentation, contains more gluten than in the days when bread was the staff of life. Gluten is a chewing gum-style substance which coats the villi and stops them sweeping through the food. Thus there is a traffic jam inside. The Queen does not eat improperly fermented bread and her gut is not cluttered with undigested debris.
Incidentally, the gut (or intestinal system) is now acknowledged to be far more powerful than we realized. Indeed, it has its own 'brain' and can operate independently of the brain 'up top'. (If you want to know more, then check out London nutritionist Gudrun Jonsson and American Dr Michael D. Gershon, author of The Second Brain, who are pioneers of gut therapy.)
Antibiotics can also disrupt inner workings, leading to a 'toxic gut'. The Queen does not take antibiotics and believes in homeopathy, using arsenic to prevent sneezing, onions to deal with a runny nose and deadly nightshade to deal with a sore throat. (The royals were introduced to homeopathy in the 1920s by Sir John Weir, who was succeeded by Dr Margery Blackie, also a royal physician.)
Finally, don't forget that eating with your mouth shut is in the top ten of standard British good manners. Besides the aesthetics, it's necessary to avoid gulping in air while you eat because it causes gas blockages in the digestion process. It's not funny or attractive – you will never hear the Queen burping, even after she had to swallow Fiji's national soap-like Yaqona drink in one draught, as etiquette demanded, while on a state visit there in 1977.CHAPTER 5
In 1956 the Queen Mother's racehorse Devon Loch collapsed and died within inches of the winning post in the Grand National. The racing fanatic's spontaneous response was to turn to the Duke of Devonshire and say, 'I must go down and comfort those poor people,' and she went immediately to the jockey, Dick Francis, the trainer and the stable lads. 'It was the most perfect display of dignity that I have ever witnessed,' remarked the Duke.
Even when physical incapacity strikes, the royals can show how to retain dignity. The 15-year-old Prince Philip, visiting Athens for the first time since his infancy for the state reinternment of his relations, who had died in exile from Greece, was suddenly overcome with nausea and vomited into his new top hat. And remember how the Queen kept her cool when Michael Fagan, an unemployed father of four, broke into her bedchamber in July 1982 while the footman on guard was out walking the dogs in the Palace gardens? According to reports at the time, Fagan sat on her bed talking to her for about ten minutes before help arrived.
It is by no means the only unstately experience she has had. The first time the Queen met baronet and garden designer Roddy Llewellyn was on a Saturday evening at Royal Lodge. The Queen was talking to a nanny in the nursery when Mr Llewellyn burst in, wearing only a shirt and underpants and hoping to have buttons sewn on. 'Please forgive me ma'am. I look awful,' he said. 'Don't worry, I don't look too good myself,' replied the Queen. The next day they were formally introduced after both had attended Chapel at Windsor.
Can those of us whose spontaneous response to such incidents would be a show of disgrace under pressure, screaming like fishwives or laughing hysterically, learn to be dignified? Not without having a spiritual element to our lives and a sense of perspective.
You can control some aspects of your image, though. Think in the long, rather than short, term. As a teenager, for example, you could mark yourself out from the crowd by being the only one of your generation not to upload embarrassing photos of yourself on to social networking sites. Why not ban friends from taking photographs at social gatherings in your house? Try it once and see how relaxed everyone becomes. And crucially avoid, as the Queen does, being photographed while eating or drinking. She is constantly being urged to try various biscuits and cakes that people offer her when she is 'touring' food emporiums – 'They look very nice,' she replies, but does not take one.
Excerpted from How the Queen Can Make You Happy by Mary Killen. Copyright © 2012 Mary Killen. Excerpted by permission of Elliott and Thompson Limited.
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Table of Contents
Giving Your Own Parties,
Knowing Who People Are,
Punctuality is the Politeness of Princes,
Rising Above Things,
Treating Everyone the Same,