I got in a taxi one afternoon in November 2007 – one of the black cabs for which London is famous. I got dressed, wore a flower in my hair, and brought two red-tinted yellow roses that I had taken from a flower arrangement.
“You look lovely,” the driver told me, glancing in the rearview mirror. “Are you going somewhere special?”
“Actually, I just came from somewhere—I met the queen,” I said. He looked at me, this time longer, and told me how lucky I was.
“Some people live to be 100 and never meet the Queen.”
That’s when the intensity of the day really hit me; Queen Elizabeth II, then 81 years old, had been on the throne for 55 years. She led the UK out of poverty and devastation after World War II, through its transformation from an Empire into a Commonwealth, through the late 20th and into the 21st.
The Queen is patron of the university London I attended last year and is about to visit, and I am one of the lucky alumni invited.
We were asked to arrive early for the protocol meeting.
We were placed in small, pre-determined groups arranged by the university with arrangements communicated to Buckingham Palace staff, as is the norm for such events.
College secretaries go through this list of do’s and don’ts:
- Don’t touch the Queen unless she holds out her hand
- Don’t speak unless talked to
- Call her ‘Your Majesty’ for the first time, then ma’am like in rhyme with jam
- Don’t turn your back on the Queen
- Don’t ask personal questions
- Do not talk about politics or the news (there is an investigation into Princess Diana’s death underway)
After each point, the secretary would stare at me, as if I would be the one to embarrass the university in the presence of the Queen.
“One thing His Majesty doesn’t like,” he told the about 100 of us gathered, “is leaving a room silent when she enters.” He instructed us to please continue to talk to each other in a polite voice when she arrived.
I’m not worried, we’ll be quiet. This room has had a lot of experience – diplomats, military officers, high-ranking government officials, all well-practiced in the art of small talk.
Prince Philip accompanied the Queen and spoke to our group first while she was in another room. I don’t remember much of what was said, except it was polite, perfunctory, and he was very tall.
Just then, the grand wooden door leading into the room burst open and there she was – Queen Elizabeth II.
The man I spoke to a second earlier went silent, as did the rest of our group.
“No, no,” I said softly. “Keep talking – it doesn’t matter what – talk about what you had for breakfast, but keep talking.”
The university commander, a knighted former admiral, accompanied the Queen and began to introduce our group. When he went to see a Romanian diplomat, the Queen said, “Ah yes, haven’t we met before?” and mentioned a function before which i forgot the details now. The Romanian diplomat rejoiced, flashing a smile as she said “Yes ma’am” (as in a creak).
I don’t know if the Queen was explicitly informed or really remembered about the meeting, but I recall being amazed at how quickly she put everyone at ease. Tens of thousands of times she’s been at the center of events like this and she’s curious and happy, focusing only on us.
She was wearing a brown suit and cream skirt, and someone came and placed a glass of cranberry juice in her gloved hands – cream gloves. The glass was VERY full and as she chatted with the rest of our group, I feared it would spill – no one had told me the etiquette of that yet.
May I mention it? Do I dare? That will be said before speaking to AND interrupting. What if she spills and I say nothing? The commander saves the day, gently takes the juice and replaces it with a less full glass.
As I pondered over protocol issues, the Queen turned to me.
“And I understand you are the only journalist who ever attended here,” she said, before asking me why. “Who wouldn’t want to come here, Your Majesty?” I said, gesturing to the people standing in our circle. “You have an Indonesian military officer next to a Turkish diplomat, next to a Romanian,” I said, passing our group, saying that no other course in the world can. give me this.
She asked me who paid my tuition, because others were sponsored by their countries or organizations. “I did,” I said.
And then she continued.
I felt as if I had achieved a diplomat run – in front of the Queen nothing more and nothing less. I remembered everyone’s details, had to include the group in our conversation – no gallantry, no shyness.
We then watched as she and Prince Philip descended the grand onyx staircase and left.
Still feeling pretty proud of myself, I entered the dining room for lunch. Just as I was about to get a sandwich, the commander came in and said, “What did you say to Your Majesty?” in the explosive authority voice of a former military commander.
“I? I didn’t say anything about anything,” I stammered, racking my brains about how I might mess up. “As I was escorting her out, His Majesty asked. about why you are here,” said the commander.
I told him she asked me the original question and I answered.
“Does that mean I’ll get a refund?”
“No,” he replied emphatically.
The Queen spoke to at least 100 people after our brief meeting – I was surprised she remembered that detail.
There are photos of that day, but none of me speak to the Queen. Maybe it’s better that way.
For a few moments, I was in front of a woman most of us would see in a hundred lives. I looked into her curious and smiling eyes, watched her smile along with some of my colleagues, and I sensed her true sense of responsibility and duty.
She left an indelible mark.