I went to a garden party at Buckingham Palace once. It is coloured in my memory like childhood. There are good Canalettos and fitted carpets inside because that is self-confidence. In the garden the Queen stood with diplomats, safe from confessions, tears and requests for football tickets. (People do this. They write to her for FA Cup Final tickets. They think she is a witch.) She looks like a benevolent sweet from afar, but I am fond of the Queen of my ideation since she replied to my son’s birthday greeting with a very civil letter which he lost.
I am no monarchist – competition, I suppose, though the Jews have a very passive-aggressive prayer for her: ‘May God in his everlasting kingdom bless our sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth [in her mortal one]…’ The Buckingham Palace tea was builder’s tea and fairy food, which is a fair description of England and herself. Savagery and politesse: duality. As a food critic I call it perfect. As a journalist I call marketing. She is very good at marketing, as I don’t think she could pull a sword from a stone.
I can’t tell if monarchists have too much imagination or none at all. But we are all guilty of that. I celebrate – well, I mark – the Jubilee at Fortnum & Mason because I can’t face Quaglino’s and the Goring didn’t ring me back. The Queen and Fortnum & Mason have too much in common to ignore. If she were a meat counter, she would be this one. This is entirely deliberate, and cynical: Fortnum’s has become a franchise, like the Liberal Democrats. I discovered this when eating smoked salmon at a Fortnum’s Bar in Heathrow Terminal 5 at 7 a.m.: the dream will follow you to the exit. There’s one in Hong Kong, for remembrance. How must they feel?
You could imagine she is cross: Fortnum’s stole my schtick. They made a meat counter in my image. But it’s an old bargain, still going. William Fortnum worked for Queen Anne and resold her candlewax. She knows her friends. She was photographed with a copy of Majesty magazine. She opened the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, and Fortnum & Mason is a ‘partner’ – which is what? – of the Platinum Jubilee Pageant. So here we are again.
Here you eat, under the comforting shelter of a dream of England that is convincing but wholly untrue: and the Christmas shop is German. I find this fascinating. The tea salon covers the fourth floor. It is pale green like a glade, and it smells of flowers. (Atomisers. You can buy body products in the Buckingham Palace shop for a similar effect. You can smell like the Queen of your ideation.) There is a grand piano and waiters who are actors in other lives. The tableware is exquisite, and you can buy it to take home. This is a beautiful restaurant: Disraeli’s Elysium Fields with scones. Jews love Fortnum’s because it isn’t Poland.
It’s £70 per head for afternoon tea. The food is not quite as good as the dream but how could it be? We eat tiny sandwiches – egg, chicken, cucumber, ham – excellent scones and too–delicate cakes, one of which is trying to be a swan, which is unwise. You can’t try to be a swan. You are or you aren’t. We ignore the Jubilee Beacon cocktail, made of her ‘favourite tipples’, which is a copywriting error. She doesn’t have tipples. They are whimsical, and she isn’t. She has drinks.
My husband says we will never have a real tyranny while we have a monarchy. I don’t know if this is true, but I look about and think: I wouldn’t mind dying here. There are worse places.
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Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London W1A 1ER; tel: 020 7734 8040.
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