I’ve often wondered whether Her Majesty the Queen glances through The Spectator from time to time. And if she does, I wonder whether her kindly eye lights on this column. And if it does, I wonder what she thinks of what she reads there.
‘Philip, there’s a man here writing about going to the Cheltenham Festival and messing his pents.’ ‘Very easily done at Cheltenham, my dear. I’ve often wondered why nobody has written about it before.’ Or, ‘Philip here’s that man again, the one who messed his pents at Cheltenham, assisting the ferret-judging at a country show. It’s frightfully interesting. The judge takes so long to judge each class, they drive a car into the tent so that he can judge them in the headlights.’ ‘Does he mess his pents again?’ ‘He doesn’t say.’
Karsh’s 1951 photo portrait of Princess Elizabeth hung in the family home until my mother died in 2019, aged 89. As a child I counted it as great good fortune to be born the subject of a queen, and one so beautiful. The feeling has increased, with the additional wonder that she has ruled over me with integrity and humility until she is the only one left in the kingdom – the one righteous individual staying God’s hand against us in our iniquity.
My parents would never have called themselves royalists, which would have associated the Queen with a vulgar ‘ism’, implying choice. She was our sovereign, the privilege was ours, that was that. Everyone we knew thought the same. To have spoken about the Queen with familiarity would have been an impertinence. If she appeared on the television, my father would stand before the set and sort of gurgle reverently. All of my older male relatives on my father’s side modelled themselves on her grandfather, King George V.
Beneath Princess Elizabeth’s portrait hung the famous Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill. Untinged by the mystery of royalty, Winston was one of us – in death as he was in life. Winnie we could praise and discuss. His pithier, more belligerent statements were never far from my father’s lips. My father once said that if Winston Churchill could believe in Queen Elizabeth’s divinity, then so could he.
‘Philip, have you looked in this week’s Spectator? It’s awfully interesting. That ferreting correspondent has been smoking washed cocaine through a homemade pipe and now he’s speaking on the telephone to a Scientologist who wants him to join the association so badly he is being rather a nuisance about it.’ ‘Good Lord. Can’t he just tell him to sling his hook?’
‘He says he feels detached enough not to mind.’ ‘Sounds like very thin stuff to me. Hardly worth writing about. What’s Taki got to say for himself this week?’ ‘He’s in gaol for possession of cocaine.’ ‘Good Lord, what rotten luck.’
I wish I’d seen the Queen in real life. Even a glimpse. I didn’t say meet her, mind. My legs would have turned to jelly. My friend Mick was walking down Harley Street once when he saw a black limousine draw up on the other side of the road. He works in the rag trade in Mortimer Street in London and is used to seeing famous people knocking about. If he sees one he’ll tell you about it. He dived into the nearest doorway to watch and see if he recognised who was getting out. Blimey, he thought – as he tells it – it’s Her Majesty the Queen! He stayed half-hidden in his doorway to feast his eyes on her. But to his horror she made right for the doorway he was standing in. It was not a wide space and Mick had to turn sideways to allow her to pass. He could have reached out and touched her. He felt he must say something. He couldn’t just goggle at her. So he made this stiff little chest-high salute and said, ‘All right?’ The story ends there. He doesn’t report whether or not she said: ‘Quite well, thank you. Just an MOT.’
Oh, Catriona’s met her; she’s met them all. Some of them more than once. Before we met, she was married to the Queen’s sculptor in ordinary, whatever that means, and they were invited to dinners and parties and whatnot. The Queen she just curtsied to. ‘So what was she like?’ I say. ‘Small,’ she says, miming looking down on something. ‘Well, you’re small so she must have been like a flaming Borrower then.’ She adores the Queen too. When the Queen had that smiley phase just after Philip died, her dear cheerful widowed face pictured in the newspaper buoyed us up for weeks.
Here I am prattling on dementedly about how much I love the Queen and it isn’t right. But to celebrate her 70 years of duty and service, I hope her grateful subject may be forgiven this one little vulgar and presumptuous outburst.
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