09 July 2008

A royal garden party

Having secured an invitation to the royal garden party through the New Zealand High Commission ballot many months ago, I had plenty of time to ponder the logistical issues inherent in attending such an auspicious and memorable occasion. Like for example, what the devil is a Morning Coat? Could I spur myself to buy smart new shoes for the event? And, most importantly, what would I say if I happened to bump into the Queen in the queue for cucumber sandwiches?

As it turned out, a Morning Coat is one of those frightfully smart coats with tails, generally worn with a top hat and weskit, but I was assured by Felix (who had been to the same garden party a couple of years ago) that a conventional business suit would be fine. On the footwear question my natural reluctance to venture into shoe shops asserted itself, and I decided instead to burnish my current work shoes to within an inch of their life. And I prepared a line of conversation relying on my tenuous connection to the former Governor-General, Dame Silvia Cartwright: in a previous incarnation I was the Most Loyal Bearer of the Singular Blue Pencil used to sign Orders In Council.

As I was arriving from Victoria the closest entrance to the Palace grounds was the Grosvenor Gate, where cheerful policemen welcomed the smartly-attired guests inside to walk down the winding paths through the kempt arboretum to the vast lawn facing the Palace’s west (rear) terrace. The view of the neo-classical Palace is impressive, and I enjoyed its relatively modest scale – unlike the grandiloquent palaces of Versailles or Schloss Schonenbrun, this looks like a proper (if stately) home where real people reside.

The attendees were a mix of the great and good of the UK and beyond, and the apparent paucity of colonial accents led me to reflect on my good fortune at having secured a ticket. While most of the hundreds of attendees wore conventional formals, there were plenty of uniforms around too, with a healthy sprinkling of military types both young and old, from guardsmen to Admirals. Some Canadian airmen sported uniforms and peaked Glengarry caps that were highly reminiscent of the Tracy brothers in Thunderbirds. There were a few other varietals, such as the red-gowned bishops who disgorged from the Palace and spread over the vast lawn like a rapidly-expanding sea of affable, genteel, tea-drinking blood. And the oddest look of the day was the contingent of scout leaders who took the uniforms policy a bit too seriously and turned up with their woggles and scarves. I shouldn’t mock though – it was very English.

The ladies opted for slinky dresses and heels, and followed the style instructions that came with the invitation: ‘Day dress with hat, or Uniform (no medals). Trouser suit may be worn’. After the recent rush to Ascot this was another chance for women to dig out their hats and fascinators for public display. Fascinators are an odd concept, but the ones I like are those that look the silliest: a miniature pixie-sized hat, pinned at a jaunty angle to a woman’s hair, either to make it look as if her headgear has mysteriously shrunk in the wash, or to give the impression that she had recently mugged a leprechaun and stolen his chapeau.

The wide, well-kept lawn was bounded by refreshment tents – yes, cucumber sandwiches, no crusts! – and as the garden was so large there were two band tents, one by the Palace and one by the ornamental lake. Because they were hundreds of metres apart, the assembled military bands in each tent took turns to play popular tunes like James Bond movie themes, with each band hoisting a red and white flag when they were playing and a white one when they’d finished, as a signal for the other band to start up again.

Then it was 4 o’clock, time for Her Majesty to emerge from the Palace. The guests formed long human avenues radiating out from the Palace to the Royal Tea Tent, and the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh proceeded down these avenues, stopping to greet and chat with selected guests and interesting types in the crowd. In the hour or so it took the Queen to reach the spot I was standing in, the pike-bearing Yeoman of the Guard in their bright red uniforms and the tightly-furled-umbrella-wielding Gentlemen at Arms with their Eton accents and impeccable politeness encouraged the crowds to give the Queen plenty of space and to avoid crowding in.

A senior Gentleman patrolled the crowd in front of the Queen’s path, jotting down a few key details of the guests that had been selected for a personal chat with the monarch. This enabled him to break the ice when the Queen arrived a few minutes later. One of the Gentlemen at Arms, whilst deploying all their public-school charm to persuade the crowds to move back a little, mentioned that while he and his colleagues all carried smart City-businessman umbrellas (perhaps from James Smith & Sons?), they knew better than to open them until the Queen had opened hers, and that as Elizabeth was a hardy monarch, she required a proper downpour before she did so, so it paid to expect a damp top hat if there was rain about. (As it happened, while the dark clouds glowered and there were a few drops, it stayed dry and warm).

Soon she was nearby, perhaps five metres away from my second-row spot. She wore a smart dress and jacket in a colour that may or may not be cerise (I’m pretty vague on couture, me). The thing that struck me about seeing the Queen this close was that she really looked like she was enjoying the occasion and seemed to relish the conversation. This surprised me a little, given how long she’s been performing the role and making small talk with strangers. Good on her – and I suppose it must be nice to feel like everyone’s pleased to see you! There was certainly a polite press of guests to gain a good view of Ma’am as she greeted and chatted.

Soon she and Prince Phillip had retired to the Royal Tea Tent where a small crowd of selected guests mingled with the royals. For the rest of us, the serving staff dished out traditional lemonade and tasty Welsh icecream. After an hour or so the Queen and her party departed, which was the cue for the band to play God Save The Queen, as a signal that the garden party was coming to an end. Along with many of the other guests, I took the opportunity for another walk around the gardens, and spotted the Palace staff counting and polishing the gold tea service used in the Royal Tea Tent as it lay on the lawn behind the tent.

Finally, it was time to amble up the steps on the west terrace and enter the Palace to make our way to the front gates. The walls of the few rooms we wander through on our way out are lined with rare sets of ornamental porcelain, antique carriage clocks, and marble statues in the Graeco-Roman style. Each wall also displays several paintings of the British and European nobility, with a healthy scattering of Prince Albert portraits acting as a reminder that Victoria reigned here for over six decades. There is a great attention to detail at work here – the fireplaces each sport an oval of cardboard in the grate, with its top edge snipped to resemble curling flames.

After emerging into the central Palace courtyard the hundreds of guests make their way out the front arch to the east side of the Palace, which faces the crowds gaping through the railings at the stock-still Guardsmen in their bearskin hats. It’s truly a rare experience to be on the inside, emerging as one of the fortunate few who have received the generous hospitality of the garden party at Buckingham Palace.
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