I’m a Boomer, born one year after our current and undoubted Queen, Elizabeth, by the Grace of God, was crowned. I’m drawing a pension and she’s still working, which tells you something about the English in general and her family in particular.
I’ve had my brushes with her family across the years, all of them interesting and worth an anecdote in one way or another. The funny thing is, royalty acts just the way you’d think they would, in private and in public.
It started at high school grad. Prince Philip was our distinguished visitor, and he addressed the student body down at the boathouse on a rainy May day, in a soaking raincoat and no hat. He said “Do what you really want to do. Don’t do what’s expected of you. You don’t have to go to college if you don’t want to. Look at me. I never went to college, and I ended up alright”. It was about the best advice I’d received in my five years at that very expensive school, and I followed it. Streamed for the Ivy League, I went to a small rural college with an excellent theatre program. It’s a decision I regret sometimes when I read about classmates who are captains of industry and hedge fund managers, but it usually doesn’t last.
Years passed. I was between corporate jobs and planning a trip to England. My old school’s club in London was holding a dinner in honour of Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, a former student. I RSVPed, dusted off my grandfather’s blue blazer and ordered a new school crest and brass buttons (the invitation read black tie or blazer). The dinner was at the Cavalry and Guards Club in Piccadilly, and the Regimental salt cellars on the table were worth more than my house.
For some reason, I was seated right across from HRH, and was his obvious conversation partner. I innocently asked when he had attended the school, was it in ’82?. He looked at me coldly and said (quite correctly) “I was fighting a war in ‘82”. He then proceeded to re-enact all his encounters in the Falklands on the tablecloth for his equerry, using the silver cruets to signify ships, helicopters and Argie fighter-bombers. He was a perfect caricature of an Edwardian Colonel Blimp at his club. I thought at the time, it’s a good thing Britain has these post-colonial wars every so often to keep people like HRH busy.
Back in Toronto, several years later, my wife and I set out one fine June Sunday to to see the Queen. Well, to see the Queen and the queens, actually. We started the morning at St Andrews church downtown, where HM was presenting new colours to the 48th Highlanders. I climbed a lamppost base to see over people’s heads. There was quite a turnout, and I just caught a glimpse of a small woman with a friendly wave getting into a big car. After that, we walked up to the Village and watched the Pride Parade, the same day, following our sighting of the Queen with multiple sightings of queens. I always wondered if HM planned deliberately to be in Toronto the same day, to see who drew the bigger crowds.
Fast forward to the mid-90s. Chuck and Di visited Toronto on HMS Britannia, the fabled ship’s last visit to these shores, and one of its last state visits anywhere. The last night of their visit, they held a banquet aboard the ship, to which many notables came, including the PM, the mayor, the Premier and the usual well-born suspects. We went down to the docks to watch the fun.
After dinner, the ship’s band played a tattoo on the pier with all the distinguished guests lining the rails and clapping. There was a concert of popular favourites, and then as the hour grew late, we watched the notables leave, their various limousines pulling up at the gangplank. The royal couple stood at the rail, waving them off, then turned and went below. The band packed up and went aboard and the crowd left. I didn’t though, for some reason. I was rewarded for my patience.
About a half an hour after the last VIP had left, about 11:30 PM, a black unmarked Chrysler pulled up to the gangplank. Then, skipping down it as if someone might see her, came Di in a pair of jeans and a leather jacket and slipped into the car, which pulled off immediately. No Chuck. No security. No minder (unless he was in the car). It was only when I got home that I remembered that the Rolling Stones were in Toronto that month rehearsing for a world tour.
So those are my brushes with royalty. What I learned is that what you see is generally what you get with that lot; the dutiful ones are dutiful, the pompous ones are pompous, the funny ones are funny and the flakes are flaky. A lot like you and me.