Yesterday after a fraught rail journey – yet more ‘signalling problems’ on Southern Railways leading to yet more delays – to Buckingham Palace with Virginia and all three children, or grown-ups as they are now. A windy rainy day and a surreal experience. Crossing the forecourt of the palace, my son prompted me to turn and look back. There ran the long line of tall black railings, with the faces of the crowd pressed against them, watching not us but the world we were entering. The sensation of being inside. But strikingly there was no security, no bag checks, no X-rays, no police with guns. Only a rich array of strangely dressed figures – lifeguards in bright silver breastplates, holding long swords; elderly chaps in red with low-crowned top hats; black-clad footmen; grand panjandrums in black with much gold braid and gold spurs; and several versions of military uniform, grey, khaki and blue. The rooms through which we passed were glorious in a completely over-the-top way: immense, very gilt, with huge paintings that slipped out of the memory as soon as seen, more decoration than art, but perfect decoration. This is not a home, not a place of business: it’s a setting. Everything about the palace – this sector of it, I should say; I’ve no doubt there are cosy nooks elsewhere – is designed to frame formal events, and does so brilliantly. In contrast with the extreme grandeur the staff were all friendly and informal. There was no regimentation, only a polite desire to point us in the right direction, together with a shared pleasure in our awestruck response to the scene. It felt as if the staff were in on the joke alongside us, which was delightful.
My family went one way up a wide staircase, I went another, joining the 97 recipients of honours. We were directed into a long room where little removable hooks were attached to our lapels. Here television screens were set up, and water and glasses stood on side tables. A little shyly we talked to each other, fumbling our way towards saying, ‘So what are you being honoured for?’ I met a distinguished chemist, a man from the Ministry of Defence, a man who manages the Royal Cornwall Show, and the founder of a firm of plumbers. My own contribution – being a writer – seemed insubstantial by comparison.
Then a colonel with a handsome humorous face and a wry manner gave us a demonstration of how we were to receive our medals, acting out each step with the help of colleagues. My chemist friend, who had experienced this before, murmured to me that the only tricky part was the walking backwards after your moment was over. Then we were fed through in batches. I came about half way, and so had time to watch on the screens how the first to be honoured conducted themselves. To my surprise, Prince Charles, who was giving the honours, seemed to speak for several minutes to each recipient. How on earth could he know enough about 97 people to manage a coherent conversation? I could see that as each new recipient approached, an aide at his back leant forward to whisper information, but only for a few seconds.
Then it was the turn of my batch to go forward. We were led through the back of the huge ballroom where the ceremony was underway. A band was playing music from an end gallery. Prince Charles was standing before what looked like a throne. Between the two ends, the watching families sat. I located mine, and waved as I went by. Then we filtered down a side hall towards the front. Our names were checked again. My plumber friend touched up his hair in one of the many mirrors: he had a shock of spiky hair, which I told him made him the coolest person there. We talked in whispers about his business, and he gave me his card.
So my turn came. Oddly I remember little of my exchange with Prince Charles, except that he was very smiley, and seemed to know I was a writer. I asked him how on earth he managed to retain information about so many people, and he said, ‘Years of practice.’ Then I was walking backwards, bowing from the neck only as directed, and out to the far side to have the medal taken off its little hook and put in a box. The hook was re-cycled for others. And so round the back of the ballroom to join my family.
We then sat through the rest of the honouring, which was both boring and moving, an odd combination. I found time to study the six immense chandeliers high above us and wonder how they changed the light bulbs inside them. People were being honoured for ‘services to young people with life debilitating conditions in the Midlands’, ‘services to those with cancer’, ‘services to nursing and education in Africa’, ‘to tackling extremism’, ‘to Fleetwood Town Football Club’, ‘to sea angling’, ‘to theatre in Leicestershire’ – the sheer range of service was humbling. And who had I served? Nobody.
I still don’t know who put my name forward for an OBE, but I do feel honoured, and proud, and touched. Also extremely impressed by the professionalism of the operation. Time for the Royal Household to be given charge of the running of Southern Railways.