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Open Features: The Queen And I

So what did Stanley Porter say to delight Her Majesty?

Brian Lockett tells the best tale of the year.

I hired the gear and took a taxi.

There were a lot of us, all looking rather grand. Some famous names, too, people from the world of sport and entertainment, and no doubt several captains - or at least lieutenants - of industry. All the women wore wildly impractical hats, no two the same, and there were quite a few teenage children looking embarrassed or frightened or both. Some people were in wheelchairs or walked slowly with a stick or frame. Some certainly looked as though they should be in bed. That’s in the nature of things, I suppose. To qualify for an award you have do whatever it is you do above the call of duty for many, many years.

We were looked after by immaculately turned out officials, one of whom gave us a talk about what was going to happen and how we should behave. We would be called forward. We would walk to within three feet of the Queen, who might say a few words intended only for our own ears. She would not shake hands, because there were so many of us. We would not be expected (I took this to mean that we should make no attempt) to initiate any kind of discussion. Then we would make a smart right turn and walk off into another large room where refreshments would be waiting. Photographs could be taken outside.

That’s what happened. Except that I forgot the rule about not initiating a discussion. If you could call it that.

When my name was called I strode to the appointed spot whilst the Queen picked up the medal from a cushion held by a flunkey. I remember that she was looking particularly bored and grumpy. I am not being disrespectful. It is no secret (and, I would have thought, patently obvious) that the Queen spends most of her official life looking bored and grumpy.

“Cheer up, ma’am,” I said as she leant towards me.

The flunkey, who couldn’t have heard the words but certainly knew I’d broken the rule, raised an eyebrow and became tense.

“I beg your pardon?” said the Queen.

“I said ‘Cheer up, ma’am’. There’s only about another thirty of us to go. Then you can put your feet up with a cup of tea. Oh, and thank you very much for the medal.”

She paused momentarily as she pinned. She looked me straight in the eye and I think I caught the beginning of a smile about her lips. I sensed some restlessness behind me. I had been in front of her slightly longer than anyone else.

“Not at all,” she said. “You thoroughly deserve it, Mr ... “

“Porter, Stanley Porter."

“Mr Porter.”

“Have a nice day, ma’am,” I said as I stepped back. I nodded in the approved way - we’d been asked not to bow or curtsy - and then smiled as I set off for my own cup of tea.

I chuckled in the taxi back to the station. When, back in the office, they asked me what the Queen had said to me I told them the truth. Then things went back to normal.

Three weeks later I was invited to lunch at the Palace. The letter of invitation explained that these lunches were held throughout the year so that the Queen could meet people from all walks of life. Lounge suits would be in order. Medals would not be worn.

I thought of declining on the grounds that I had already met the Queen, thank you very much, and I was really quite busy. But I thought this might be misconstrued. So I went. I was surprised to see some well-known faces from ‘all walks of life’. I didn’t approach them, of course, but, when we were all seated, I found myself between an Olympic gold medallist and a bishop. I have never been at a loss for words - you may have guessed that - and I got on well with both of them.

The Queen slipped in unannounced, which was the signal for soup to be served.

Afterwards we all took coffee in an ante-room and it was here that the Queen and a tall, stooping, older man with a craggy face started to circulate.

“Ah, Mr Porter,” said the Queen, approaching me. “I don’t think you’ve met my husband.”

The old man at her side put out a hand.

“You’re the cheeky one, are you?” he said.

I shook hands and said: “I beg your pardon.”

“She told me you told her to cheer up the other day. Very sound advice. Keep telling her the same thing myself.”

“My husband,” said the Queen with a smile,” is not a great one for protocol.”

“I’m sorry if I offended you, ma’am,” I said. “I’m afraid I often speak out of turn and as often it lands me in trouble.”

“You are not in trouble,” she said. “I do not get a lot of straight talk in this job, so ... ”

“Just a minute,” said the Duke, looking at me keenly. “You don’t strike me as the sort of man who would go straight from here to the offices of the gutter press, but I must warn you ... “

I interrupted him, though I know you are not supposed to interrupt royalty.

“You’re right. I’m not that sort of man. This is a private function and this is a private conversation.”

The exchanges seemed to be longer and more animated than any which had taken place so far. Heads were turning surreptitiously.

“Good,” he said.

“We’d better move on, dear,” she said. “There are others.”

“There are always others,” he growled. He presented his hand a second time. “I hope you’ll come again, Porter. You’re not the usual sort of chap we get at these things. Right. Off we go.”

He moved on, whilst the Queen held back.

“I would certainly like you to come again, Mr Porter, if you can spare the time.”

“I am at your service, ma’am.”

She arranged her face in a bright smile and joined her husband.

I did not mention the lunch at the office, so I was saved the jibes of my colleagues. I spent some time thinking about my conversation with the royal pair. Neither had a particularly enviable job and neither could have much of a private life. Goes with the territory, I suppose.

Less than a fortnight later I had a phone call.

“Mr Porter, this is Buckingham Palace. Is this a secure line?”

“I’ve no idea. As secure as any in the land, I suppose.”

“That’s what I was afraid of. Could I ask you to phone me from a public call box later this afternoon. The number is ... ”

“What is this all about?”

“Later, Mr Porter, later. You’ve got that number? Good. Before six, if you can.”

I did as I was told, thinking to play along with whichever joker or jokers in the office had decided to have a bit of fun at my expense. I thought I’d give them a run for their money.

“Stanley Porter here. You asked me to give you a ring.”

“Where are you?”

“Opposite Marks & Spencer in Hammersmith High Street. Is that all right? I could move on to Chiswick if you like. It’s on my way home.”

“You are not taking this seriously, Mr Porter.”

“Sorry. What do I do next?”

“A car will pick you up at six-thirty at your office tomorrow.”

“Wait a minute. I can’t make tomorrow. Would Friday be OK?”

“Mr Porter, this is the Palace.”

“That’s as may be, but it’s Friday or not at all.”

There was a pause and some muttering and mumbling in the background.

“Right. Six-thirty. Friday.”

“Fine. Who ...?”

But there was only a click.

I normally stayed late at the office on Fridays and was settling down to work after the rest of the office had gone home when there was a knock at the door and a smartly dressed young woman suddenly appeared at my elbow.

“Mr Porter, it’s six-thirty.”

I was a bit surprised. I thought my lack of co-operation would have put them off. And this girl certainly didn’t look as if she were delivering a stripper gram.

“Ah, yes,” I said, looking her over. “You’ll be from the Palace, I suppose?”

She nodded.

“I must say, Mr Porter,” she said as she watched me getting into my jacket, “you’re not an easy man to impress.”

The car was nondescript.

“What,” I said, “all the Daimlers and Jags busy?”

“Security,” she said briefly. “Would you mind sitting alongside me. It’ll look more natural.”

“Where are we going?”

“Don’t worry about that, Mr Porter. And, of course, I’ll drive you home afterwards.”

“Afterwards?”

She didn’t reply.

An odd thought struck me.

“You really are from the Palace, aren’t you?”

“Of course. ID is in the glove compartment.”

I looked. Sarah Bowes, Special Assistant, Buckingham Palace.

“Nice to meet you Miss Bowes. I must apologise for my off-handedness.”

“Sarah,” she said. “No problem. Takes all sorts.”

I glanced at this Sarah. There were no clues on her face to tell me what it was all about. Something to do with the medal, perhaps?

“Mr Porter, this is a matter of some embarrassment. We’ve made a frightful mistake. Totally unpardonable. The medal should have gone to another Stanley Porter, who lives in Manchester. Terribly, terribly sorry. Could we have it back, please?”

Or was it to do with what some people have been pleased to call my breezy - I’ve even heard the word brash - manner?

“Mr Porter, it has come to our attention that in conversation with Her Majesty you have been inappropriately familiar. Her Majesty has not herself complained, of course. She is too gracious a lady for that. But we have a duty to protect her ... ”

“From the likes of me?”

“I wasn’t going to say that, Mr Porter, but I see that you fully understand the situation and I am sure we can rely on you to see that there is no repetition of such ill-considered behaviour. If fact, we have advised Her Majesty on any future occasion to ... ”

Or even:

“Mr Porter, His Royal Highness enjoyed your company briefly the other day and wonders if you can find the time to serve on one of his committees. It concerns itself with the identification and discreet treatment of alcoholic naval officers whose careers are in danger of being blighted by their addiction.”

It was this last possible scenario that pulled me up short. That and the fact that the car had come to a stop.

“We’re running a bit late,” she said. “Do you want a drink or anything before we go in?”

“Where are we? Why am I being kidnapped like this?”

I had to walk quickly to keep up with her. It was dark. We went up some winding carpeted stairs. She showed me into a small, comfortably furnished room. Two wingchairs separated by a coffee table were facing each other close to a log fire. She motioned me to one of them. My idea of some kind of court-martial was clearly wrong.

“Make yourself comfortable,” she said. “Tea, coffee and biscuits are on the table in the corner. Won’t be long.”

Then she was gone.

I looked around. Oak panelling. Parquet floor. A couple of old bookcases. The general atmosphere was of an antique but friendly cosiness. I settled myself in one of the chairs and gazed into the fire. The warmth of the room and the strains of the day combined to cause my eyelids to droop. I don’t suppose I lost consciousness for more than a few minutes, but when I came to I immediately knew that I was not alone. A figure in the other chair was observing me gently.

“Your Majesty,” I said almost leaping to my feet. Men of my age curb any leaping impulses they may have because they fear the likely consequences.

“Sit down, Mr Porter,” she said. ”I didn’t mean to disturb you. You looked so peaceful.”

I subsided. To my own surprise, I didn’t know what to say.

“Thank you for coming.” She hesitated. “May I call you Stanley?” She hesitated a second time. “I’m afraid I can’t reciprocate.”

“Of course you can’t, ma’am. Stanley is fine. I shall continue to call you ma’am.”

“But not quite so often, if you don’t mind.”

“Right. And what can I do for you?”

“To tell the truth, Stanley, I’m not sure that I know. It’s just that, although we have met briefly only a couple of times, you struck me as, well, ... ”

“I’m just an ordinary person, if that’s the phrase you’re searching for.”

“Does that sound offensive or patronising?”

“Not at all. I doubt if you get to know many ordinary people in your job, so I must be something of a curiosity.”

“Exactly - well, not the curiosity bit, but the meeting ordinary people bit. You see, well, I‘m a bit, well, ... ”

“You‘re the Queen.”

“You know I sometimes wish I weren’t.”

“Have you ever thought of packing it all in?”

“Packing it all in,” she repeated slowly.

“It means ... ”

“I know what it means,” she said, I thought a trifle testily. “I don’t use the phrase, but I do know what it means."

“In your case, of course, it would mean abdicating.”

“Tell me about it ”

I was startled. She laughed.

“I bet you didn’t expect that, Stanley.”

“No, I didn’t. Congratulations. Well ...?”

“I can’t do that. Charles would take over, wouldn’t he?”

“He’s not a bad lad, you know. His heart’s in the right place.”

“Lad ! He’s turned sixty, Stanley. He’s not likely to change, is he?”

She stopped.

“I’ve never talked to anyone like this before. It could be dangerous, I suppose, but I rather like it.”

“What about your husband?”

“Philip? What about him?”

“Well, you mentioned Charles. You must discuss all your children with their father. That’s what most parents do.”

“Don’t forget: we are not most parents. In any case, I don’t think I’ve exchanged a civil word with Philip in years. Well, not in private, that is.”

She looked at me keenly.

“You look tired, Stanley,” she said. “I’d better let you go. Oh, I almost forgot. I’ve got something for you.”

She fished in a handbag at the side of her chair, leant forward and placed on object on the coffee table between us. It was about five inches long and shaped like a toy submarine with a circular conning tower about a third of the way along its length. I picked it up carefully and looked at her. Her face was grave, but I thought I detected a hint of a smile in the eyes.

“You are presenting me with a kazoo, ma-am?” I asked.

“I’ve got one, too,” she said, producing another from the handbag.

I hesitated. An unworthy thought crossed my mind. I was, after all, talking to an old lady.

“You want us to play duets?” I said.

Then she laughed and, if she had been anyone else, I felt certain she would have prodded me playfully in the chest.

“No, no. I’m teasing you, Stanley. These are not kazoos, though they fooled me too the first time I clapped eyes on them. They are rather special mobile telephones. Look.”

She twisted the conning tower and a tiny aerial sprang out of one end of the tube.

“Now you can have a telephone conversation in the normal way. State-of-the-art technology, so my Head of Security tells me. Mobile phones are being stolen all the time, but no-one would dream of stealing a kazoo. Clever, don’t you think?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “This particular telephone is rather special, so please don’t lose it, or I’ll be in trouble.” She looked conspiratorial. “It’s secure. It’s for you and me only.”

I hesitated yet again.

“So that you can summon me at will?”

She suddenly looked concerned.

“No, no, I don’t want you to think that. It’s just that, well, I would appreciate more of these chats.” She saw the uncertainty on my face. “You can always say no for any reason or for no reason at all. But I do hope you won’t.”

If I had not been conscious of who this woman was, I would have said that there was a hint of pleading in her voice.

“On that understanding, ma’am, I accept this gift. I don’t suppose I will have occasion to ring you, but, if I have to, I will leave a message with your secretary.”

“No secretary, Stanley, just you and me. If I’m opening or launching or unveiling something you can leave a message."

We both stood up. She offered her hand. She allowed it to stay in mine for longer than whatever the prescribed period is, and she returned the pressure.

“I’ll send Sarah in to drive you home.”

So I started to carry two mobiles around with me. About once a fortnight my new phone would ring. The commands, carefully couched as requests, were short, but never peremptory.

“Can Sarah pick you up on Thursday about six? Please ring me if it’s inconvenient.”

“I am going to Norway for three days. Have you ever been there?”

“I shall be in Balmoral for a fortnight. I would love to invite you, but we both know I can’t.”

“The newspapers are being horrid again this week. I would love to be able to give them a piece of my mind. Is Monday afternoon suitable?”

Many of the evening meetings were held in the room in Windsor where we had our first chat. I did a lot of listening and, when asked, expressed a view.

“What’s it feel like to be an éminence grise, Stanley?” she once asked me with a laugh. The Queen rarely laughs out loud in public, but she often did when we were alone.

“I’m hardly that. The reins of power are not in my hands. They’re not really in yours, come to that. In any case, I don’t attempt to advise you.”

“I have weekly meetings with the Prime Minister, you know. I used to sit there and just listen with a bland comment from time to time. Nowadays I say a bit more, largely because of the conversations you and I have. And he looks at me narrowly and says things like: ‘That’s a very perceptive remark, if I may say so, ma’am’ or ‘Thank you. I’ll certainly explore that possibility’. So, you see, you have some input into the way the country is run.”

No subjects were taboo - world affairs, the economy, visiting heads of state, law and order, anything preoccupying the media. I learnt quite a lot of surprising things about what went on behind the scenes. She would sometimes hesitate before speaking, but usually decided that, since I had not betrayed a confidence so far, I could be trusted with further revelations.

On one occasion she said: “This is all very one-sided, Stanley. I am getting all the benefit from our meetings. I let my hair down and sound off all the time and you just sit patiently and let me rabbit on.” A thought seemed to strike her. “Wouldn’t you like a handle? I think that’s the right term. Don’t you like the sound of Sir Stanley Porter? I could arrange that easily.”

“No doubt you could, but I don’t want it.”

“Why not?”

“On what grounds could I be knighted?”

“Services to the monarch, of course.”

I looked at her. There was a girlishness about this old woman which, I am sure, no-one had seen for a very long time. She seemed to be on the verge of clapping her hands with childish glee.

“I think not, ma’am. Nobody knows me. I like it that way. These meetings have successfully been kept discreet. Eyebrows would be raised, questions asked, if you were to honour me further. It would spoil everything.”

She looked at me affectionately. There is no other suitable word. She sighed.

“As usual, you are right. What would I do without you?”

“This has happened before, you know.”

She looked puzzled.

“Do you recall a man called John Brown?”

“The gillie? Did you see the film? I thought Judi Dench was marvellous. In fact, I told her so.”

“Billy Connolly wasn’t bad either.”

“Oh, yes, that Scottish comedian. I remember him.”

She came down to earth.

“Do you see yourself as a modern John Brown, Stanley? You’re not, you know. John Brown got people’s backs up, interfered in palace affairs. Got ... what’s the phrase?”

“Too big for his boots.”

“That’s it. You’re not my gillie, Stanley. You’re ...” She seemed to be thinking carefully. “You’re my friend.”

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