Tuesday, 17 April 2012

A Royal for all classes

Behind the ostrich feathers and silk organza was a zest for life and a love for people. A decade after her death, The Lady fondly remembers the Queen Mother…

Written by Thomas Blaikie

Ten years since her death and I think of the Queen Mother firstly as one of those old-fashioned silhouettes: imagine a pencil outline – the duster coat, the domed hat with the brim upturned at the front, the off-the-face veiling. It couldn’t be anyone else but Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

It was a dark and windy Easter Saturday, 30 March 2002, when she died and, Peter Sissons, announcing the event on the BBC news, so singularly failed to don a black tie. But, as it happened, her passing marked an upturn in the fortunes of the monarchy, rock-bottom since the death of Diana and distinctly poor since the ‘Annus horribilis’ of 1992.

Some 200,000 people filed past her coffin as it lay in state in Westminster Hall. I was there, taken through a back entrance by a herald. The scene was astonishing, ablaze with colour and diamonds - the whole panoply of majesty in grand defiance of death.

Yet the ‘Queen Mum’ the nation had known and loved was the human face of monarchy long before anyone had heard of Diana. Once, a man sneezing in the street heard ‘Bless you’ coming from a passing car. It was the Queen Mother who had wound down her window. During the Second World War, she and the King visited the bombed-out East End. On one occasion, a dog was down a hole, too terrified to move. People had been trying to coax it out, but the Queen Mother, then Queen, was the only one to succeed.

The Queen Mother was not born royal, but as Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, she was the daughter of the Earl of Strathmore. It was an eccentric, somewhat ramshackle aristocratic family, said to be short of money or maybe just unconcerned with appearances. From her mother, a remarkable woman by all accounts, she learned the art of reaching out to those less fortunate than herself, an ideal of service and charity work, and the knack of saying or doing the right thing.


Famously, during the war, when Buckingham Palace was bombed, she declared, ‘Now I can look the East End in the face.’ Years later, at a reception for Pearly Kings and Queens, an elderly Pearly Queen arrived late, looking dazed. Thinking that she had missed the Queen Mother, she hugged that very person herself. ‘Oh gawd,’ she squawked, realising her mistake and beginning a creaking curtsey. ‘Get up at once,’ said Elizabeth, ‘we Queens of East and West have always been equals.’

Nevertheless, she carried the sweep and awe of majesty. After the King’s death in 1952, the Queen Mother required to be maintained in the manner, or rather, state, to which she was accustomed. Expected to relinquish some of her ladies-in-waiting, she evaded the issue for long enough and kept them all.

In extreme old age, she used to lunch at The Athenaeum with Sir Steven Runciman, not least for the pleasure of seeing bewildered old gentlemen lurching to their feet when she poked her head into the menonly sitting room. In 1960, Norman Hartnell warned her that the osprey feathers she was contemplating cost £100 each, so she jutted out her jaw and ordered another set in white. Many said that beneath the chiffon and feathers and sweet smiles lay a core of steel.

The Queen Mother had her detractors. Some thought her too good to be true. The diarist James
Lees-Milne preferred her daughter the Queen as being, altogether more straightforward and genuinely interested. Rumours flew that she was violently rightwing, almost a fascist, that she had conducted a vitriolic feud with the Duchess of Windsor, and was really perfectly horrible. Another view held that she was a divine camp figure, staffed entirely by confirmed bachelors, who supplied unlimited gin and helped her run up huge gambling debts.


Whatever the truth, Wayne Sleep heard it from Sir Frederick Ashton that, on entering the Royal Box with him at Covent Garden to great applause, she whispered, ‘They love us old queens’. As for the gin, John Julius Norwich witnessed substantial consumption when she lunched annually at All Souls College, Oxford, which caused a curious acceleration… She bucketed across two quads to her car afterwards.

Many of her servants were unmarried gentlemen, most notably William Tallon, known in the tabloids as ‘Backstairs Billy’. Once, after lunch, she insisted on going there and then to his little terraced home in South London which she’d never seen. Billy’s partner was still in bed and the place was a tip.

In many ways, the Queen Mother was a product of her time and class, a high-living Edwardian – hard drink at lunchtime; winking tolerance of gays provided they were discreet, and an excellent line in tactful if sometimes far-fetched remarks designed to whisk away anything unpleasant, such as class division or colonisation – as when, in South Africa, a man told her he’d never forgive the English for what they’d done to his country and she said she was Scottish and wouldn’t forgive them either.

Since her death, the Queen Mother’s official biography by William Shawcross has revealed her as truly warm-hearted, as well as wittier and cleverer and more ‘normal’ than expected. What lay beneath the silk organza was not steel or delicate fabric, but a genuine zest for life and enthusiasm for people. This was the secret of her long-lived Royal success.


Queen Mum’s the word…

Some little-known facts about the Queen Mother

A bell rang at Clarence House each evening to signal her going to bed

A policeman sat on a chair outside her bedroom all night at Royal Lodge

In the 1950s, she kept falling over: rumours flew that she was drunk and disorderly. In fact it was due to her excessively high heels

She did not have a colostomy bag

‘You must all need a drink after your duties.’ This was declared following a meeting of the Privy Council – but it had only lasted a few minutes

Her personal treasurer, Arthur Penn, once said ‘The Bowes-Lyons are the laziest family in the world’

She was once driven by a nine-year-old in a beaten-up old car

‘She carried barley sugar in her bag and offered it to officials she thought looked tired’

She was very fond of toffees

The Queen once commented: ‘I don’t know why Mummy wants all these dresses: they’re all the same.’

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