We made it – we got to Buckingham Palace and all went swimmingly, or flyingly perhaps. It was bizarre, a surreal experience, lifted from everyday into a world of celebrity and aristocracy. Of course Investitures are no more exciting to the armies of Palace staff than, say, organising National Trust tours: the ceremonies run like clockwork, the wheels greased by centuries of expertise, back to the courtly times of ancient monarchs. Now, as then, nervous investees are expected to remember the correct form of address, and walk backwards when leaving the royal presence(s). Your hatted head stays firmly on your shoulders these days if you get it wrong, but the gun-toting police and red-jacketed household guards in spiky helmets are there on duty to remind you that getting things wrong is not a good move.
We climbed into our limo bright and early, revelling in squishy leather upholstery and the free packets of tissues in the side pockets. They obviously knew Him Outdoors wouldn’t have his ManBag (see A Handbag). HO looked suave in his morning suit although never quite working out what to do with the top-hat. I felt elegant in my new dress and jacket which smoothed over some of the more obvious bulges. My hat, a floral and feather-clad flying saucer, was perfect, landed securely on the side of my head after a necessary redesign of its support system: a vigorous breeze soon put it to test but failed to dislodge it. The family all looked fabulous, even with elements of unorthodox dress – viz. a shiny blue suit and a pair of aggressively stripy socks.
The red-carpeted foyer of the Palace is reminiscent of a Grand Theatre but with portraits of royals instead of famous actors; however its castle origins are clear from the shiny metal-clad guards standing to attention like suits of armour. Wandering past various incarnations of Victoria and her family (the children’s pictures have been put up recently for the newest little royals) we reached the ladies’ cloakroom, a palace in itself with chandeliers and cut-glass goblets of cold water to drink. We handed in our mobiles and cameras to be stowed into smart gold carrier-bags. The basement housed an alternative throne room, with wooden-seated toilets on which Victoria herself might have been happy to rest her behind, No icy-breathed hand-driers, but thick serviettes – damp handshakes clearly not encouraged.
We took our seats in the grand ballroom, on raised benches at the side, with an excellent view of the platform and the gallery at the other end where a military string band played selections of classics in a kind of tasteful royal musack. Two massive thrones on the dais stayed empty throughout, unless perhaps invisibly occupied by royal backsides of the past. The main proceedings began with half a dozen silver-haired Yeomen of the Guard, i.e. Beefeaters, marching in at a stately pace; the sombre thumping of a wooden staff from the leader was out of time with a cheery waltz, a strangely Gilbert-and-Sullivan touch. The Princess Royal entered at the head of a small procession and took up position stage left, while the master of ceremonies read the citations from a lectern, stage right. It was a conveyor belt, each candidate walking or sometimes wheeling in, waiting alongside a uniformed official until time to approach the Princess; she hung the decoration onto a special holder on the investee’s jacket, then treated each candidate to industrious conversation. HO was slightly taken aback by her searching enquiries about his work – the Princess had done her homework thoroughly and needed no whispered prompting from a minion. A guide dog escorted one recipient and I hoped to see the Princess pat its head or attach a medal to its collar, but protocol is protocol, even for guide dogs. And all the time the band played on, with their soundtrack from Classic FM. No applause or awkward gaps – rustlings and whispered chatter were masked by the Beatles, Debussy, and even La La Land.
It was all over in a couple of hours – we collected our gold carrier bags with their Palace logo, and queued under the portico for official photos. By now an icy wind was making itself felt and a few ladies, myself included, were invited back into the warmth of the foyer to wait; we chatted with the staff, friendly, approachable and seemingly people of the ordinary sort, like us. By then the Olympic sporting celebs and famous bods had been whisked away after posing for their press photos.
Back in the limo we set off, warming up on the heated seats and waving regally at camera-wielding spectators outside the palace. An exquisite late lunch followed, in a posh restaurant dining room which would have looked at home in the Palace. The ladies were even provided with small folding stools for their handbags, so we didn’t have to grovel on the floor. Interesting to speculate whether one of HO’s ManBags would have been offered the same privilege. He could probably have requested a little stool for his hat, but that was already ensconced in the cloakroom, possibly with a saucer of cream.
Half-way through the meal a minor disturbance at the other end of the room alerted us to something happening outside. A wire was strung between the tops of the buildings opposite and we watched a man totter back and forth, a tight-rope walker. It turned out that a visiting French circus troupe was rehearsing for a BBC programme, abseiling, bungee jumping and generally flying through the air. It seemed hugely appropriate for the whole day somehow, a reiteration of our brief elevation to the heady heights of the Palace.
And he wasn’t even wearing a hat!