THE KIND OF STORY TEASE I’D BUY A BOOK FOR

About the Queen Mother:

The tourists milling around outside Buckingham Palace stared in amazement as the Queen Mother walked through its gates following an impromptu stroll from her home at nearby Clarence House.

I was as surprised as anyone that she had made the journey on foot. As her equerry — a glorified word for fixer and organiser — I had advised her that unexpectedly heavy traffic meant it would be impossible for her to make a planned lunch engagement at the Palace on time and suggested that we should put it off.

‘Nonsense,’ she had announced. ‘We’ll just have to walk.’ And so off we went, with her security force in tow.

Her advancing age — she was then in her mid-90s — meant she was rarely seen in public. But the delight of the onlookers was as nothing compared to her reaction when we emerged from Green Park and one of her personal protection officers pushed the button on the pedestrian crossing that lay between us and the Palace.

‘What does that button do?’ she asked.

‘You press it,’ he replied. ‘And it tells you when to cross the road.’

She turned with a look of utter astonishment on her face.

‘Isn’t that ingenious?’ she whispered.

She relished such escapes from her generally sheltered life, and one of her favourite ruses was to sneak out of Clarence House with Princess Margaret’s son David Linley and go for a spin in his sports car.

No one ever recognised her, partly because she always wore a headscarf, but also because you would never expect to see a woman in her 90s haring through the streets of London in a top-of-the-range motor.

She did like being a bit naughty. But in recognition of her age, her official engagements had been dramatically reduced by the time I began working for her. Life at Clarence House and her other residences followed a sedate routine, revolving largely around lunch and rather a lot of booze.

She was far from being an alcoholic. But she loved social drinking and, of course, her life was very social, as I discovered when I replaced her previous equerry in the summer of 1994.

Each equerry holds the post for only two years and you cannot apply for the job. The Army puts forward suitable candidates and, though I had just completed three years in the Irish Guards (the regiment from which the Queen Mother’s equerries were traditionally recruited), I wondered why on earth anyone would want me looking after her.

Surely, I thought, the job would go to someone of much higher social standing than me. Then only 26, I was just an ordinary guy with a tendency to crack jokes and a healthy scepticism of unnecessary protocol, but I was duly invited to Clarence House so the Queen Mother could assess my suitability over a private lunch.

There I was, sitting across the table from Britain’s most senior royal, a woman who was almost 70 years old when I was born.

The Queen Mother broke the ice by saying to me: ‘So, Colin, tell me a bit about yourself. Do you have a girlfriend?’

‘Erm, no, ma’am,’ I replied, thinking this was all a bit unusual. I had expected a much more formal kick-off, but I suppose it was a great way of putting me at ease.

‘Oh, why not?’ she asked.

‘I’m just waiting for the right girl to come along,’ I said. And she just left it at that, no follow-up question, nothing.

However, she didn’t seem displeased. The job was, after all, only given to single men on account of the unsociable hours that included late duties, entertaining and other things. So to have had a full-time girlfriend would not have been easy. I felt I had somehow passed the first test.

In hindsight, of course, that is exactly what it was, a test.

We then went on to another subject and in her very informal and chatty way she proceeded to extract all the information she needed while subtly assessing my suitability for the position.

For the next two hours, we talked of my family, where I lived, my education and a whole host of other personal things, such as where I liked to go on holiday and whether I had pets or not, which also seemed to be quite important to her.

I remember her being keen to talk about the fact I had boxed when I was younger.

The meal itself was unmemorable, in so much as it was quite simple: a sort of eggs Florentine for starters — eggy starters were a favourite of hers — followed by meat with boiled potatoes and vegetables, and chocolate fondant for pudding.

What was memorable was her fondness for red wine, particularly heavy clarets, which she loved. We must have got through a bottle- and-a-half at that first meeting.

Following my appointment, I discovered the Queen Mother’s pattern of drinking rarely varied. At noon, she had her first drink of the day — a potent mix of two parts of the fortified wine Dubonnet to one part of gin.

This was followed by red wine with lunch and, very occasionally, a glass of port to end it. Later came the ritual observed at 6pm, deemed the earliest acceptable time for an evening drink.

‘Colin, are we at the magic hour?’ the Queen Mother would invariably ask, and I’d mix her a Martini. After a couple of these, she would sit down to dinner and drink one or two glasses of pink champagne.

At least three times a week, we were joined for lunch by invited guests. Some panicked about observing the correct etiquette. I even had to teach some of the women to curtsey — you can imagine how that looked!

But the Queen Mother was so accomplished socially that she could make anyone feel at ease within seconds. At one lunch, someone picked up his soup bowl and drank straight from it.

Quick as a flash, she said: ‘I always think soup tastes much better that way.’

If ever I was unsure about protocol, I referred to what was known as the Blue Book, an equerry’s guide updated over the years by all holders of the post.

Unfortunately, it offered no advice on how one should proceed if punched in the stomach by a guest, as I sometimes was by Lord Slim, a tall fellow who was ex-Special Forces. Whenever you went up to greet him formally on these occasions, he replied by way of a sharp jab to your solar plexus.

‘Oh, I see you’ve met Lord Slim,’ the Queen Mother would say whenever she saw me doubled up in pain.

If an event needed livening up, she happily chivvied things along.

Once, when the guests included the Archbishop of Canterbury and various military officers, the party was breaking up into cliques, so she grabbed one of the generals and pushed him over to the other side of the room, saying: ‘Well, go on — go and talk to them, then.’

She then turned to me and said: ‘It’s just like being with children. I have to encourage them, otherwise they won’t say hello.’

Of course, the social wheels were also lubricated by large amounts of alcohol, starting with the aperitifs I poured from the huge walk-in drinks cupboard. My big challenge was always getting through the afternoon sober.

I was never much of a boozer, but I was expected to match the guests drink for drink, and the Queen Mother was deeply offended if ever I said no to more alcohol.

On the third glass of wine, I would tell her: ‘I’ve got to drive home this afternoon and I don’t want to get breathalysed by the police.’ But even that didn’t stop her.

‘Oh, just tell them you work for me,’ she said with a conspiratorial smile. I would later find myself slumped across my desk with my arms in the drawers either side of me to get my head in the right position for a nap.

Away from London, the Queen Mother loved picnic lunches during her annual holiday at Birkhall, which is part of the Balmoral estate in the Scottish Highlands.

There were seven lodges dotted around the grounds and she liked to eat at each of them in turn.

Before the guests arrived, she and I would meet at these places to get them ready. She usually turned up wearing her favourite hat, a blue one with a small feather in it, though she did once wear a stetson that I had brought back from a America and given to her as a present.

Then the two of us would lay the table together. She loved putting things out; there were no airs and graces about her. We unpacked bottles of whisky, brandy, gin — you name it, she had it — because we had to be prepared for every request for a drink. So, as always, there was a lot of alcohol.

Once everything was ready, we cracked open a bottle of wine, had a sausage and just sat there talking and waiting for everyone to arrive.

These moments alone together were quite magical. She would recall dancing with Fred Astaire and, with a glint in her eye, add: ‘He was quite a good dancer, you know.’ Once she described how, when she was in her late teens, she regularly walked past a certain gentlemen’s club in London which, her mother had warned her, was ‘a very bad place’.

‘She told me never to look into the windows and I never did. But once when I was walking past, a man walking towards me suddenly stopped and said: “Oh, blue eyes.” He had no idea who I was.’

This had obviously thrilled her because it was the first time she became aware that men no longer saw her as a young girl, but as an attractive woman.

The Queen loved these picnic lunches just as much as her mother did. They had a wonderful relationship, built on deep affection and respect.

There’s a great story about the Queen Mother questioning her daughter’s request for another glass of wine during one of these alfresco gatherings.

‘Is that wise?’ she frowned. ‘You know you have to reign all afternoon.’

Neither of them curtsied to the other, and if the Queen Mother said anything that her daughter found amusing, the Queen would say ‘Oh, Mummy,’ and laugh.

Often they gave the corgis biscuits shaped like little Hovis loaves, and they would allocate a couple to each guest so that they could feed the dogs, too, only this was never explained.

You’d see people sitting with them on their plate after lunch or dinner, wondering if this was some strange extra course.

Eventually they’d pick them up to eat them, at which point the Queen or Queen Mother would shout: ‘No, no, they’re for the dogs.’

They could easily have avoided this by telling people what the biscuits were for as they handed them out, but their mischievous streak got the better of them.

When she wasn’t socialising, the Queen Mother liked listening to military music — especially if it involved the bagpipes, or ‘agony pipes’ as I like to call them — and she also loved yodelling songs.

She thought they were so bad that they were actually good, but I just wanted to break the records into tiny little pieces.

Fortunately, she spent far more time watching television. Just like the Queen, she liked having her dinner on a tray in front of the TV and both were EastEnders fans.

The Queen Mother also loved Hyacinth Bucket’s over-the-top affectations in Keeping Up Appearances, but easily her favourite programme was Fawlty Towers. She must have watched it over 30 times in the two years I was there and she was always saying: ‘Don’t mention the war.’

In fact, she mentioned the war quite a lot, saying things like: ‘It’s not politically correct to look down on our European neighbours, is it? But I still find the Germans beastly.’

In her defence, she had seen first-hand the devastating effect German bombs had on Londoners, not least when Buckingham Palace was bombed while she and the King were there.

She didn’t mind the French so much, but she did like to poke fun at them for barely putting up a fight in the war.

‘How could you be beaten if you didn’t want to be beaten?’ she would say. She often bantered about them.

It was all very friendly, but I do remember the French President Jacques Chirac coming to visit Clarence House for afternoon tea with an entourage of about ten people — why so many, I do not know, because most leaders brought just two or three. There were so many that we had to draft in some of the ladies-in-waiting to talk to them.

All through their meeting, which lasted about half an hour, the Queen Mother was very feisty.

I remember her responding to a comment that the President made with: ‘Oh, you French would like that, wouldn’t you?’ Though they laughed, I wasn’t so sure they fully appreciated it.

The President was slightly nervy in her presence, unlike Nelson Mandela — who startled her by prostrating himself in front of her with his face buried in the carpet while she stood there patiently acknowledging this gesture of deep respect.

On that occasion, I struggled to know what to do. There was nothing in the equerry Blue Book about this. But eventually, after about four minutes, the Queen Mother decided it had gone on long enough.

‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Let’s go and have some tea.’ And off they went. I know that Mandela made a huge impact on her.

The Queen Mother, of course, had lost her husband many years before, and I think she found solace in male companionship, being much more at home discussing military matters with people from the Forces than she was with the chit-chat of socialite women.

She was particularly close to Sir Ralph Anstruther, a former Coldstream Guards officer, who had been awarded the Military Cross for his bravery during World War II.

Whenever she went abroad, he would go ahead on a reconnaissance mission, briefing her hosts on her likes and dislikes, and making sure they were well stocked up with her favourite gin.

I would say the relationship between them was nothing more than companionship between two like-minded people.

But one person I think she did feel some sort of affection and love towards was her press secretary, Sir Martin Gilliat.

He had served in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps during the war and was captured four times, but managed to escape on three occasions.

He died shortly before I joined her service, but he was, by all accounts, charming and very funny. During one holiday at the Castle of Mey, her home on the remote northern coast of Scotland, just a few miles from John O’Groats, he took some guests on a trip to the Orkney Islands and got talking to two Germans, who asked if he had ever been to their country.

Quick as a flash, he replied: ‘Yes, I have, actually. I stayed at a marvellous hotel and they looked after me magnificently. In fact, they wouldn’t let me leave! I was given good meals, lots of exercise and plenty of fresh air.’

‘Ah, really,’ the Germans said. ‘And what was the name of this place?’

‘Colditz,’ he replied.

Of all her staff, I think the Queen Mother missed him the most. They say she was never the same woman after he died in 1993.

If Sir Ralph Anstruther occupied a big part of her life, Sir Martin occupied an even bigger part of her heart.

Adapted from Behind Palace Doors by Colin Burgess (John Blake, £8.99). © Colin Burgess 2017. To buy a copy for £6.74, call 0844 571 0640 or visit mailbook shop.co.uk. Offer ends May 1. P&P free on orders over £15.

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One Response to THE KIND OF STORY TEASE I’D BUY A BOOK FOR

  1. She was quite a character. Pity her grandson is a raghead loving half-wit.

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