Queen Elizabeth II is the only monarch I have known, and I am over 75 years old. I remember watching her coronation in 1953 on a 12” black and white TV my uncle had built. She has been part of my life ever since in many different ways.
There are, and will continue to be, a multitude of messages, memories, condolences and out-pouring of grief and respect, most of which will be far more eloquent than any attempt I might make. They will represent a cross-section of the world that no other person, perhaps ever, has commanded. Queen Elizabeth II is quite simply the most well-known personage on Planet Earth, with due respect to Sit David Attenborough.
I thought the only way I could write something that might add to all this was to make it very personal. So please accept this humble attempt at contributing to the world’s grief and respect for someone who has personified the best one can hope to be for over eight decades.
I first met Queen Elizabeth II when I was assigned to escort her around the new library of the University of Sussex when she opened it in 1964. I admit I don’t remember much of the detail of that day, except the memory has stayed with me for almost sixty years. I was certainly intimidated by the idea that I had to perform such a duty but the memory is of an easy and comfortable event. She is famous for putting everyone she meets at ease.
The second time I had the honour to meet her was in Puerto Rico. I was the Honorary British Consul for the Island and Queen Elizabeth II, together with the Duke of Edinburgh, was scheduled to make a stop-over in San Juan to change planes at the beginning of her last Caribbean tour. The short visit was exciting, frightening, funny and certainly memorable.
I expected that as a representative of Her Majesty’s Government I would receive explicit and complete instruction on what to do, how to do it, and when to do it for such an illustrious occasion. I should have known better! I received no instructions at all except to be informed that the royal entourage was coming. I can only think that the British Foreign Office considered me too insignificant to worry about, and presumably thought I would just keep out of the way.
Imagining the wrath of the Puerto Rican Government, the British community, and the Island in general, if I did nothing, I set about planning the event carefully. I must admit that my respect for the Queen, and my annoyance at the lack of support from the Foreign Office, made me determined to make the occasion memorable regardless of what the London mandarins thought (they had no way of stopping me anyway!).
The Queen’s VC10 aircraft was to land at a Puerto Rico Air National Guard base, which is located alongside the international airport. She, and part of her forty-member support staff, would then transfer to a much smaller plane of the Queen’s flight; the VC10 was too big to land at most of the Caribbean Islands that were on the tour schedule.
The day finally arrived, and I was standing on the tarmac with the RAF crew of the smaller plane, when I realized I had a major problem. I had to go on board the VC1 to formally greet the Queen but, then, I had to be at the bottom of the gangway to introduce her to the long line of local dignitaries. I could hardly walk down the steps in front of the monarch. What the hell was I to do?
The RAF crew suggested something I would never have occurred to me. “Why don’t you just ask her how she would like to handle it”, they said.
I did exactly that, and she said, “Why don’t you go down first, and I’ll watch through the window and only come down when you are at the bottom”. All so easy, and immensely kind.
Everything came off well, except that when one of the people providing the refreshments in the base operations room, handed Queen Elizabeth a cup of tea, I belatedly noticed that the teacup had a teabag string hanging over the side of the cup. The Queen, of course, didn’t notice but, I’m sure my knighthood went straight out the window at that moment. However, I suppose I should have considered myself lucky. In olden times, that little error would have invoked a trip to the Tower of London.
My final remembrance of meeting Queen Elizabeth II was at the ceremony in Buckingham Palace when she awarded me the honour of an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for my work in Puerto Rico.
When we arrived at the Palace, we were given strict instructions on how to behave by the Palace majordomo. This included the order to say nothing. When it was my turn, and after the Queen read the citation, I said, “Your Majesty, it was great pleasure to welcome you to Puerto Rico during your last visit to the Caribbean”. She smiled, and said, “Oh! I remember that”.
If looks could kill, I would have been instantly dead at the hands of the majordomo standing behind her….and he had a sword! Again personal kindness and consideration.
The death of Queen Elizabeth II sees the passing of an era, and the entry into an uncertain future without her guidance and wisdom. King Charles III will, I am sure, perform his duties and his commitments well, but he has an almost impossible act to follow. Queen Elizabeth II is unique in British history and culture for all sorts of reasons, not the least because of her ability to everyone feel at ease in her presence.