I’ve been reading Andrew Marr’s Diamond Queen (which he has updated for the Platinum Jubilee). I’m not normally a Marr fan, the thought of watching a political discussion on a Sunday morning is just too dreadful to contemplate. Surely people have better things to do?
Nevertheless, I found the book a terrific read and I couldn’t put it down.
I’ve received just one complaint about the jubilee from a republican. For heaven’s sake! Just look around: the notion that we might choose a politician to replace our Monarch as head of state is absurd, it would be an act of barking madness.
Marr’s book put me in mind of my own experience of the Queen. I had the rare privilege of being her Vice Chamberlain from 2012 to 2014.
The VC has four duties: To give the Queen a daily written account of the highlights of proceedings in the Commons -taking care to make it interesting; To accompany the Queen at her Summer garden parties; To be held hostage at Buckingham Palace against the safe return of the Queen when she is in Parliament (a reminder of times when the relations between the Crown and Parliament were not so cordial), I found the terms of my confinement very agreeable, quickly acquiring Stockholm syndrome; Finally, to carry humble addresses from the Commons to the Queen and to return her responses to the Commons.
This is a formal process. Immediately after prayers Mr Speaker announces the VC, who -in morning dress and carrying the wand of office- advances from the Bar of the House to the Table bowing twice. Having read the Queen’s message, bows twice more whilst walking backwards to the Bar, which feat is accompanied by roars of approval from colleagues.
When I presented my first humble address to the Queen at Buckingham Palace I was briefed beforehand by a courtier about the proper etiquette, he told me that on no account was I to observe the ‘former custom’ of walking backwards so as not to turn my back on the Sovereign. During these audiences you are entirely alone with the Queen without anyone else present to prompt. After I had formally delivered the address we had a more relaxed discussion, the Queen then asked me in a rather mischievous way if I was about to walk backwards. I replied that I had been ordered not to, would she like me to?
She chuckled, saying it that she didn’t mind at all either way and that it was entirely a matter of personal preference. So, I did walk backwards.
The VC’s wand is not the sort that a wizard might wield. It looks more like a billiard cue. In former times the Monarch would snap it in two to signify the end of the appointment. In deference to modern sensibilities, they’ve now put a hinge in the middle. One used to be able to hold onto the wand as a keepsake but these days the Government Whips Office charges £1000 for it, so I opted for a scroll instead.
When the Queen presented the scroll she said that it had looked rather dull so she had made it more presentable by tying a red ribbon round it. She didn’t say that she had caused a ribbon to be tied, she said that she had tied a ribbon and I don’t doubt it.