A royal faux pas at Queen Elizabeth’s garden party
London Letter: Invitation to tea at Buckingham Palace includes rules on what to wear
Printed on a card as thick as a slim volume of poetry and as stiff as a steel girder, the invitation hit the floor with a clatter when it arrived: “The Lord Chamberlain is commanded by Her Majesty to invite Mr Denis Staunton to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday, 10th May, 2016, from 4 to 6pm.”
Alongside it was a sheaf of instructions about what not to take along (any hand luggage or rucksack, anyone under 18) and what to wear – day dress with hat for the ladies and morning coat or lounge suit for the gentlemen.
I had known for a few weeks that the invitation was on the way and chose as my guest a friend who is a bit of a snob and such a show-off that when his invitation arrived, he left it on a table downstairs for two days so his neighbours would see the Buckingham Palace postmark.
So there we were on Tuesday afternoon, queuing in torrential rain with 8,000 others outside the palace in our smartest suits and shiniest shoes.
To my guest’s disgust, I was sheltering under an Irish Times umbrella, stolen from the office during my last visit there, and emblazoned with the newspaper’s name in huge letters.
Most of the other guests had distinguished themselves in their communities through charity work or public service and it was a colourful crowd full of big hats and fascinators, with plenty of clergy in full rig and a good smattering of men and women in uniform.
Queen Elizabeth gives three of these parties every summer and the convention is that you are invited only once in your life. There are online forums for everything, including a few for the palace garden party, which offer such useful etiquette tips as an injunction not to try to take a selfie with the queen.
The queen was resplendent in shocking pink, clutching a see-through plastic umbrella that was soon to be her undoing. Prince Philip strode purposefully behind her, in top hat and tails, impressively steady for a man of 94.
There are three tea tents: the huge general tent, running all the way along one side of the lawn; the royal tent, with a crown on top; and the diplomatic tent next to it, which was where we were. Tea was served in a china cup that fitted into a combination plate, which you could reload as often as you wished with tiny sandwiches (the cucumber and mint ones were delicious) and various cakes including miniature Battenbergs and slices of hearty fruit cake.
The atmosphere in the diplomatic tent was sociable and a little giddy, although a cabinet minister I chatted to remarked it was very hard to find a diplomat there. As the royals approached their tent, groups of extremely grand flunkeys in top hats, morning coats and fancy waistcoats floated over towards us.
“There’s a certain look, isn’t there?” I said to the woman next to me.
“Yes, down the nose,” she said.
The exchange was caught on camera by the official cameraman, who sent it along with other footage from the party to the television networks, which broadcast it – much to the annoyance of the Chinese. The cameraman was the usual, respectful distance away from the queen and her remarks would not have been picked up but for her plastic umbrella, which acted as a kind of sound cone and amplified her speech.
As it happens, a friend I met at the garden party who has met the queen many times, told me as we sipped our tea that conversations with her often go off the rails. People who meet her can be so nervous that they start babbling, or become dumbstruck, in which case she fills the silence with her own a stream of consciousness.
Strolling through the gardens later, I peered through the windows of a small summer house, with comfortable, chintzy chairs, a few tables and on the floor, a stuffed toy in the shape of a corgi. Just the place a frazzled queen might wish to take refuge in after a day like that.