What’s Queen Elizabeth really like? I spent two weeks with her

Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Au...
Queen of United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Australia, and other Commonwealth realms) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As millions of cheering loyal subjects (and the deeply curious) this weekend celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, some of you must wonder — what’s that life really like?

As Queen Elizabeth celebrates 60 years on the throne — and 1,000 boats are floating down the Thames today to celebrate —  here are my personal memories of an unforgettable two weeks spent chasing her.

In 1984, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip took a two-week tour of Canada, from New Brunswick to Ontario to Manitoba. I was 26, a brand-new reporter at The Globe and Mail, with six months’ daily newspaper experience.

This would be front-page news every day, and the paper has five daily editions, so I would have to meet multiple deadlines for my editors in Toronto — whether I was an hour ahead or behind in time zone. No pressure!

The Queen, as you would expect, travels with a large entourage of ladies-in-waiting and equerries. Not to mention a serious and determined contingent of security. In charge on that tour was a dapper Glaswegian, in a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches. He was tiny but ferocious, yet managed to keep a sense of humor as he tried to keep dozens of annoying reporters and photographers at bay. One day, as we all pressed forward behind the Queen on walkabout, he walked backward, his arms outstretched toward us.

“You need a whip and a chair!” I joked.

“I could use the whip,” he said. My. (I later bought him one and gave it to him as a going-away gift at our final party.)

The two weeks were an insane and exhausting blur of 14 to 16-hour days. It was also the first time the press corps — men and women of all ages from every outlet, from the CBC to Time –– was, at each event, literally penned into a very small space with cords around it.

This was also long before cellphones or the Internet and an era when the fastest possible laptop showed (!!) barely 4 sentences at a time, attached to a telephone handset with clips and took forever to download.

Not to mention trying to find a phone on deadline…I raced into a hotel lobby once and commandeered the phone in the news-stand. Another time I ran frantically to the nearest private home, banged on the door, begged for a table to write on and a phone from which to transmit, in the middle of which the man of the house (a judge) came home and wondered why a crazed blond stranger had taken over his phone line and kitchen table.

Or the house at which I banged on the door and promptly fell flat on my face as they opened it.

Good times!

Every day, the Queen’s staff gave us a little printed piece of paper with the exact words to describe her clothing; not “light green” but “eau de Nil.”

The greatest challenge of covering a Royal Tour? There is no news. Cutting ribbons. Smiling. Accepting bouquets.

So every reporter at home reading my stuff was inwardly sneering at how mundane it had to be while every one of us on the tour were desperate to find a scrap of information that no one else in the huge pack, all traveling on the same buses or planes, could access. (When the Queen’s aircraft takes off, yours must leave a few minutes behind….it’s called the “purple corridor.”)

So when I reported that a government minister touched her on the back and shoulder (you never touch Her Majesty!) it made front-page news in Britain and created a huge ruckus.

Then I wrote a later story about the oddness of being feet from a reigning sovereign whose face was on the stamps and currency I’d been using since birth — and how she is really just another human being. On that one, (having said [yes] that she had visible veins in her legs, i.e. she’s human, too), I got plenty of hate mail and calls.

One man suggested I be drawn and quartered.

In Toronto’s harbor, the press corps was invited to drinks aboard Britannia, then her yacht. I still have the engraved invitation, on thick white gold-edged card: “The Master of the Household invites…”

We were all nervous and excited. The equerries were drop-dead gorgeous in their uniforms and poured very strong G & Ts. Then we were all formed into little semi-circles into which the Queen was guided to say hello. When I was introduced, she looked past me and said “Pity we haven’t had time to read the newspapers.”

As if. She had been furious with some of my work and this was the most British diss of all. “Stories? What stories?”

Her jewelry was astonishing. Her tiara…oh, yeah, those diamonds are real!

Her detective, who I met only at the final party, had remained invisible. When we met, I’d had no idea he had, of course, been there the whole time. Short, quiet, modest, James Beaton had in March 1974 saved Princess Anne from a would-be kidnapper and taken a bullet to his body for her.

Good heavens! I’d never met a real hero before.

My favorite memory of all?

Starved for any scrap of color or detail my competitors couldn’t match, I peeked into the rear seat of the parked car in which Her Majesty had been driven to an event.

There sat a small suitcase with a very large red cardboard baggage tag.

In large black block type, it simply read: The Queen.

30 thoughts on “What’s Queen Elizabeth really like? I spent two weeks with her

    1. You’re also 3 two degrees of separation from Bush I, Reagan and Clinton as my husband photographed them many times while working in the White House Press Corps. We’ve had fun careers.

  1. I have always had great fun with my name frequently using a reference to the Queen as a nemonic device as in ” Hello, I’m Elizabeth … like The Queen? ” My sister Margaret born two years later had to make do with being second in line. It’s funny that my dad liked the combination so much especially as the Harper line had been in the US since before the American Revolution. I still get a chuckle hearing my Brit husband and neighbors refer to it as the War of Independence.

    I’ll be joining in the Jubilee celebrations in our Cornish village and I’m looking forward to documenting the day’s events with a few photographs for my blog. While not a journalist with daily deadlines such as the ones you’ve experienced, I may do a bit of casual interviewing if I can and talk to Mavis, a local woman in her 80s who can give me her perspective on the Queen’s public life and service.

    Thanks for sharing such an interesting part of your life. I love how she looked past you. I can feel the chill just thinking about it.

  2. mhasegawa

    As a Yank and serious fan of the Queen, I loved this story. And remember the flap when Michelle Obama put her arm aroung the Queen and vice versa. Turned out they were comparing shoes!

  3. As I reached the end of your post I had a chuckle at the luggage tag … imagine having one of those! On my case it would of course read ‘The King.’ I have often reflected upon what a very strange life she must have led … at once mundane and ridiculously extraordinary.

  4. Marvelous story! I’ve heard many stories of how the Queen doesn’t like to be touched, but as an American, it’s hard to imagine our leaders being that way. It’s definitely a foreign concept. I can picture you trying to find a place to be able to send your story out. With technology, things are so much different now.

    1. It is such an odd experience to be around royalty. They look normal but behave very differently from stars and politicians, which is what I wrote about back then. Everyone else needs our vote and our attention to survive. Not them.

  5. I remember the furore here when then PM Paul Keating put his arm around HM in 1992. He was dubbed ‘The Lizard of Oz’ (wtf!?) by the British tabloids. Sparked a whole new wave of replubican sentiment and name-calling…

  6. heikoworld

    Living in the UK and being a freelance Television Cameraman with my crew we regularly got to cover Queen Elizabeth on her UK visits and some overseas visits, she is a Great lady and a very busy Queen even we had a job keeping up with her schedule.
    On my official retirement the icing on the cake for me and my crew we got to record one of her Christmas Broadcast`s for the Commonwealth and UK, to me that was, if not the final but the pinnacle of my career.
    Even now on her 60th Anniversary I have gone out to cover her visits with my DSLR stills camera, she is a marvelouse lady who will continue long after 60 years and me in retirement, I have every admiration to her loyalty to her job.


  7. Hmm is anyone else experiencing problems with the images
    on this blog loading? I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.
    Any feed-back would be greatly appreciated.

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