By Caitlin Kelly
I admit — we were in the middle of a restaurant lunch yesterday when we learned that Queen Elizabeth had died.
I burst into tears.
I know for many people the monarchy is something hated and archaic. I get it.
For a Canadian who grew up, initially, with photos of Her Majesty on our classroom walls, then later on our stamps and currency, the Queen was a daily part of our lives, even if only her image.
As a young reporter for the national daily Globe and Mail, she became a part of my daily life in person when I was chosen to cover a Royal Tour of the Queen and Prince Philip.
It was the oddest sort of high profile assignment as it meant my stories would run on the front page most days — yet there would be little to say beyond what she wore, what she might say and who she met. It was both thrilling to be chosen and terrifying, especially as this was long before cellphones or the Internet or light, quick laptops. I would have to file for up to five daily editions, racing to meet each deadline with no easy access to a telephone or even a place from which to send my story or even to sit down and write it.
This made for some seriously weird moments — like the big old house in small-town New Brunswick where I begged to use their kitchen table to write, and, when an older gentlemen entered his own kitchen, muttered “Globe and Mail, on deadline!” Then I had to kick the lady of the house off her own telephone to commandeer the line, unscrew the handset, attach alligator clips, and transmit my story in time. The gentleman was a judge who would be attending a formal dinner with her that evening.
Or the hotel lobby gift shop whose pay phone I needed to use.
Or the small-town rural home whose front door I banged on in desperation…scaring the hell out of its poor owners as I begged yet more strangers for their help and to use their phone.
Each day was long and tiring, often with multiple events, and I think we were working 12-15 hour days, whipped.
We must have eaten, but I don’t remember when or how or what.
We traveled in a huge press pack, with Time and Newsweek and BBC and CBC all jammed into press planes or buses. Sometimes we flew in a Lear jet (a first!) and observed the “purple corridor” — the elapsed time between when Her Majesty’s plane took off and ours was allowed to.
We were all technically competing with one another for…no real news!
It was very odd to watch her turn her charm on and off like a spigot on walkabouts — we’re so used to politicians and celebrities who crave our attention, admiration, votes and money that to observe someone with multiple castles, the wealthiest woman (at least then) in the world up close — becoming cool/distant when she felt like it, was quite disorienting.
A dapper Glaswegian security man in a tweed jacket followed behind the Royal entourage, holding out his hands to keep us at bay like wild animals.
“You need a whip and a chair!” I joked.
“I could use the whip,” he replied, with a flirtatious twinkle in his eye. (I later bought one and gave it to him as a joke at our final party.)
I broke a few controversial stories and ended up being the brunt of some serious bullshit from competitors who had not matched my reporting. At a crowded mess hall somewhere in Manitoba, the legendary BBC TV reporter, Kate Adie, saw my distress and whispered in my ear: “The higher your profile, the better target you make.” She later mentioned me and that event in one of her memoirs.
A few specific memories:
— The stunning jewels of a tiara she wore to a dinner
— a brooch with an emerald the size of a baby’s fist
— a small suitcase in the back of a car, with a large red cardboard tag: The Queen
— being given a small piece of paper each morning with the official language we were to use to describe her clothing; eau-de-nil, not “light green.”
At the end of it all, we were invited aboard the royal yacht Britannia for drinks. That was amazing enough, and then we were each presented to Her Majesty.
It was brief, but memorable.