Simon Walsh reflects on working with the Queen and her Lying-in-State
During my public relations career, I was fortunate to work on two events which involved Her Majesty the Queen – or Her Late Majesty, as we must now get used to saying.
The first involved the Royal Commonwealth Society and the reopening of newly refurbished building off Trafalgar Square. It was a gentle occasion in many ways. Set for midday on a Friday, a short visit with tour, the unveiling of a plaque, no speech, and then away. A huge amount of planning went into what was essentially a very simple event, but for the RCS and that building it was the highlight of the year. One thing was clear: Her Majesty never took the Commonwealth for granted and always found ways to uphold, support and encourage it – even through something as seemingly minor as the endorsement of a building.
The week before was a whirl. I had almost daily visits on site with the client. Protocol was discussed; the order and form, the grouping of people, the timetable. My main job was managing the media and, having handled High Court cases and political rallies, this was blissfully straightforward. Royal events work along very clear lines. First of all, you cannot release any statement or press release without prior approval from the Palace. This was not a problem and it was entirely uncontroversial. A refurbished building, the various parties were namechecked, the RCS values were affirmed, the proud statement that HMQ was unveiling it, and that was that.
Even better was my introduction to the ‘Royal Rota’ system. Instead of a media scrum which can happen so often when a major event occurs, royal visits work on a very democratic basis. There’s one reporter and one photographer who cover it for ‘the pool’ and then send their copy and images to everyone else. These slots are shared out equally, so no one reporter or news agency gets the monopoly, and it makes everything very dignified. The reporter cannot put a particular slant on things because they are to report simply and factually on the event. And one photographer – or ‘snapper’ as they are pejoratively known – is aware of their responsibility to get a good range of photos but from a discreet distance and there’s no unseemly tussle or pop-pop of paparazzi flashbulbs. That may still happen outside, of course, but the coverage of the event is restricted and clearly understood, along with a sort of omertà amongst those who are assigned to these ‘gigs’.
What I hadn’t quite expected (and I had been warned) was the sheer thrill of how everything begins: the arrival. These things are timed to the minute. Traffic lights are diverted. Motorcycle outriders are deployed. And then, slowly, the royal vehicle hoves into view. ‘The machinery of State,’ I joked to one of my colleagues. And there it is: the State Bentley or a similarly magnificent vehicle, polished and gleaming, and a brightly dressed monarch takes her cue as it glides to a stop, to rise and appear on the pavement. Of course there are crowds who cheer and applaud, and there are waves, and nothing is disappointing. ‘There it is,’ said the veteran royal reporter assigned for the day to me as an aside. ‘Curtain up!’
Everything ran perfectly. The loo which had to be set aside for exclusive use was not required. No refreshments were taken. The timetable took hold. I fell into the procession with one of the private secretaries I knew. ‘Much on after this?’ I asked. ‘I doubt it,’ he said. ‘A quick change then off to Windsor.’ It was a Friday, after all. The beaming smile was there for everyone. The book was signed on the way out and us peripherals were granted a quick word of farewell and handshake; thanks for whatever we had done. Then the car, the outriders, and the departure. But the magic remained.
A couple of years later I had another royal engagement. This was the 30th anniversary of the Motability charity which provides vehicles for the disabled. My godfather had benefitted from one for years so I had some idea of its pedigree. This event was significant in three ways. Firstly, it was to take place at the Royal Hospital Chelsea (‘Enclosed,’ said a royal protection officer – ‘we like it here!’). Secondly it was to present adapted vehicles to injured ex-servicemen who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And finally, it was headed up by Lord Sterling of Plaistow who had run P&O as well as the 2002 Golden Jubilee celebrations.
Again, it was well arranged. There was the arrival, the meeting of small groups of pre-arranged people, then the servicemen with their families by each vehicle and the ceremonial handing over of the key; a few final words, then depart. Once more the car, and the stunning arrival, and everything exactly on cue. A band of royal marines played light music in a corner. The sun shone. There were many smiles, including Frank Gardner of the BBC who’d been injured in Saudi Arabia in 2004 and left partially paralysed; one of the vehicles was his.
An added dimension was the presence of Baroness Thatcher who by this stage was rather frail. Dressed beautifully and respectfully, she was in the first grouping, and later on was taken along through the lines to meet people, trailing the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. It was a kind way of acknowledging her presence there along with the logistics of the occasion. She seemed to know she was no longer Prime Minister but wasn’t entirely clear of her purpose. Except people were equally pleased to see her and shake her hand, which the Queen also understood, and it had the feeling of everything and everyone being acknowledged.
This time, the national anthem played before departure and it was an obviously friendly and happy afternoon. The resident Chelsea Pensioners formed an honour guard to the car. Smiles and waves, and the off. Plenty of pictures, happy memories, and a good cause celebrated. These were truly things close to the Queen’s heart: the armed forces, the disadvantaged, the initiatives which help make a difference.
Attending the Lying-in-State was another matter. There was still the sense of anticipation and preparation. But this time the atmosphere was different, because of the finality. London had experienced a slight carnival atmosphere at first when the coffin arrived in the capital, perhaps still caught on the high of the Platinum Jubilee and giddy at another Bank Holiday weekend. But slowly the seriousness took hold. The coffin’s arrival at Westminster Hall had a sudden burst of applause at the end of Whitehall before the obvious solemnity. And it was this which people found when they stepped bleary-eyed into the vastness of the space, and the smallness of the coffin on its high catafalque. Here were guardsmen, sentry-still like the lead soldiers my mother once placed on a childhood birthday cake. Beefeaters too, and Gentlemen Archers, with policemen in white gloves; all heads bowed. Every 20 minutes the marshal’s sword would strike the stone floor three times to indicate a changing of the guard, immaculately executed, never a moment left unheld. Everything was slow, rhythmic, deliberate. In between, two men in morning suits approached each of the four unbleached candles to scrape down the guttered wax.
And the people came. Old and young, high and mighty, simple and sincere. In they came, many who had been queuing for hours, tumbling hesitantly down the steps as though emerging from a long overnight-flight and now had to function at the basic level. Blinking into the vast medieval cavern – the hammerbeam roof which allegedly holds a tennis ball of Henry VIII – they adjusted to the extraordinary sight of a flag-draped coffin, flanked by candles in riddel-post carved holders, and guarded with utmost seriousness by the armed forces; black armbands on scarlet tunics, poles and pikestaffs.
Many wore uniforms, particularly Scouts who saluted. There were regimental ties, blazers and berets. Many crossed themselves. A number genuflected. Deep bowing was frequent. All nations came, mingling with the black ties and the medals. A lady in a Union Jack dress struck a festive air. Some shouldered tartan blankets. Faintly outside a person could be heard singing the national anthem which later became Amazing Grace. People looked up at the high windows as their feet sank into the deep dark-peach carpet. The Orb and Sceptre glinted; the Imperial State Crown slumbered, stilled in final service. A wait of many hours distilled into a few minutes ‘in whose blent air all our compulsions meet’.
There was in this a sense of trying to come to terms with the inevitable and the unbelievable. It was a focus for mourning and loss, a bereavement felt by so many in such an acute way. There was thankfulness, grief, and incredulousness. It is estimated Her Majesty met a third of her subjects in her lifetime, and here they were in raw grief, respect, and homage. For some it was essential; for others it was part of being a citizen. For all it was certainly moving, and an encounter like no other. First in Scotland, then London.
Nothing in her life became her like the leaving it.