By Revel Barker
Tomorrow (August 4) would have been the Queen Mum’s birthday. World War I broke out on her 14th birthday. It’s the sort of information that only those closest to her are aware of, I suppose.
I was in France when she died and learnt about it from the morning paper, which referred to her on the Front as ‘la Queen Mum.’
Not la reine mere, or even la reine maman. Such was her popularity, even among the Anglophobe Froggies, that she was the Queen Mum, world-wide.
Long – oh, long - before Diana, she was everybody’s favourite royal.
We had a chat, once. Well, not much of a tête-à-tête, but we conversed. She was about to board a Royal Flight and the photographers stood respectfully at the foot of the aircraft steps waiting for her to start posing or waving. She beamed, and the shutters clicked. Then her face fell as she looked along the rank of artists-in-light and asked: ‘Where is Mr Wallace?’
Tony Wallace, the Daily Mail’s resident photographer at London Airport, was absent from the usual line-up.
In those days photographers knew their place. And it certainly did not include talking to their betters. They shuffled their feet a bit and re-checked the settings on their lenses, and shook their flash-battery packs, but none of them spoke. It fell to me, the token reporter in the company, the caption writer, to break the embarrassing silence.
‘He’s off sick, today, Ma’am,’ I said.
‘Oh dear. I am sorry to hear that. Nothing serious, I hope?’
‘No, Ma’am. I believe it’s just a cold.’
‘Then please,’ she asked me, ‘give him my best wishes for a speedy recovery.’
‘Certainly, Ma’am. I will do that.’
I thought our little banter was getting along swimmingly. I was tempted to tell her that I had recently been at Gibside, in County Durham, where she had spent a significant part of her childhood, and maybe to tell her that the colliery railway wagons still bore the name of her family, which had owned the Bowes Colliery.
She might be pleased to know that, I thought. Then I thought better of it. Maybe next time; it could keep.
After we had exchanged our waves, I hastened back to the press room in Terminal Two and performed my loyal duty, as I had promised my sovereign’s mother – in whose husband’s coronation, I could have told her if the conversation had really got going or the subject had come up, my father had been proud to march.
The message had its desired effect. Tony Wallace made an exceptionally speedy recovery. But first he asked me to phone the Mail picture desk and pretend I didn’t know his home number, and ask them to pass the message from the Queen Mum on to him.
Of course I was delighted to do that.
‘The Queen Mum, you say… She asked after Tony Wallace?’
‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘As you probably know, she thinks the world of him. She was really upset to find he wasn’t there waiting for her this morning. She told me so, herself.’
‘The Queen Mum…’ said the Picture Editor. ‘Asking after Wallace. That is wonderful. Thanks awfully.’
But, as conversations go, it was not awfully significant, you no doubt reckon.
No? Oh really.
Listen. You will learn something.
When Tony Wallace returned to harness, miraculously cured, he bought me a drink and asked: ‘Do you know the last time the Queen Mum actually spoke to a reporter?’
Of course, I didn’t.
1923… And then me.
‘She’d made a bit of a faux pas, you see,’ said Tony, ‘and vowed never to speak to a reporter again, about anything, for the rest of her life. She wasn’t even Queen then, of course, just Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – and a descendant, as you know, of the Thane of Glamis.’
Thane of Glamis… I said yes I knew, but I’d forgotten.
‘She was talking to a reporter during a photo-session when she got engaged to the – then – Duke of York and she referred to him, just a slip of the tongue, I’m sure, as Bertie. Yes! Our future King George VI (although of course nobody knew that at the time)… Bertie! He was furious about what he considered to be lese-majesty – and she was upset that the reporter had dropped her in it, and not amended her quote more formally before publication.
‘So she spoke quite frequently to members of the public, but never to a reporter, after that.
‘All we’ve ever had out of her, since that day, was that smile. Her special smile…
‘But she spoke to you,’ said Tony. ‘…About me!’
So everything we have learnt about her, about her feelings, and even her quotes, we have got from third parties.
Hating her brother-in-law, briefly King Edward VIII, for not sticking to the job he was born into and marrying ‘that woman’, Wallis Simpson, and landing her sensitive, stammering husband with the crown he had never expected to wear, nor been prepared for.
As the last Empress of India (and indeed last empress of anywhere) she apparently believed that Mountbatten gave up India too early and that Britain de-colonised everywhere before the Commonwealth nations were able to cope.
Ringing below stairs and telling her staff: ‘When one of you old queens has a moment, this old queen would like a gin and tonic.’
Of Jimmy Carter: ‘That man was the only person, following the death of my beloved late husband, to have the effrontery to kiss me on the mouth.’
But none of that came from a reporter.
I know she spoke once to Hugh Cudlipp (but he doesn’t count as a reporter), at a Garden Party. She told him she was going to Balmoral that night and – sod security – said that after leaving Kings Cross the Royal Train always travelled only as far as Doncaster where it stayed overnight in the sidings. Whether this was so she could have a more comfortable night’s sleep, or so she could arrive at her destination in daylight for photos, was never satisfactorily established by Cudlipp, to my mind.
Anyway, he’d had a brainwave and sent Jimmy Wallace, the Mirror’s northern circulation boss, to Donny with a set of the first editions. Jimmy found the Royal Train and reached up to hammer on the door. It was opened by a (presumably surprised) lady-in-waiting, in a nightie.
Jimmy handed over the bundle of papers and told her they were for Her Majesty, with Mr Cudlipp’s compliments. She told him to wait.
When she returned she said: ‘Her Majesty has asked me to thank you, and to ask you to pass on her gratitude to Mr Cudlipp for his thoughtfulness. But she has also asked me to ask you – do you not have a copy of the Sporting Life?’
I wouldn’t have made a mistake like that.
But then, you see, our relationship was rather different.
Revel Barker’s own blog of people and places can be found at http://revelbarker.blogspot.com/