Why Buckingham Palace needs a bouncer
No one frisks you when you enter Buckingham Palace.
There is no metal detector, no X-Ray machine, no bomb-sniffing dog.
There’s tighter security when you leave a department store than when you enter the home of the British Monarch.
If you have an invitation (below is a picture of mine), that’s good enough for the London Metropolitan Police Officers at the giant front gate. Perhaps it’s assumed that if you’ve been invited to Buckingham Palace, you couldn’t possibly be so rude as to blow it up.
And I was invited. Several times a year, the British Crown bestows “Honours” (sic) on people who do good things. Just like the U.S. Congress and the President “honor” (sic) people from time to time.
My mother received an Honour. This is the story of that day.
After your admission through the gates of Buckingham Palace, you need to walk across 100 yards of gravel to get to the actual building. That’s not exactly an impregnable fortification. In medieval days, it would have been a moat. Gravel is the “symbolic” barrier now. It’s not a great security feature, but if you drive too fast, it will viciously damage your car’s paint. I liked the gravel. Gravel is subtly opulent. In central London during a property boom, maintaining hundreds of empty square feet of land and just filling it with gravel is pretty much the most extravagant thing you can do.
As we crunched toward the Palace, we tried to take a picture of it with our phones. The police said no photography was allowed. This was strange, since on the other side of the giant gate were literally hundreds of tourists taking exactly the same photos with their phones. It was a silly rule. But we didn’t argue. You can’t argue with silly rules when you visit a palace to accept a shiny medal from a lady in a gold hat. Silly is the order of the day.
Most of the pictures in this post are culled from the web, but not all.
We passed a Coldstream Guard on duty. They look like this.
Those are real bear skins on their hats. One dead bear per hat. Please don’t be fooled by the hat. The hat is silly, but these soldiers are not. The regiment fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, history has shown us that these hats were the least silly thing about us fighting a war in Iraq.
They are the oldest regiment in the British Army in continuous active service, founded in the Scottish town of Coldstream in 1650, during the English Civil War. Weirdly, they fought against the Crown for much of the Civil War, but ended up switching sides and now they are trusted to guard the Royal Palace. I don’t know how they pulled that mind-game switch. Maybe their top General had the persuasive powers of an outrageous pimp. He certainly had the hat for it.
We walk underneath the Balcony where Prince William and his wife Kate were presented to the Nation after their wedding ceremony. It’s also where Charles and Diana did the same thing. Both times, the Queen demonstrated her unflappable ability to not smile, even in situations of unqualified joy.
We walk into the Quadrangle. Here we can take pictures. Here is one.
Then we walk into the Grand Entrance. “Grand Entrance” is a very appropriate name: a giant lobby where everything your eye lands on is marble, velvet, antique, or flecked with bands of gold. It is both spectacularly luxurious and yet impeccably tasteful. It’s a decorating technique I call “What Donald Trump Aims For But Misses Spectacularly”.
On display are artworks such as this gorgeous sculpture by Richard James Wyatt, “The Nymph of Diana”.
I don’t know if that’s a subtle reference to the former People’s Princess. Also there is these gorgeous Vases Japons from the famed porcelain workshop at Sèvres.
Two portraits caught my eye. Here’s Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. He’s the Queen’s great-great-great-grandfather.
Saxe-Coburg-Gotha is the royal family’s actual last name. They only adopted the name “Windsor” in 1917, during World War I, because Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sounded a bit German. Extremely German. Saxe-Coburg-Gotha is only slightly less German-sounding than Herr Wolfgang Berlin Wall Liebensraum Mercedes B.M.W. Von Lager Sausage.
I wonder how much Ernest paid the artist (George Dawe) to give him that ludicrous bulge. The British Crown bought this painting in 1841 for 50 pounds. With inflation, that’s 4,633 pounds in today’s money: a steal. Talking of stealing, it hangs near this print of the Queen’s ancestor Emperor Leopold II of Belgium. Here he is as a child with his mother.
He grew up to basically steal and enslave the entire Congo, inspiring Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Bad guy, but he looks very cute here.
Stationed in each corner of the Grand Entrance is a Life Guard. As I write that, I imagine a tall chair containing a suntanned teenager in swim trunks and a whistle in his mouth. Yeah, not that. They look like this.
The Life Guards are the Sovereign’s personal bodyguard. The Coldstreams guard the Queen’s Palace. The Life Guards protect the Queen’s physical person. It’s a lot of overlap, but you can’t be too careful these days. The one slight security issue I spotted isn’t the number of these people guarding the Queen, but the clothes they wear. Everyone is in such ridiculous gear, they would be no help in any real-life situation. The Life Guards wear a cuirass body-plate, a helmet plumed with white horsehair, and giant leather riding boots that flare open at the top like fishing waders. The chinstraps to their helmets are worn, not under the chin, but under their bottom lip. It looks very uncomfortable and not exactly combat-ready.
True fact: the singer-songwriter James Blunt used to be one of the Queen’s Life Guards. He sang that song “You’re Beautiful”. One evening, through several bizarre connections, a stranger once invited me to consume various powders with singer-songwriter James Blunt in a rooftop bar. I politely declined, since not even free powder would tempt me to spend a millisecond of time with singer-songwriter James Blunt. This isn’t relevant to the story, but it did make me wonder if all Life Guards have middle-of-the-road songwriting abilities.
At this point, we are informed by staff that no cameras or phones will be admitted into the day’s ceremony. We had to check them into a cloakroom. That’s why I have no actual pictures of the ceremony itself. The next time someone asks me the longest amount of time I’ve gone without my phone, I will confidently answer: “Buckingham Palace”. I missed two texts.
I desperately wanted someone to ignore the No Phones Rule, have their phone go off during the ceremony, and whisper “can’t talk now, I’m at the Palace”. But it didn’t happen.
So who was being honoured (sic) at this thing? The answer is: lots of different types of people. First, you have “the great and the good”: former senior politicians, high-profile public servants, captains of industry, etc. These nominations are often highly political and are effectively made by the Prime Minister’s Office. Then there are famous people, often from the arts or sporting world. The Oscar-nominated actress Emily Watson was getting her Royal pat on the back the same day as my mother. Here’s a picture of her.
She was very charming, and chatted very jovially with my mother when they visited the bathroom together. How many Oscar nominees have you peed next to? Her young children were also very well behaved, which reflects very well on Ms. Watson.
There were military people getting medals. Lots and lots of military people.
Finally, there are people like my mother: pure civilians who have spent a lifetime being really good at something that may not always be recognized by the wider world. They are nominated anonymously by a network of community leaders and public servants all over the country. So, alongside the powerful politicians and whiskery old generals getting medals from the Queen, there’s also the best trauma nurse in Scotland, or the finest nursery school teacher in Wales, or whatever. I think that’s pretty cool.
My mother received “The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire”, which entitles her to use the letters “MBE” after her name: ”Member of the British Empire”. She also receives this medal-slash-badge thing. It’s the exact same decoration received by each of the Beatles in June 1965:
She received her award for “Services to Cardiovascular Health”. She worked as a spokesperson and communications specialist for the British Heart Foundation for 20 years, running campaigns to persuade people to stop smoking, learn CPR, and generally improve heart health. Her work as a health campaigner has definitely saved lives, and made many more lives better, brighter and healthier. I’m very proud of her. Here is her name in the official Investiture Ceremony literature:
Also, note there is a town in England called Cockermouth. I don’t care how old you are: that’s funny.
So: on to the ceremony itself. We ascended this Grand Staircase.
At the top of that staircase is the East Gallery, packed with portraits of important royals from history. This giant portrait of Charles the First is there. He’s the King who had his head chopped off by the English people. You know: us.
It’s huge. It’s unmissable. Even now, 400 years later, seeing it hang in a Royal Palace sends a spark of awkwardness down your spine. Part of me thinks the Royal Family is sending a message with this thing hanging so prominently. They could pick any portrait of the hundreds of Kings or Queens of England they are descended from. Still, they picked this guy. You get the sense they aren’t over it. It’s even rumored that Prince Charles will not be “Charles III” when he becomes king, deciding to use his middle name and rule as George VII, because the name Charles is considered “unlucky”.
Queen Victoria’s portrait is in the gallery, of course. She sat on the throne for 63 years — the second longest reign in royal history. The current Queen Elizabeth II just broke her record.
For some reason, another portrait of Leopold I of Belgium is on display too.
And it’s yet another Belgian overcompensating with their bulge. These people must be hung like light-switches. It’s not that great of a picture, frankly. I don’t know why they hang it up. I think the British Royal family just really, really digs Belgium. They may be the only non-Belgians who dig Belgium. It’s a curious fetish, because what great things have the Belgians ever accomplished? Other than Magritte, can you name one interesting Belgian? Let me save us some time: no, you can’t.
Everywhere, Palace officials calmly and discretely usher people in the right direction. Equerries, Aides-De-Camps, Valets… I have no idea of their exact titles, but they all seemed to be “Assistant Director of Making Sure Everything Goes Off Smoothly And Without Embarrassment”. They all wore suit-like garments, but with a slight twist. Some had tails on their suit jackets, or heraldic-looking stripes on their jacket cuffs. And holy shit, there were a lot of epaulets.
At this point, us mere guests are separated from the honorees. They went off to be briefed on the exact protocol of how to behave while being lauded.
We’re led into the Buckingham Palace Ballroom. It is where Queen Victoria had her wedding reception, and where State Dinners are held. Many U.S. Presidents have eaten in this room. The first was Woodrow Wilson in 1918, over 100 years after that whole “you beat us in a war” thing blew over.
The Ballroom is very, very big. This picture barely does it justice. We all sat on velvet banquettes around the edges and waited for something to happen. A very well-dressed man approaches the podium and tells us that 94 people are being honored today, and that the ceremony will take approximately 75 minutes. He adds: “however much you respect the person being honored, please resist the urge to applaud”. It was said in a sniffy way, but the room was so tense and nervous, it got a big laugh. It’s moments like this that make people think stand-up comedy is easy. They are wrong.
He also informed us that the ceremony would be conducted by Prince Charles. The Queen is 89 and doesn’t do stuff like this much anymore.
While we waited for the Prince to show up, a string orchestra played in the balcony. It was mostly classical tunes, with some modern standards sprinkled in. At one point, as the vast chandeliers glittered and sunlight glinted off the gilt-edged wall-panels, the orchestra struck up a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, briefly turning the Buckingham Palace Ballroom into the gayest place on earth. I’m sure that the Queen’s Music Master is unaware of this song’s importance to the gay rights struggle. Please: no one tell him.
Prince Charles suddenly arrived. Before him were six Yeoman of the Guard (yet another kind of Bodyguard unit — I swear, there must be some law guaranteeing full employment for regimental bodyguards in the UK).
They’re dressed exactly as you see them in this picture, all carrying those giant halberds (a giant, spear-like slashing weapon).
Charles followed behind them. To his immediate left and right were the only two ACTUAL bodyguards of any usefulness I saw all day. They had guns. They were Gurkha soldiers. Now this requires some explanation.
The British can be a stubborn, sniffy, silly people, but we appreciate greatness when we see it. The Gurkhas are a regiment of the British Army drawn exclusively from Nepal. In the early 19th century, when the Brits were rampaging all over Asia, cheerfully stealing most of it, UK military leaders were exposed to a warrior class of Himalayan mountain people. And by “exposed”, I mean “had their arses handed to them”. They beat the British so soundly, and were so mind-blowingly tough, that the British agreed to leave Nepal alone, and asked if the Nepalese wanted to form a (well-paid) regiment of the British army. They agreed, and a 200-year tradition was born that continues to this day. Armed with their traditional Kukri knives (and a semi-automatic rifle), Gurkhas are the official bodyguard to the Prince of Wales. Tell me one other country that would entrust the safety of the Heir to the Throne to people from another country, just because we accept they’re the best people for the job. There are people who think the British can be a bit racist sometimes. That may or may not be true, depending on the circumstance. But think about the Gurkhas for a second. We really, really admire them. A former British Army Chief of Staff once said: “If a man says he is not afraid of death, he is either lying, or he is a Gurkha”.
So Prince Charles is now in front of the hushed crowd in the Ball Room. He’s 5’10”, 66 years old, with the redness in his cheeks appropriate for a man with keys to a Palace wine cellar.
The gay orchestra plays the National Anthem. Then each honoree is announced one by one, and bows before the Prince. Each recipient then enjoys about 30 seconds of small talk with the Prince, then receives their honor, bows again, and sits down again. This is something which Princes, Presidents, and Prime Ministers deserve a lot of credit for. Making 30 seconds of small talk with 93 strangers? That’s not easy. And Charles does it every day of his life.
My mother’s name was announced — Beatrice McBride, for Services to Cardiovascular Health — and she stepped up, bowing to the Prince. Later in the day, she shared their conversation:
Prince: “I’ve heard diet is very important to cardiovascular health”.
[Note: my mother is not a thin woman.]
Her: “Well, clearly no one ever told me.”
Prince: “No-no, I didn’t mean it that way…”
Her: “It’s quite alright. I didn’t take offense.” [Shrugs]
And she meant it. But she had cracked a joke for the Prince of Wales. How can you not love this woman?
The remaining honorees received their awards. And before we knew it, the ceremony was over, and we were ushered out of the Ballroom slowly, gracefully, and with a minimum of fuss. We stepped out into the Courtyard for one final round of pictures. This one of my Mum is great:
And then, we were done. We had spent three hours inside a great British institution. Now it was time to get inside another one: lunch.