What a swell party it was, to be sure. Our taxi driver asked the armed policeman whether he could drive through the front gate of Buckingham Palace? He was told no, so he made a virtuoso U-turn and deposited my wife and me at the head of the queue, where we showed the guards our photo-ID, plus a bank statement giving our names and full postal address. Then we were gently herded into the vast courtyard, where the pink-purple gravel goes “crunch” under your feet, and shepherded past the comfy-looking state coach, up and onto the first of many carpeted marble staircases, where our passes were taken; and we were directed by arrows that pointed left for “Gentlemen”, right for “Ladies,” and straight on for “Cloakroom,” where we were meant to surrender cameras and all phones. (I forgot, but did switch mine off completely.)
The huge central staircase led to the State Rooms, where there were already plenty of other guests. I was relieved to see that I was not the most slovenly dressed, in my black chinos, crumpled black linen jacket, white shirt, but smart Georgina van Etzdorf bow-tie and spotted Seiyo silk pocket square. My wife, Penelope, had just bought a new pair of shoes to wear with her black silky outfit, topped by her lovely multi-coloured Rajasthani mirror-work jacket. While I didn’t buy new shoes, I treated my black lace-ups to a professional shoeshine – their first ever – at Marylebone Station. If Her Majesty had deigned to drop in (she was at home, the raised royal standard said), she could have seen her face reflected in the glossy uppers of my shoes.
It took only a moment to find a tail-coated footman with a tray of glasses of Champagne, and even before that we were offered a tit-bit of “duck liver” (no one would dare say “foie gras”). That was the only time we had to look for drink. I have never seen so many magnums of Mumm’s Cordon Rouge carried by so many liveried men and women. Or had such a profusion of seriously good canapés: anchovy palmiers, excellent smoked salmon, little squares of croque monsieur, tiny broccoli quiches and freshly-made fishcakes, mostly passed around by beautiful young women, who appeared to me to speak in EU-accented English.
I can guess what’s on your mind as you read this, but until the speeches were made, I didn’t know what the occasion was either. It turned out that we had been invited to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the opening of Buckingham Palace to the public. The question remained, why had I been asked? I still don’t know, though Penny pointed out to some of the only five other guests we actually knew, that I had been present the first time the Palace had opened to the public.
If you go to see Buck House this season there is a display of of more than 200 gifts presented to Her Maj throughout her 65-year reign. Few of them are as exciting as the paperweight, made from a fossilised dinosaur bone (part of a humerus, probably from the Hadrosaur family of duck-billed herbivorous dinosaurs, and dated to around 86–66 million years old), given her by the City of Drumheller, Alberta on a State Visit in 1959;
or the Union Flag badge worn in space by Major Tim Peake, the first British astronaut to be a member of the European Space Agency, during his spacewalk on 15 January 2016.
There is also a small space in the music room that is a sort of shrine marking the 20th anniversary of the death or Princess Diana, which takes care to court no controversy. The best that can be said about this temporary exhibition is that it is unobtrusive, and will not affect your enjoyment of the Parmigianos and other early Italian paintings, of the David Teniers, Van Dyck, the Rembrandt or the Vermeer. Penny had great pleasure insisting vigorously to a member of the Royal Collections staff that the Vermeer is badly framed, and that “Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman” would benefit enormously from the removal of the inner, framing gold rectangle.