Sunday, July 13, 2008

Prince Charles wins a journalistic heart

By Paola Totaro

The gates outside Buckingham Palace are a delightful place to sit and people-watch. In summer and winter, in the rain or bright sunshine, tourists climb the railings like ivy over a stone wall. Young and old, monarchists and not, they clamber and peek and crane, cameras at the ready, just in case.

Last week, as the palace opened its gates for the investiture of 120 men and women on the Queen's New Year's Honours List, the heavens opened in typical London style. Hundreds of top hats and tails, silks and high heels, feathered hats and sequined fascinators, all heavy with water, soggy and limp.

Huddled under a patently inadequate umbrella at the palace's north gate, three of us Aussies had been asked to wait for an escort who would take us into the palace courtyard for a promised post-ceremony press conference with Kylie Anne Minogue, OBE. Press and TV cameras were there already but when the royal media person arrived we were whisked past our bedraggled colleagues to the Queen's ballroom. There, guests fanned themselves with their programs, seated stiffly on gilt-backed chairs upholstered in red-striped satin. Some chatted softly, others adopted a fabulously studied nonchalance. The enormous chandeliers shot shards of rainbow light onto the walls while aides in knickerbockers and tails ushered in even more guests, stopping to reassure the nervous and encourage the shy.

Like clockwork, at 11am, the Queen's bodyguards arrived. As we passed them earlier, waiting outside with their horses and coach, I heard one whisper: "Kylie's inside … that'll be a sight for sore eyes." The ballroom stood as Prince Charles entered the archway. His face and demeanour are so reassuringly familiar that it felt more like seeing an old friend arrive than a king in waiting.

And so began a very strange experience, one that I thought would arouse a reporter's innate cynicism (and republican spirit) but which elicited a different, funny kind of affection I did not expect.

For close to two hours we observed Prince Charles close up as he sashed and pinned, gave out medals, shook hands, and even created a couple of new knights. Not once did he falter in this practised and choreographed centuries-old dance of congratulation and reward and genteel small talk. Every now and then he touched his cufflinks with one hand in a gesture that is so innately Prince Charles that it should be trademarked.

The people he rewarded were as varied in background, in achievement, in education and in class as the modern City of London itself. There were professors of medicine and bobbies, architects and former soldiers, ex-cabinet secretaries and veteran civil servants, retired diplomats and septuagenarian charity workers. There were community leaders from Pakistan, Muslim teachers, several veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. And of course, there was Kylie Minogue. What was striking was the humanity of the event: the genuine, almost childlike joy that these men and women displayed as they received their honour, watched by their children, their partners or like Minogue, by a proud mother and father. All had achieved in their lives and had been marked for reward.

The monarchy has outlived its role in our political system, there is no doubt. But a public thank you for a life well lived is a precious thing indeed. As God Save The Queen played and Prince Charles left the ballroom, I caught myself hoping that one day we might still get to hear God Save The King.

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