15 September 2022
By John Watson
The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that for everything there is a season and at the moment it is the season for reminiscences about her late Majesty. The papers are full of anecdotes about her sense of humour, her ability to put people at ease, her wisdom and her compassion; and the period of mourning is the time for such stories, even those which do not have much point to them. That is what happens, indeed should happen, in a period of mourning and so this columnist will add his own to the pile.
The first of them goes back to 1947 when my father, also John Watson, a lay magistrate, was the well-known Chairman of the Tower Bridge Juvenile Court. In those days George VI was still alive so Elizabeth was heir to the throne rather than monarch, but it was felt that a day in a juvenile court in a deprived area would be a useful part of her education and she was sent to my father’s court to listen to the proceedings. Then, as now, distinguished guests are seated alongside the magistrates facing the general public and, there being two young reporters at the front of the Court, it seemed inevitable that she would be spotted immediately. But no, they sat at their ease passing little notes to each other, bored that there really seemed little of interest for them to write about. It was only after lunch that one of the parents gave a little bow in Princess Elizabeth’s direction and then presumably made a call to a newspaper because the back of the court began to fill with reporters. Still the young men at the front sat blissfully unaware, the odd note and joke passing between them until the end of the day’s proceedings when they turned round to see a crowd of their colleagues sitting at the back avidly filling their notebooks. It was perhaps typical of the Queen that when, 20 years on, my father was invited to lunch at the Palace she remembered the incident and spent some time chuckling with him over it. What a wonderful memory she must have had.
The second image is from the 70s when I worked at an office very near Liverpool Street station which those of you who know their railway timetables will be aware is the terminus of the line to Sandringham. In those days the practice was for the Queen to travel there by train and, rather than having a train all to herself, she had a special carriage which was inserted one coach from the end of a scheduled one. Of course her crossing the station was a big moment for the stationmaster and he, in full formal fig, would conduct her for the short journey between the ramp down to the station (Liverpool Street has been restructured since) and the platform from which she was to embark. What is more, a red carpet was laid out on which only the Royal and the station masterly feet were allowed to tread.
To ensure that no interlopers stepped onto the sacred cloth it arrived in a huge roll which was unwound by two porters a few metres in front of the privileged pair and, somewhat surprisingly, simultaneously wound up by two porters and not far behind them so that there was a small island of carpet on which they trod. The porters must have rehearsed it carefully because they always managed to aim the carpet so that she arrived at the right platform and the men behind never made the terrible mistake of going too fast and rolling monarch and railway official into a giant woollen roulade. It was always well worth watching, though, just in case they did.
The other thing which struck me as odd was the people in the last coach who rushed to the windows and cheered as her Majesty walked past. How many of them realised that the reason their coach was behind hers was so that there should be a good buffer of flesh and blood if another train ran into the back of theirs?
The Shaw Sheet prides itself on incisive political commentary and not passing on sentimental tittle tattle. Still, it is the time for reminiscence at the moment. Normal service will resume next week.
tile photo: Jack Lucas Smith on Unsplash