Articles

How the Queen talks and what she says

McKENZIE PORTER October 12 1957
Articles

How the Queen talks and what she says

McKENZIE PORTER October 12 1957

How the Queen talks and what she says

McKENZIE PORTER

When Elizabeth II faces Canadian television cameras in Ottawa on October 13 the object of millions in her audience will be to determine whether Lord Altrincham was right when he said last August that her speeches give the listener "a pain in the neck.”

As most of its citizens know the young peer’s candor pitched the Commonwealth into the most violent argument over the merits and frailties of royalty since that occasioned in 1955 by the frustrated romance of Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend.

The day after the thirty-three-year-old Altrincham published his views in his own magazine, the English and National Review, Philip Kingborn Burbridge, a sixty-four-year-old member of the League of Empire Loyalists, punched him on the nose. The Archbishop of Canterbury publicly upbraided him and the Earl of Sefton suspended him from the gartered and coroneted

precincts of Buck’s Club. Renata Marrioli, an intrusive Italian monarchist, challenged him to a duel with pistols, rapiers or sabres, and even when Altrincham said he preferred that w'holly English weapon, the umbrella, did not withdraw. Behind the battlemented walls of illustrious country homes great cracking sounds were heard as an assortment of knights and barons practiced against the day they’d sworn to give Altrincham a horsewhipping.

Undaunted, Altrincham submitted to a television inquisition by a tribunal of Lancashire and Cheshire teen-agers whose expressions of opinion, for and against the peer, were described by a woman columnist as “unbearably precocious and intolerably rude.” Far from withdrawing his remarks, Altrincham increased the hubbub by amplifying them. Attributing the “woeful state” of the Queen's oratory to “a conventional upper-class schooling” and the influence of a

retinue composed of “the tweedy sort,” the Etoneducated Altrincham said, “When she has lost the bloom of youth the Queen’s reputation will depend far more than it does now upon her personality. It will not be enough for her to go through the motions. She will have to say things which people can remember.”

Many people believe, however, that in asking unforgettable prose of the Queen, Altrincham is seeking a dangerous precedent. A glance at British monarchic history evokes an image of crowned heads bent by the midnight oil over those Twelve Golden Rules of Royalty that were laid down in the hour of reckoning by Charles I. They included the maxims: touch no state matters; reveal no secrets; pick no quarrels; make no comparisons; maintain no ill opinions; and repeat no grievances.

Having failed to practice what he was belatedly preaching

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“I think,” says the Queen, “that I see nothing but one long blur of faces”

Continued from page 18

Charles, as every schoolboy knows, suffered no mean pain in the neck himself —a pain inflicted by the headsman’s axe. Keeping in mind this grisly penalty Charles’ successors, particularly those gutteral and inarticulate Teutons from the House of Hanover, rarely said anything so contentious or profound as to be memorable.

The most trenchant words ever uttered by George I, the first Hanoverian, were: “1 hate all boets and bainters.”

When his dying queen urged him to re-marry after her passing, George II voiced a dubious gallantry. “No,” he said firmly, “I shall have mistresses.”

At Drury Lane one evening George III crashed recklessly into the realm of dramatic criticism, and his words survived, not so much for their meaning as for their peculiar, staccato, interrogative form, a form that ever since has been a speech mannerism of crusty English gentlemen. "Was there ever,” cried George III, “such stuff as Shakespeare? Eh? What? Only one must not say so, eh? What? But what say you? What? Hum? Is there not sad stuff here? What? What? Hum? What? Grrrgh!”

George IV was so engrossed in making love to women old enough to be his mother that it was not until he was presented with a young bride that he spoke his one enduring sentence. Looking upon the Princess Caroline of Brunswick for the first time, on the eve of their wedding, he said to his footman, “Bring me a glass of brandy.”

His brother, William IV, as bloated as a watermelon, and as heavily greasepainted under his lopsided wig as any pantomime Widow Twanky, left an indelible impression on the young Princess Victoria when he greeted her with the words: “Give me your little paw.”

As queen, of course, Victoria won two places in the better books of quotations. During an audience with the wordy Mr. Gladstone, she turned with crimson cheeks to a courtier and said, “He speaks to me as if I were a public meeting.” On another occasion, when she caught the Honorable Alexander Grantham Yorke in the act of impersonating her before a group of giggling pages, she spoke the immortal words: “We are not amused.”

Victoria’s son Edward VII, on being reminded that his grandfather, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, had championed Robert Owen, the first British socialist, removed the cigar from his mouth, glanced furtively over his shoulder, and whispered hoarsely, “We are all socialists nowadays.”

In his youth George V delivered a speech to the Guildhall entitled Wake Up, England, but never got around to explaining what danger overshadowed the sleeping nation. After this inauspicious start he lapsed into twenty-five years of taciturnity. Yet on his Jubilee he was prompted by the enthusiasm of the crowds to say, “I am just an ordinary chap. I never realized I was so popular.”

The valediction to the throne delivered by Edward VIII on his abdication is more deeply etched into the memory of romantic shopgirls than any other royal utterance.

George VI, handicapped by a stutter

Notable quotes by some earlier sovereigns

and a right royal aversion to what he called “blether.” left nothing for the books of quotations. But he could express himself forcibly when occasion demanded. Arriving in Calgary in 1939 he found to his annoyance that a stampede was not included in the royal program. When an aide wrung his hands and said that the Calgary authorities had not "been able to get one up in time,” George VI said, “Well, why the hell didn’t you put your foot down?”

With so mixed and doubtful a heritage of eloquence it is difficult to imagine the Queen saying anything during her forthcoming speech to the nation that will stir the blood of poets or patriots. Even so, Canadian diplomats arc hoping that her ghost writers will give her more and better assistance than her ancestors received.

As for the Queen’s “offstage” language, nobody except her close relatives and friends will be able to assess its true

quality until a hundred or more years hence when biographers are at last let loose upon her correspondence and the memoirs of her entourage. Meanwhile the Commonwealth is dependent for such gleanings of her conversation as are provided by the more talkative of those she meets and the more attentive of the journalistic eavesdroppers.

Qne of the few newspapermen who has interviewed the Queen at length is Ross Munro, editor of the Vancouver Province. He bumped into her accidentally on the destroyer Crusader when she was sailing across the Straits of Georgia to Victoria. Although Munro was embarrassed by a bad head cold—and an agonizing uncertainty about the etiquette governing the use of handkerchiefs in the royal presence — he was able to record a strong hint of what the Queen really feels about her job. “It is so hard,” she said, “to sort out impressions. You yourself have seen all those crowds

and heard all those cheers. I think that I see nothing but one long blur of

If the Queen is dazzled by the crowds, the crowds are no less dazzled by the Queen. Sixteen-year-old Hugh Beattie, for example, representing the students of North Vancouver High School, was once introduced to Elizabeth at Brockton Oval. Afterward he said, “With flashbulbs exploding all around, my throat felt like ashes and my knees felt like chalk. She asked me something about how old I was and how long 1 intended to remain at school. But the flashbulbs kind of blinded me and every second her face would fade away. And then, when I got used to the light, I would see her again, still smiling and so full of interest. But I cannot remember exactly what she said.”

Since the Queen meets an average of a hundred people a day, and sometimes as many as five hundred, it's a miracle

that she finds enough breath to say anything at all. To a debutante her typical greeting is, “How do you do?” Of a veteran she often asks, “What regiment were you in?” To a clubwoman she usually says, “How many members are there in your organization?” She tells most mayors, “Your city is very friendly.” And to all hospital patients she says, “1 hope you will soon be well again.”

In consequence, commoners have to rely on their eyes rather than their ears in summing up her personality. The verdicts vary widely. During her last tour of Canada, J. W. T. Spinks, head of the chemistry department at the University of Saskatchewan, said, “She creates an extremely good impression and handles herself well.” Hiram McCallum, the then mayor of Toronto, said. “1 thought she looked like a very scared kid. I have a daughter her age and I understand what facing all those crowds must have meant to her.” The president of one Canadian university alumni association said. “She was cool and reserved She asked in a formal way about the enrolment, the size of the university, and the number of classes. She was stiff and bored with the whole thing. I was not enthused with her.”

Yet in the Queen’s spontaneous asides it is sometimes possible to divine behind the regal mask the disposition of a congenial, intelligent, forthright and spirited young woman—not an ordinary young woman, but a young woman who, in spite of her lifelong isolation from the masses, and her training in the essential mysticism of an enduring royalty, might, with a pair of dark glasses on, pass unnoticed at an IODE tea.

A liking for “file tweedy sort”

She has, for example, that most womanly of virtues, a firm but light-hearted mind on how to bring up children. Irritated a few years ago by the clamor for press pictures of Prince Charles and Princess Anne, she said, “They’re not news: they’re babies.” When she was in Washington, William D. Huskey, a U. S. State Department security officer, told her his wife wondered how her two children were faring back in England. “You may tell her,” said Elizabeth, “that their grandmother is taking care of them, and probably spoiling them terribly.”

When a London Daily Herald photographer asked the Queen in Buckingham Palace where her children were at that moment she said casually, “Oh, just messing about in the nursery.” Once, when buying a teddy bear at a charity bazaar, she shook the toy industry by insisting, “I don’t want one with glass eyes. They’re a menace to children. The eyes ought to be embroidered on.” On several occasions, as she returned home from a long trip abroad, the Queen has been overheard to say to her children, “Hello, darlings. Remember nie?”

After children, her favorite topic of conversation—which probably explains her liking for “the tweedy sort” of people—is bloodstock breeding and racing. She remains blandly indifferent to people who complain in letters to the press that she spends too much time at the race track, knowing that she shares this interest with the overwhelming majority of people in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Ray Lawson, a former lieutenant-governor of Ontario, and a racehorse owner himself, says, “She is a genuine authority on racing. I could talk to her for hours about racing and learn quite a lot.”

The Queen’s love of horses was evident even as a child. She made one re-

mari about them that is worth a place in any compendium of kiddies’ cute sayings After the death of Peggy, her pony, she told a visitor, “Peggy has gone to heaven, and 1 suppose Jesus is riding her now instead of that donkey that Mummy told us about.” As a teen-ager she said. “If ever I am queen the first thin? I shall do is make a law that people cannot drive a horse on a Sunday. Horses must have a holiday like everybody else.” About a year ago she was galloping down the Ascot course about five lengths behind her husband. Suddenly Prince Philip saw a slack wire sagging across the track between a telephone truck and the starting post. He ducked just in time to miss it and shouted a warning to the Queen. When they dismounted a few seconds later the Queen said cheerfully, “We were almost decapitated.” “Yes,” said Philip, “did you hear me shout?” "No,” said the Queen, "but 1 saw you duck. So I ducked too.

Though quick on the uptake she rarely makes jokes, partly because she believes they endanger her dignity and partly because her husband wisecracks quite enough for the two of them. But the Queen is not without a sense of humor. At a Buckingham Palace garden party two years ago she talked with a group of Canadian naval officers about the RCN cruiser Ontario, in which she had once sailed. Indicating Edward Cox. naval attaché at the Canadian High Commissioner’s office in London, she said, “Do you know what Ted Cox says about the Ontario? He says it is like spending three days inside a washing machine."

During the recent state visit to Portugal she was puzzled at first by the Latin custom of hanging out bed linen to supplement the show of flags. I hen, brightening a little, she quipped. "But of course, this is Monday. It s washing day.”

Don Mackay, the mayor of Calgary, can testify to the Queen’s love of pleasant laughter. Shortly before her visit to Canada in 1951 Mackay was presented by British hatters with an enormous piece of western headgear, a dimensional spoof on the cowboy variety that he wears for ceremonial occasions. When he met Elizabeth he was wearing an orthodox ten-gallon job. She said. "Where’s that big British hat—you know, the one they sent you from Stockport?” Mackay hastily sent home for it and put it on, "Ah,” said Elizabeth, “that’s better.”

At a clubwomen's luncheon in Toronto, given by Mrs. Ray Lawson, wife of the then lieutenant-governor, Elizabeth listened, when the dishes had been cleared away, to a radio broadcast speech given by Prince Philip before members of the local Board of Trade. When the speech was over Elizabeth noticed that the microphone over which her husband had spoken was still “live” and broadcasting the tinkling of glasses at the head table. Turning to Mrs. Gerald Godsoe. wife of the president of the Toronto Board of Trade, she said, “Now that

could be embarrassing, particularly for a woman speaker. She might say, ‘Look at that atrocious hat that Mrs. Whatshername is wearing,’ and find she'd been overheard by the entire nation.”

There are even times when the Queen's blithe spirit, her accent, and her choice of slang, remind her subjects of the British movie comedienne Joyce Grenfell, particularly in her addiction to such adjectives as “wizard” and “smashing.” Like many young matrons who make gastronomic sacrifices to the cult of the sapling figure, she can develop an almost ado-

lescent rapture at the sight or smell of food, and it is in these moments that her Grenfellisms pop out. On a train in New Brunswick, for example, she took one look at the dining-car menu and exclaimed. “Oh goody! Lobster!” At the Royal Alexandra Hotel in Winnipeg, when asked if she'd like apple pie with Manitoba cheese she said, “Rath—er!” And on boarding the Empress of Scotland in Newfoundland for the return to England, she said to the captain. “1 say. Could we please have lunch soon?"

According to one story now current

“It’ll serve us right,” said the Queen, “if he offers us fish and chips”

with the diplomatic corps in Ottawa, the Queen was penitent last July when she heard she had been criticized for serving visiting delegates of the American Bar Association with hot dogs and hamburgers. When delicately it was pointed out to her that judges of the United States Supreme Court are no more accustomed to such fare than she is, she said remorsefully, “It’ll serve us jolly well right in Washington if the president offers us fish and chips.”

She sometimes drops a rock under the smoothly rolling wheels of ceremony with a laugh or a blunt remark. While visiting the RCMP museum at Regina— during her first visit to Canada, she fixed a fascinated stare on a large, metal, partly convex flask, insisted on knowing what it was and, when told that it was designed for strapping around a bootlegger’s body, she vented an irreverent chuckle at Canada’s liquor laws. In Edmonton she momentarily stumped a group of oil millionaires by asking, “What makes an oil well blow?” At Moose Jaw, as former mayor Louis H. I.ewry bowed gravely in greeting, she snapped up his head by saying, “Oooh! The snow is running down my back!”

In Saskatoon, as she was trying in vain to sign the visitors’ book, she touched off a cacophony of deprecatory coughing by saying in ringing tones to city clerk James Alexander, “This pen won’t work.” Occasionally she drops a sardonic remark. Visiting wartime concrete bunkers in Norway, she said, “I suppose that when the Germans built these they thought they were going to stay here forever.”

Often, she’s gracious and friendly. At a Buckingham Palace garden party some years ago she spotted an elderly Canadian she’d met several times before—E.

H. Coleman, a former ambassador to Brazil. When Coleman told her ruefully that he’d had to retire from the Canadian diplomatic service under the age-limit ruling, the Queen said, “Oh, that’s too bad. In fact, it’s unreasonable. You look far too young to be retired.”

It is a wonder she was not blinded long ago by press photographers’ equipment, yet when a flashbulb exploded within a few feet of her face a couple of years ago, she said to the cameraman, “Don't worry. No harm done.” Once, visiting the potteries at Stoke on Trent, she was handling a valuable piece of china when another flashbulb exploded. She turned to the photographer with an air of mock reproach and said, “I jolly well nearly dropped it.”

At the Halifax home of Nova Scotia’s Premier Angus L. MacDonald, in 1951, she sat on the arm of a chesterfield saying, “I like to perch on the arms of chairs.” She ate a piece of oatmeal bread and said appreciatively to Mrs. MacDonald, “This is delicious. Did you make it yourself? It’s just like the oatmeal bread at home.” Later Mrs. MacDonald recalled that she had been present in the Abbey during the Coronation of Elizabeth's father. Elizabeth laughed and said, “Oh, you must have seen how I talked to Margaret. People keep telling me about that.” In the bedroom, before leaving, she began to rummage in her handbag. “I’ve lost something,” she said. “Lipstick? Powder?” asked Mrs. MacDonald. “No,” said Elizabeth, “something much more important. I've lost my mirror. I must have left it at the hotel.” Finally she emptied her bag onto the bed, found the mirror, and laughed at her own confusion.

She seems to be as scatterbrained as any other woman about the contents of her handbag. In a private suite of the Royal Alexandra Hotel in Winnipeg she was handed a comb by housekeeper Elizabeth Kelly. After combing her hair Elizabeth said, “I seem to have left my own comb on the plane. May I keep this?”

She is often as shy and tentative as she is forgetful. In 1955 W. G. Matters, a Toronto Star reporter, once saw her working at a charity bazaar in Scotland, and approached her booth. Somewhat timidly the Queen held up a box of chocolates and said, “Would you like them?” Then hesitantly she added, “—for a pound?” Matters, with the magnanimity of a man on an expense account, said, “I’ll pay thirty shillings.” The Queen gasped and wrapped them up in the delighted manner of a saleswoman who’s pulled off an unexpectedly good deal.

Homework for the Queen

There are few occasions when commoners get a chance to chat with the Queen for prolonged periods. In Canada a man must be at least a provincial premier or mayor of a big city to spend more than an hour in her company. The opportunity usually arises at a provincial or municipal luncheon when the Queen sits on the right of the premier or mayor who is host. The day before such meetings the Queen engages in what she calls “swotting” in order to provide herself with conversational topics about the province or city.

At lunch with Premier Joseph Smallwood, of Newfoundland, Elizabeth talked about the pulp industry. When Smallwood mentioned that his province boasted the biggest paper mill in the world, she said. “Oh yes, I know all about that. It’s at Corner Brook, and it belongs to Bowater.” When Smallwood said there was another big mill at Grand Falls, she said, “Yes, that’s the industry that was

started by Lord Northcliffe, isn’t it?”

When Premier Tommy Douglas of Saskatchewan, dined with Elizabeth, she asked him endless questions about the prairies—the kind of crops, the size of farms, how the children got to school, and how many hospitals there were. “About the only question she didn’t raise,” Douglas recalls, “was the problem of wheat marketing. And I think this omission was by design.”

Often the Queen emerges from such luncheons proud.xff the knowledge she’s gained and anxious to show it off. In Washington, in 1951, Charles E. Wilson, then U. S. Defence Mobilization Director, told her he had just returned from a trip to Canada. “Then you would be talking to the Right Honorable C. D. Howe,” said Elizabeth. Wilson bowed. “He is your opposite number in Canada is he not?” Wilson bowed again. “It is an excellent idea to co-operate in defence production,” she said. Gravely, Wilson inclined his head in thanks for her approval. “You know, of course,” said Elizabeth, “that Canada is making frames for the new Sabre jet?” Wilson raised his eyebrows, and made a polite “ooh” of surprise and gratification. And then she moved on to tell the top American brass more of what she thought they ought to know about the vast monarchy to the north.

In these imperious moments one can imagine the Queen, on being told that she must improve her speeches turning to such critics as Lord Altrincham and employing the words of her formidable ancestor Elizabeth I: "Must?” cried Elizabeth I to a courtier named Robert Cecil, “Is must a word to be addressed to princes? Little man! Little man! Thy father, if he had been alive, durst not have used that word.”

It is more likely, however, that in dealing with her critics the Queen will continue to follow the advice of George Bernard Shaw who once told her father, “Silence is the most perfect expression of scorn.” At