Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Meetings with Royalty

The UC Berkeley Alumni Magazine, which you might think would be in a state of apoplectic rage about the current disembowelment of higher public education in California, this month offered a humor issue instead, which included a couple pages of Mark Twain’s stories about his encounters with British royalty.

This put me in mind of my own experiences along these lines. I came into the presence of the Queen two times, both inadvertently. In June 1961 I was exploring London for the first time on my own. Arriving one morning at St Paul’s, in those days a grotesque heap of coal-smoke-blackened stone, I saw Herself coming down the long rows of steps, more or less unaccompanied, where she’d evidently attended a military commemorative service of some sort. That kind of church event happened a lot in London in those days, usually on weekday mornings, and often with some degree of royalty in attendance.

She was quite a beautiful young woman, and she was wrapped up in tons of white satin, a blue sash with a big ceremonial brooch, studded no doubt with diamonds, as was no doubt the smallish tiara on top of her head. She managed to keep smiling while carefully negotiating her way down all the steps.

Her Majesty next entered my life sometime in the 1980’s in Berlin, where I was teaching at the Volkshochschule, and where she was attending her ceremonial birthday ceremonies put on by the British garrison. In those days there was a men’s room at the corner of Joachimsthaler Strasse and Kurfürstendamm. It was below street level, and one afternoon as I came up the stairs after draining the lizard, there was the Queen of England, riding past me in a cavalcade, not 15 feet away from me on the sidewalk, and OMG she looked right at me and waved from behind the window of her limo! Of course I waved right back at her, and since the entire event had taken me completely by surprise, I immediately regretted not having washed my fingers after peeing.

I heard the Duke of Edinburgh give a lecture to a bunch of us foreign students at the University of  Edinburgh in 1965. I don’t remember it, except that he was really funny. And then around 1980 I saw Margaret Thatcher close-up, leaving Westminster Abbey with Ian Smith, the last minister president of  Rhodesia. I had come to search for Chaucer’s grave in the Poets’ Corner. Thatcher had this flaming orange hair which would have rendered her visible from across the Thames. Ian Smith was about to replaced by Robert Mugabe, although no one knew it yet.

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