06 February 2008

The Queen’s small talk

I don’t know how she does it.

I was watching a documentary about the Queen. She was in Estonia, of all places, and was being introduced to 200 people at a reception. The British Ambassador to Estonia was flapping around – “This gentlemen is the inventor of the philharmonic chamber choir; this lady provides foreign policy advice to the prime minister” – and there she was, making small talk with each and every one of them. She had 45 minutes, which works out at 13 seconds per person.

It was getting close to dinner time and someone had to switch her off because, apparently, until someone intervenes, she will just go on meeting, greeting and thinking up questions. It’s done quite simply: “Your Majesty, the time has come.” She just stops, turns and walks away.

Of course, she’s been doing it at Buckingham Palace day in, day out, for more than 55 years. Endless diplomats, clergy and heads of state. The president of Ghana, the retiring Dean of St Paul’s, members of the Royal Welsh, ancient charity workers.

As a result, she has a ton of boilerplate patter in case someone clams up.
– Is this your first visit? Is it like what you thought it would be like?
– Was it difficult for you to travel here?
– Really? How marvellous!
– Comes around terribly quickly, doesn’t it?

And on and on and on.

When she’s over it, she presses a discreet buzzer in the arm of her chair. Two giant doors are suddenly flung open and, while her astonished guests have their heads turned, she just stands up. Audience over.

I also learned that she drinks gin and Dubonnet, 30/70, with a de-pipped slice of lemon under two ice cubes. At parties, all she has to do is spin around and someone will be standing there with a single glass, etched with “ER”, on a tray. Maybe that’s her real secret.

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