Friday, November 6, 2009


Everyone Would Benefit If We Scrapped Royal Tours ...And Royalty

A female reporter gushed the other day in the National Post about how Prince Charles had actually LOOKED right at her and SMILED. I hope this was all just irony or sarcasm attacking royal tours in Canada. But if that was worth a newspaper story, then my tales about royals could become a series.
A Star columnist detailed at great cost to at least one woods how she got to shake hands with a royal. Wow!
Now it may be true that none of my anecdotes match the famous account of Prince Phillip in Yellowknife as the motherly waitress cleared the head table. She tapped the Duke on the shoulder and said "keep your fork, Duke, there's pie." There are variations and even different locales but I know it was reported there by my friend Allan Dickie for The Canadian Press.
But I could have sparked an international incident if I had reported that the Duke of Edinburgh had grumbled to me that he worried about the horses that were to compete in the Mexican Olympics because the *#@%@#* Mexicans didn't know how to handle horses. Since he was head of the world equestrian association at the time, his worry about mistreatment of the jumpers would have been headline stuff.
But there is a custom that the media don't report immediately on personal conversations they have with the royals. But a lot of years and tours have passed and, thank heavens, I will never have to report a tour again. Not that I dislike the Queen or Duke. Even though I think Prince Charles is an interesting man who would make a decent king, surely we should end this anachronism after the gracious and competent Queen leaves our throne.
But back to my anecdotes. It was 1961 and the royals still had the yacht Britannia. I was sent to the waterfront to see if anything happened when the Queen disembarked for the day. There was a knot of six people or so at the foot of the gangplank and a crowd kept behind barriers 40 yards away.
Nathan Phillips was still the mayor of Toronto and he knew me well. (I later wrote his memoirs.) He called me out of the crowd and told the police to leave me alone. He wanted to know if his great mane of white hair had looked silly the previous day as it blew in gusts when he greeted the Queen. We didn't notice that the Queen had joined us and, indeed, seemed to want to know the answer to the mayor's question. Phillips mumbled something, the Queen shook his hand, and the hands of the finance minister and premier and then, as she offered me her hand, noticed my press credentials. She gave a puzzled smile and left.
In those days, that wasn't enough for a story. We didn't yet gush over a mere smile. In the afternoon, I stood in the middle of a park to see if the Queen looked at a tree she had planted years before. She didn't. Just another waste of time, which is the main ingredient of royal tours.
The Duke visited the Toronto Press Club in the early 1970s and sympathized with me in the receiving line when I said I was membership secretary. I said it wasn't that bad. "But don't you have to keep out some people who aren't qualified," he asked. I said yes. Then he confided that he had nominated a friend for one of his London clubs. He explained that members voted by sticking their hand through a velvet sleeve into a wooden box. If they dropped the ball, fine. But if they tucked it into a little ledge on one side, it was a veto, a black ball. "How would you like to be married to the Queen of England," the Duke said, "and have two bastards blackball your friend."
I received an invitation to be one representative of the Toronto media at a reception in the Royal York at the start of one tour. It read that dress was lounge suit. So I phoned the veteran press wrangler for royal tours, Jim McPhee, who had been taking time off since 1939 from jobs like lieutenant colonel or press secretary to Premier William David to help the royals.
McPhee said lounge suite meant a dark suit. I said I would wear my best attire of navy blazer and flannels. "Do that and I won't let you in," McPhee said and hung up. I arrived at the Ontario Room to find the receiving line consisted of McPhee and the Queen. He was dressed in a wine blazer and grey flannels. I grumbled: "You said I couldn't dress like this but look at what you're wearing. " Then I noticed to my horror that the Queen had finished with the person ahead of me and was listening with great interest. I said: "I'm sorry Maam, but Lieut.-Col McPhee and I are old friends." The Queen smiled and said "obviously."
All the people, like police chiefs, who would be important to the tour's success had gathered in groups around the room. And the Queen circulated. My group didn't seem that lively, so I figured it was up to me to keep the conversation going. So I talked about jet lag and whether she kept her watch on London time when she joined us. She is a champion of small talk, so everything went well.
So I decided to really fly. She was here to preside over the Queen's Plate. I asked what horse she liked, because the Queen is famous for her knowledge of race horses. She diplomatically didn't mention names. I said that there was a longshot in the Plate and maybe she would be interested. I asked if she bet, and she said she had a lady-in-waiting do it for her.
Then she smiled and went to dazzle another group. When the Plate was run, my longshot finished dead last, in fact so far back, it may well have been dead.
I often quote the Duke when I pass a washroom in a stadium or on a tour. I once asked Prince Philip what was the secret of surviving tours when you're married to the Queen. "Never miss a chance to take a piss," he said. I've always liked that, scorning the politer version of "pee." It's the sailor in him. And I find it refreshing in these politically correct days to have a world figure who blurts out exactly what he thinks. Thank heavens there's at least one. Probably one reason the Queen married him.

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