The Queen of England is waiting to shake my hand, but my mind is on string beans. At dinner last night in a grand, raftered, 16th century eating hall, the waitress serving my table suddenly slipped and fell. Her silver salver was still clanging on the wooden floor as we rose to help. As the blush of shame faded from her cheeks, accusing fingers pointed at a wayward haricot vert on the floor, the apparent cause of her undoing.
Now, as the light of a June evening illumines the splendor of a Buckingham Palace drawing room, I am certain that last night was an omen. A palace aide has just called my wife's and my names from a presentation card I handed him, and we are facing Elizabeth II. She is wearing a turquoise gown and is accompanied by her husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
But a wide gap in the receiving line mysteriously opens up, and we are suddenly several giant steps away from the Royal Couple. And I know for sure that somewhere in the deep carpet between us and them lurks a malevolent legume or its proxy, poised to inflict upon me a fate far more embarrassing than the previous night's calamity.
It would probably serve me right. I'd come to London to do some reporting on the International Monetary Conference, an annual get-together of the chairmen of the world's 100 or so largest banks. Each year, IMC bankers and many of their spouses gather somewhere on the globe to talk shop, renew friendships, and enjoy themselves in grand banking style.
HYPOCRITICAL. As part of this year's social program, the British banks hosting the conference arranged this reception at the Palace. And, coup of coups for even this high-powered set, they won the Queen and the Duke's agreement to meet each of the conference participants, including about two dozen journalists.
Rare as it is to have an opportunity to meet the world's best-known reigning monarch, I can't help feeling hypocritical. Truth be told, I've never thought a lot of the Queen and her family. No doubt part of the reason is upbringing. I grew up in Queens, after all, that part of New York that, while regal in name, is about as distant from the royal purple as anybody can get.
I've never quite understood all the fuss about blue bloods. When Charles, Prince of Wales, married Lady Diana Spencer, I remember being amazed that many of my friends in the U.S. stayed up all night to watch the ceremony on television. That the marriage failed and Charles's admitted adulteries have become quotidian tabloid fodder makes me feel a bit smug.
In fact, I feel a kind of solidarity with those British antiroyalists who are shearing the monarchy of some of its money and prestige. The Queen, in the 41st year of her reign, now pays taxes. And she offsets some of the public expense of supporting herself and her family in royal style by opening Buckingham Palace to tourists, some 380,000 of whom last year paid about $12 per head for a peek at some of the rooms.
Still, as I moved closer to the Queen's world, I began to rethink my convictions. One quirky epiphany emerged from the protocol instructions we all received. We wouldn't have a chance to speak with the Queen as we met her, but later she might mingle and "enter into conversation." In that case, our guide told us: "The Queen...[is] usually, in conversation, addressed as `Ma'am'--pronounced as in Spam."
Spam? Now, surely, the bizarre juxtaposition of the Queen of England with the king of canned meats could be no accident. There had to be a deeper meaning. As I thought about it, it dawned on me that perhaps, in the greater scheme of things, a world careening toward a kind of lunch-meat existence, filled with unappetizing mysteries, may need a leavener. Doesn't the monarchy's hyperborean quality counterbalance the general Spam-itization of life?
THE BIG MOMENT. So, while the bankers nibbled on tea sandwiches and drank gin and tonic and champagne in the Palace Throne Room, my royal conversion was effected. Here were the heavy hitters of international finance--veterans of oil shocks and Latin American debt and managers of riches beyond number--fidgeting in anticipation of what was to come.
When the big doors finally swung open, magnate and mug alike obediently rushed into place like British schoolchildren because She was ready. We'd been told that only subjects of the Queen were to bow and curtsy upon meeting her. No matter. A kind of genetic reflex kicked in and, royal subject or not, bowing and curtsying became de rigueur.
The immortal British librettist W.S. Gilbert once wrote that love levels all ranks. But watching the bankers, I became convinced that the Queen might be an even better leveler. Not only can the monarchy humble the big shots, but also, I discovered, it can ennoble the little people. Dipping my hand into a bowl of snacks, I was stunned to discover that at her home, the Queen serves guests the same minipizza crackers my kids sometimes eat from a box while watching cartoons.
But standing in the Queen's drawing room, I suddenly had no more time for such reflection. Our names had been called, the Queen and the Duke were waiting, and there were still those giant steps to take. Watch out for that lime wedge! Suddenly things were moving very fast. Before I knew it, we were pulling up in front of the Royal Couple in something that bore no resemblance to any bow or curtsy they'd ever seen.
Then the Queen extended her hand, and through her uhite glove, padded to protect against bruises, I experienced perhaps the perfect handshake. A single pump. Neither flabby nor too firm. Reassuring. And, yes, regal.
And then the Duke did something unexpected: He entered into conversation with us. "You're from Paris," he said, glancing at our conference name tags. We stammered a yes, then heard him say: "Come visit again."