There are some things the English just do more instinctively and in some ways better than anyone else – palaces, aspiration and bone-dry humour. The Duke Of Edinburgh gold awards presented at St James Palace is the apotheosis of all three.
First, St James is, hierarchically speaking, top of the palatial pops. Other palaces and castles jostle and preen loudly proclaiming their importance “I hosted the jubilee!” “Marm only ever holidays with me!” etc. St James, however, abides in reclined serenity untroubled by the vulgar clamoring. It understates, secure in the knowledge that it alone is the seat of power for all English nobility. It’s not too “on the nose” then to discover that the actual seat of royal power, the throne, resides at St James, and nowhere else.
The throne is a gloriously scarlet perch with the ruling monarch’s initials embroidered in large relief on the backing cushion. Given that the initials only need to be changed every time a new sovereign ascends the throne one assumes that the Royal Embroiderer (there just has to be such a person) has had an extended vacation since 1953. Well done.
Indeed, St James does everything you want a palace to do, and does it very well. The gold trim is shiny. The carpets are deep, the drapes are lush and the tassels are dangly. The tones when uttered are hushed and refined. This is not a palace that shouts you into submission. It’s so effortlessly regal that without raising so much as a footman’s eyebrow it makes you curtsy and bow and finger your neck like a Tudor bride glancing nervously at Henry’s ax.
The perfect setting then, in which to receive The Duke Of Edinburgh gold award, possibly the most English of aspirational endeavours.
Not that I received it but in this company I was the minority. Over 2.5 million awards have been achieved in 140 countries since the D of E began in 1956. They weren’t all in the room with me but nonetheless, one or two hundred of the best and brightest took their turn and stepped into the limelight to be congratulated by the Duke Of Edinburgh himself.
At 95 he’s in far better shape than many a generation younger. He carries out his duties with a good natured, old worldly smile. He’s irascible and (very precise nuance here) naughty. He likes a good laugh, a sly wink, a stiff drink, and to be on his way before the applause dies down. And applaud they did.
This crowd was up for a good time. They’d toiled four years for this moment.
They’d volunteered and cared for dogs and pigs. They’d worked with children, the elderly, the poor, the crippled or the just plain lonely. Some embroidered their way here. Others wrote computer code. All had done “the expedition”. A week without bathing. A week of eating cold beans and sleeping outside exposed to the elements; hiking up hills, across gorges and down cliffs backwards strapped to a rope.
It would be easy to stroke a hip beard, sip a post modern latte, even shake an anti monarchist fist and mock their earnestness. Some would go so far as to conclude that the only “character” all this bother and masochistic discomfort could build is a harassed, misanthropic Scrooge. However the truth is quite evidently the opposite. The youthful faces I saw wore genuine smiles. They were happy to be here but there was no sense of entitlement. They weren’t all rich or white and privately educated or even overawed. They understood that today was unique but still knew enough to chuckle at some of the choreographed pageantry. Asking three circles of fifty people to all take a step to the right and then one to the back can never be somber. They came from varied walks of life and abilities. The only thing they really had in common was a quiet confidence borne of achievement. It was commendable, and commendation they deserved to receive.
Their polite manners, neatly turned out dress and rosy health stood in sharp contrast to the day’s headlines “Teen stabbed by other teens”. This is not to suggest that the D of E can cure society of all ills and engineer a race of super happy, philanthropic entrepreneurs. The argument in favour of encouraging 16 – 24 year olds into the awards is simple. Get them volunteering, adventuring, and challenging themselves and chances are they won’t go around stabbing each other.
So that’s palaces and aspiration covered. What about the humour? Ah, this is all served up at St James in a multi-century banquet of history, pageantry and tapestry.
There is much history from which to choose – St James was built almost 500 years ago on the site of a former leper colony. Charles I spent his last night here before being executed. A fireplace bears Henry VII’s and Anne Boleyn’s joint initials on the left (H&A) but ends on the right with a solo H (we all know what happened to the “A”). In the 20th century the first global declaration leading to the UN was signed here by a dozen countries.
However all of that pales next to the fact that the balcony on which Charles will be proclaimed king is in front of a tapestry room full of pictures of women exposing their breasts. There’s a fully dressed maid making a bed with her breasts out (as you do). There’s one swooning against a tree near a cherub. There are any number of angels with wings, all shining their high beams proudly into the air. It may not have been the most well bred thing to do but once you start counting exposed breasts it’s hard to stop. The actual number is somewhere north of 20.
The nugget, for me, lies not in the fact that I’ve discovered some delicious, salacious detail that nobody else knows. Everybody knows. For one thing the tapestries are reputedly by 19th century design legend William Morris whose work was commissioned by the royal household. Lastly, the entire firm from Marm down must know and obviously choose to proceed and herein lies a clue to the secret of dry, English cool. Nobody pretends that messy, impish biology never breaches these blue-blooded walls. They simply glide past it, rise blithely above it, and “carry on”.
So yes, the venerated Duke’s gold (awards) are celebrated here, and the next king of England will be heralded unto his coronation here – on the site of leprosy and decapitation and in full view of a chorus of exposed, tapestried bosoms – just like his mother before him.
There you have it – palace, aspiration and humour so transgressive it could only have come from the truth. Very English.