The Queen and I

As an American expat living in Canada for more than 40 years, I’m still befuddled by the Queen and all the other royal rigmarole.

First, there is her birthday.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary – you can tack on Windsor as a surname, if you like – was born April 21, 1926.

As a human, she is 90 on Thursday, when she will, as is her custom, have private time with family.

As the monarch, public birthday celebrations in Britain are planned for May and June, featuring the requisite pomp and horses. Always horses.

(I’ll get to a story on the Queen and Philip and horse farts.)

Elizabeth is the Queen of Canada, the head of state, the face on the currency, the one to whom new citizens, elected officials, soldiers and others pledge allegiance.

Canadians mark a queen’s birthday with a holiday in late May. I originally thought it was for Elizabeth, but May 24, 1819 is Queen Victoria’s date of birth.

So all the beer and fireworks are supposedly for her, though most Canadians call it the May Two-Four weekend, venerating the number of bottles in a case of Labatt or Molson or other favorite brew.

The date is equally insignificant since the holiday is always on a Monday, allowing three straight days of outdoor activities, weather permitting, to swat blackflies.

No other country pays such tribute to Victoria, who died in 1901.

When I came to Canada – to Vancouver – from New York in 1973, one of my first assignments for UPI was to travel to Victoria.

The B.C. capital, I’d been told, was basically a retirement community for British army colonels, onetime guardians of the empire, and their doughy wives.

I was booked into the Empress hotel, named for the Empress of India, Queen Victoria.

I missed high tea – pity – and drifted into the Bengal Room, a cavernous bar where the waiters dressed like lackeys from the good old days of the raj.

Dominating the room, above a fireplace, was a tiger skin, complete with head and tail.

Sitting below it were a handful of guys – and one woman – drinking beer and laughing too loud.

Obviously reporters.

I walked up to them, waited for a break in the conversation, and shouted: “OK, which one of you sons-of-bitches shot that tiger?”

They looked up at me, sized me up, figured I was one of them, laughed, and introduced themselves. One, Joey Slinger of the Globe and Mail, would become a life-long friend.

Joey would tell me a favorite story from a royal tour by the Queen and Prince Philip.

On their last night in Victoria, where the royal yacht Britannia was docked, a small group of reporters was invited aboard for a cocktail party.

Congregating in the salon, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting approached each reporter in turn with the question: “What do you work for?”

When she got a feisty fellow from the Victoria Times, he replied: “I work for $147.50 a week. What do you work for?”

“No, no,” said the flustered lady, “what organization do you work for?”

But she was too late, as laughter from the members of the press overwhelmed the moment.

Canadian media tend to go gaga for the Queen whenever she visits – more than 20 times since her coronation in 1953.

Since she never says much worth reporting, these stories are usually told from the point of view of people in the crowd.

“Just make sure you interview every kid and old lady she talks to,” I instructed my reporter when I was a supervising editor for United Press during the Queen’s 1984 tour. “And, for god’s sake, don’t forget to describe what the Queen is wearing, from the hideous hat down to the sensible shoes.”

Photographers on the royal beat never stop snapping – because you never know when you’ll capture an unscripted moment.

My pal Doug Ball, when he was with Canadian Press, caught Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau doing a little dance, a pirouette, behind the Queen’s back in London.

queen and trudeau

And Ball also captured Her Majesty with her left pinkie buried in her left nostril at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton.

That picture was never published, though prints have been passed around for decades, for the amusement of friends and colleagues.

My favorite Queen story, other than Helen Mirren’s movie portrayal, was told to me by a retired Canadian Forces colonel assigned to a royal tour, which required him to be on the plane on a flight from Britain to Canada.

“We were approaching the coast of Newfoundland,” he recalled. “It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. You could even see the whales and icebergs in the water.

“The pilot asked me if Prince Philip might want to come up to the cockpit to see the view. So I asked the prince and Philip went up front, stayed there for a while and admired the view.

“When Philip turned to go back to the cabin, the pilot asked: ‘Do you think Her Majesty would be interested in seeing the view?’

“Philip laughed and said: ‘If it doesn’t eat oats and fart, she’s not interested.’”

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