It’s not every day the Queen invites you to tea. Admittedly, I’m not alone in being granted that honour. At the Royal Garden Party I went to last week, I was among several thousand dignitaries craning their necks to get a glimpse of Her Majesty. But it was still a lovely day out — more deeply affecting than I thought it would be.
The reason I was invited is because of my ‘service to the community’, which I assume is a reference to the West London Free School. I don’t suppose the Queen herself has been following my progress in the pages of this magazine — though you never know. Rather, my name was one of dozens put forward by the Department for Education in 2012 for ‘service to the community’.
I have to confess, when the email from the ‘Honours Team’ at the Department for Education first arrived on my iPhone I thought it might be in connection with something else. Caroline has said the only thing that would induce her to take my surname is if she can call herself ‘Lady Young’. So naturally I got rather overexcited. ‘Darling,’ I said, glancing at my inbox, ‘I think you may have to change your name.’
I scanned the email, searching for the words ‘peerage’ or ‘knighthood’.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘We’ve been invited to a Buckingham Palace garden party.’
She was a bit perplexed at first, but after reading the email the penny dropped.
‘What did you expect?’ she said. ‘That it would be, “Arise, Lord Young of Acton”? You sad, sad little man.’
In truth, I wasn’t too disappointed. I was pretty chuffed to receive any form of recognition for my work on the free school — and the icing on the cake was that Mr Packer, the school’s exemplary headmaster, was invited as well. On the day itself, Caroline and I turned up at Mr and Mrs Packer’s house in our Sunday best for a glass of bubbly before the four of us made our way to the Palace.
We got there at about 3.30 p.m., half an hour before the Queen was due to make her entrance. It wasn’t like a party in the conventional sense, mainly because no alcohol was being served. It was strictly tea or coffee, accompanied by a tiny oblong china plate on to which you could pile as many cakes and sandwiches as your embarrassment threshold would allow. The whole occasion was quite formal and there wasn’t that noisy hubbub of conversation you get at normal parties. Instead, everyone stood around slightly awkwardly, pretending to be absorbed in their refreshments, waiting for Her Majesty to arrive.
When she appeared at a few minutes past four it was if a deity had descended from the heavens. I don’t mean she looked radiant and serene — I was too far away to tell. But the crowd reacted as if she was a goddess. A silence descended and every head in the garden turned towards her, followed by a burst of applause. It suddenly became clear how much it meant to everyone to be invited. These weren’t toffs, but ordinary people — servicemen and women, charity workers, public servants, local councillors. Not people you’d expect to read about in the papers. For many of them, this garden party was the only recognition they’d ever receive.
And it was enough. That was the humbling thing. Seeing how proud my fellow guests were, I felt ashamed of my initial reaction. What on earth made me think I deserved more than this, when it was sufficient for men who’d lost their limbs in defence of our country? I had started out feeling slightly detached, but was now swept along by the sense of occasion, buoyed up by patriotism.
Here was the best argument for the monarchy you could hope to find. Thousands of men and women who had served their ‘communities’ and for no greater hope of reward than this simple ceremony. Without the Queen, without this living embodiment of everything they hold dear about Britain, and without the prospect of being honoured in this way, would they have given so much? I doubt it.
Afterwards, Mr Packer took us for drinks at the In and Out, the Naval and Military Club in St James’s. (In addition to being a headmaster, he’s a retired Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve.) As we sat there with the evening sun streaming through the tall windows, I felt a great surge of love for my country. Caroline may never take my name, but at least she shares my nationality. In that respect, we’ve both won the lottery of life.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 2, 2012