Half a lifetime ago, I was, briefly, an occasional royal reporter – and watching The Crown, season four has revived memories of that inglorious chapter.
It began with my one and only encounter with my favourite Crown character, Princess Margaret, on a sweltering July evening in 1997. I had arranged a trial night shift on the Evening Standard, starting at 5pm, which only allowed me ten minutes to get from my day job at the Old Bailey across London to their offices in Kensington, by bicycle, in 90-degree heat. I arrived breathless, only for the news editor to spin me straight back out, saying I had just five minutes before I needed to be in Regents Park, prompting another frantic ride across the scorching city.
The event I was late for was the opening of an exhibition of interiors at which 'Margot' was to be the superstar turn. I sprinted, locked up, dashed in. And there she was – this legendary party figure at an actual party, champagne flute in hand, holding court, in her signature caustic style. And it was only after I’d spent some minutes attempting to appear suitably deferential, while perpetually hovering in her vicinity, that I realised the tremendous heat and frantic double cycle rides had combined to leave me sweating, so profusely that my shirt was rapidly becoming soaked through, visibly so. I looked more like a raver at 5am than the decorous professional I hoped to appear. The Princess at one point, I swear, looked towards me, registered my, by now, dripping shirt and muttered a just audible ‘urgh’ while rolling her eyes.
Despite this inauspicious start, I was asked to come back to the Standard for more.
The weekend before this second shift, on the evening of Saturday 30 August, I was in Paris, en vacances. By chance, I was less than a mile from the Ritz where Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Fayed were enjoying a dinner date – a fact I was only to discover the following day. For, showing the kind of preternatural journalistic instincts for which I was to become renowned, barely an hour before Henri Paul drove the couple into the Pont de l’Alma tunnel, I was cheerily steaming out of the Gare du Nord on the last Eurostar of the night back to London.
So instead of being the first British journalist on the scene of the biggest story of our lives, I simply, haplessly turned up at the Standard as arranged 36 hours later. It's always hard to make an impression in those trial situations as no one trusts you enough to give you anything meaningful to do. But the death of Diana was such a huge story that it tore up that rule and, in a frenetic week, I interviewed sick children whose hearts she had touched, smitten old ladies, condolence book queuers, and shadowed the grieving great and good, and just kept filing and filing copy, all of it going straight into print. At the end of each long, Diana-devoted day, I then battled my way from the office above Barkers department store through the swarms of tearful people, her people, coming out of Kensington High Street station bound for Kensington Palace, bearing flowers, lots and lots of flowers.
The week culminated in an all Friday night shift vox popping the masses who were sleeping al fresco along the Mall, in St James’s and Green Parks, to guarantee good spots from which to watch the funeral cortege. I spent the evening and early hours taking in these scenes, touring together with hacks from other newspapers for company and, perhaps, protection. The need for the latter became evident at around 2am. Despite the dark, deep in the thickest part of the sea of tents, beneath the Victoria Monument, a camper, spotted – quite correctly – that one of my colleagues had recently taken considerable liquid refreshment to fortify himself for the long night ahead, and she rounded on him, shouting: ‘You're DRUNK. He's DRUNK!’. Scandalised by this disrespect so soon before the funeral, others took up the cry. The atmosphere was febrile. We might as well have been paparazzi. I actually broke into a run at one point and thankfully, despite his state, my inebriated colleague followed suit and we escaped.
I got a call that afternoon asking me to come back to the Standard again the next week. I was to stay for seven more years. Diana had given me my break.
And soon I found myself becoming the paper’s unofficial deputy royal reporter, which essentially meant filling in during the occasional absences of my more senior – and more regal – colleague, Valentine Low, these days to be found still on this royal beat at the Times.
I was to cover the Queen at several Chelsea Flower shows, on some of her many birthdays and at a state opening of parliament or two. But the moment I always remember, my most intimate with her, came on an obscure royal rota occasion long forgotten by history, on a rainy autumn day in, I think, 1999 at a primary school somewhere off the upper end of the Holloway Road. Her Majesty was resplendent in turquoise; I was wearing a grey suit from Blazer. I was the sole reporter present, representing the entire fourth estate, then there was HRM, three BP flunkies, the school’s head and deputy, the teacher, and 30 odd ten and eleven-year-olds in a classroom so overheated it was beginning to steam. (Overheating was a feature of my royal tenure, I now realise).
It was already uncomfortable and then it got worse: the children started singing. The song was a reworking of Abba, intended to acknowledge the contribution of the well-meaning unpaid amateur in addressing societal ills. To the tune of ‘Mamma Mia, here we go again…’, it went something like ‘Volunteers, you’re so very good, you help us, and you do it all for free.’ I wouldn’t have said this at the time, and indeed gave no suggestion of it in the report I submitted shortly afterwards, but it was absolutely, painfully bad. It would have been preferable for the teacher to have run her fingers down the blackboard that was conveniently placed directly behind her choir than to let them sing.
To compensate for their audible lack of vocal ability, they all simply sang louder, in this very confined space. The non-participating adults were looking embarrassedly around the classroom, just hoping it would soon stop. And then it happened: as they hit their third ‘Vol-un-teers’ chorus, as melodious as a football crowd, the Queen’s eyes caught mine – and briefly held them. We were looking into each others’ eyes. Hers were a doleful window to a world of quiet inner agony, of boredom and discomfort. The woman famous for asking ‘And what do you do?’ seemed to be telling me ‘and this is what I do’. I truly felt her pain. What a woman.
My only encounter with Harry came well before both his ‘bloody good bloke’ and ‘terribly woke’ periods, when he was both literally and metaphorically just out of short trousers. It was a photo call for his first day at Eton, in September 1998. He was about to turn 14 but looked younger, a child in a very adult black tailcoat. He came out of the college buildings and did a turn past the huge pen containing about 300 photographers, whose flashes were explosive. If Harry was uncomfortable – and subsequent developments would indicate that he probably was – it didn’t show.
My William experience was more impactful. He was about to head to South America for gap year travels and Clarence House had arranged an on-camera Q&A as a quid pro quo with editors to see him left in peace while there. We hacks were shown into the beautiful grounds of Highgrove, and positioned a mixed flower border apart from the double act of Wills and Prince Charles. There were to be seven pre-agreed questions of an innocuous nature: ‘What are you looking forward to in Patagonia?’ and so on. William gamely – and somewhat lamely – did his best with each, while lightly bantering with Dad for us. But he hadn’t been given much of a ball to kick.
After ten minutes, it was winding up and nothing newsworthy had been said. At this point my hack’s instinct kicked in and, ignoring the formal atmosphere, I lobbed in an extra question. A couple of weeks previous to this, a former Kensington Palace private secretary had published a memoir of his time with Diana, prompting something of a media storm about his apparent breach of her posthumous confidence. What did William think of this book, I shouted. An older statesman would have been less easily drawn but this young prince was just 18. He rose to the bait. ‘Betrayed’ and ‘exploited’ were both uttered in a short but impassioned reply before Charles discretely made him shut up. It wasn’t much but it was enough. It was the final edition splash for me, the lead on the lunchtime telly news, front pages everywhere the following day, where it was described as ‘an unprecedented interview’.
Calling it an interview was pushing it but still, I thought, a triumph. I was expecting a warm reception from my colleagues. Instead, I was surprised to find they were all furious. It turned out they had spent weeks lobbying for this event to take place at all and it had gone ahead only on the strictest understanding that no one would behave in such a yobbish way. I had, I now realise, played my own small part in the long saga of deteriorating relations between press and palace.
My very last royal story was an impromptu and unofficial one. Some years later, I had tickets for the opera in Covent Garden, and arrived to discover it was a gala evening with Charles and Camilla as guests. There were flash bulbs outside and necks craning in. But then it all settled down, the show started – and it featured an unusual amount of nudity. The following morning, I mentioned these two unrelated facts to a couple of people and wheels started turning – the morning after, it appeared on the Sun’s page three: ‘ONE CAN SEE YOUR ARIAS Royal Nude Shock’.
I had finally found my level as a royal correspondent.