Nov. 6, 2000 | More from Don Murray
It’s really just an ordinary house, the secretary said as we stared at strange electrical outlets that
appeared to have been installed in the era of Sherlock Holmes. The secretary was Alastair Aird, Sir Alastair Aird. He was a charming man but his assessment was wildly improbable.
This was Clarence House, the residence of the Queen Mother. We were there to record the ceremony in which Governor General Adrienne Clarkson gave the Queen Mother the insignia making her an Honorary Companion of The Order Of Canada.
We were ushered in. A man who announced himself as the equerry walked us down long, gloomy halls hung with many paintings of horses. The ceremony would take place in the Garden Room. It truly was a garden … of surreal royal delights.
The enormous carpet was old, and valuable… and threadbare. There were more paintings on the walls, six of them portraits of the Queen Mother herself. Sir Alastair reappeared. There are a couple of old masters here, he said, pointing at the wall. That one over there, the Americans are gaga about it. They always want it for some exhibition. The rest, he said, are copies, you know. Nothing important. I didn’t ask his opinion of the portraits of the Queen Mother.
Sir Alastair explained how the ceremony would take place. The Queen Mother would sit in a chair. She wanted to come in unobserved. She didn’t want to be seen with her walking sticks.
While he talked, we could smell something unusual. A man in livery walked into the room waving a brazier of incense. It filled the room with perfumed smoke. Could this be to mask our smell? Another man in livery walked in and asked if we needed any help with the outlets. We did. The place, he said laconically, was a bit archaic. He would send two staff electricians. Ordinary house, indeed.
On the sidetable were what, at first glance, appeared to be family photographs. The first was of the Queen Mother herself and her mother. There was one of Queen Victoria with her great-grandchildren. It was signed in 1900. And beside it, a photo of the Empress of Iran, the deposed Shah’s wife, in full regalia.
There were no other photos.
On another sidetable there were CDs and records. The LP on top of the pile was called “Dancing Through Scotland with Lenny Duncan,” a special commemorative album in honour of the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana. A photo of the happy young couple graced the cover. Not for the first time the thought occurred that this was a residence frozen in another time.
Suddenly the Queen Mother
walked in unannounced and alone. She was using her walking sticks. She began chatting to us about the weather. No, she didn’t want to sit down. The Governor General came in. The ceremony in no way resembled the advance description offered by Sir Alastair, who now beckoned to us to leave the room.
In the hall, the equerry appeared, now dressed in full military uniform of around 1890. He looked as if he were about to mount up and join the Light Brigade. I’ll just put you in this room while the Queen Mother has a private word with the Governor General, he said. An aide whispered in his ear. Ah, the equerry said, wild dogs in there. Perhaps we won’t put you in that room.
Another room was found. It was the anteroom to the main dining room. On the walls there were books and what appeared to be a decades-long collection of the magazine Country Life. There was a decanter of port, a plate of cookies and two large pink porcelain rabbits… with two tiny porcelain rabbits peeking out of their bellies. The Queen Mother’s private chat ended. We were released. A pack of dogs rushed by down the hall and up the stairs. These were corgis. There’s the newest one, the puppy, the equerry said. You know them all? I asked. All of them, he said a little wearily.
They have the run of the house. We didn’t. We were guided out. The door closed on another world.