London — On the most beautiful sunny afternoon of this otherwise abysmal summer in London, I had tea with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in her garden at Buckingham Palace.
So, to be sure, had some 4,999 other people. All were dressed in their formal best -- their own or clothes specially hired for the afternoon: diplomats and civil servants, local dignitaries and visiting firemen, businessmen and women, nurses, teachers, and all sorts of ordinary people suddenly become extraordinary for the space of a few hours by dint of the company in which they found themselves.
As they filed in, sightseers brandished cameras at the men in morning coats of black or gray, the women in assorted party gear with hats and gloves. "Coo -- look at her! Is she famous?"
All that week, yellow traffic indicators had warned London's motorists to avoid the West End area. Five thousand guests arriving in 2,000 to 3,000 cars can certainly snarl up London's already congested streets. But the palace has long experience with crowds. Special stick-on car labels had been issued to guests with their tickets, entitling them to park on approach roads.
Chauffeur-driven cars can even drive right into the palace forecourt, which is convenient on arrival, but can be embarrassing when they have to be summoned by loudspeaker afterward: "Rex Limousine is now waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Shelbourne-Rockingham." Oho, so that Rolls was only hired for the afternoon!
Best of all, say the regulars, is to take the subway to Green Park Station. Coming up on the south exit, a sign indicates that you must turn right for Buckingham Palace, right again for Queen's Walk. What could be more appropriate?
Most years, Queen Elizabeth gives three garden parties for between 4,000 and 6,000 guests. Some are invited on their own account, some as part of an allocation of tickets to an embassy, organization, or establishment figure. This bumper year, she gave four. The extra one was a dutiful and loving daughter's tribute to her mother, also Elizabeth (the "Queen Mum"), former consort and now widow of King George VI. An active member of the older generation, the eversmiling Queen Mother is a constant reminder that royalty is an ex officio business from which there is no official retirement age.
The hosts at this year's last Royal Garden Party were the Queen and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, with Charles, Prince of Wales, in attendance.
At 4 p.m. promptly. Her Majesty, in sprigged yellow shirtwaist and hat, and Prince Philip and Prince Charles in morning coats and carrying gray top hats, appeared on the terrace of the palace. Punctuality is the politeness of princes , and evidently, of the daughter, wife, and mother of princes, too, especially for a function in her own backyard.
A red-coated band of royal musicians played the national anthem. Then the royal party made its way down the wide stone staircase into the gardens, where thousands of eager, upturned faces awaited them.
Yeomen of the Guards, looking in their embroidered uniforms and rosette-trimmed hats and shoes as if newly released from Gilbert and Sullivan's opera, had positioned themselves so as to keep clear wide walkways for members of the royal family, who now separated so as to spread their attentions over as many guests as possible. They were unobtrusively assisted by frock-coated gentlemen of the royal household with rolled-up umbrellas, mute signposts to go so far and no farther.
In the Queen's lane, several small groups had been positioned in front so as to be personally introduced: a new envoy from Australia, a member of Parliament with his young daughter, and a businessman on the point of retirement. The ritual of royalty may be repetitive, but must not be seen to be so. People who meet the Queen even once will remember everything she said to them, probably forv ever, and Queeen Elizabeth seems to have mastered a technique of personalizing even such short encounters: "Oh, I remember my visit there! A marvelous exhibition . . . display . . . party. . . ."
Around her, the crowd of less privileged guests surges thickly, trying to remain near enough to hear without actually impinging rudely, hungrily taking in every detail of her dress, her jewelry, her smile.
When the Queen had passed, still punctiliously making her way from one scheduled presentation to the next, we stopped craning our necks and made for the colonnaded tea- tents. On one side, the royals and diplomats. On the other , the majority of less prestigious guests were equally sumptuously catered for, with hot or cold drinks, tiny round sandwiches, buttered tea cakes, and an assortment of sweetpea-colored cream cakes. Bands from the Life Guards and the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars played familiar Palm Court music to the groups, who had moved to little tables on the lawn.
Afterward, there was time to explore the gardens, and really quite a lot to see in that triangular patch of ground that stretches from the green fastnesses of the royal parks to the walled-off rumbling noise of the traffic outside. To the surprise of many guests, especially the ones from the country who reckon that town gardens are simply impossible to achieve, the mixed herbaceous border, the rose-beds, lilies, and clematis, seemed to have survived the worst of the weather.
There is also a bird sanctuary featuring feathered gifts to the royal family: rosy flamingos slumbering in a pool, some exotic ducks, and other birds not native, but now acclimatized, to central London.
By this time, there were queues building up outside the temporaroy WCs, and some women guests had slipped out of their highheeled shoes to rest their feet. Some groups were gathering in the summerhouse, and others discussing the urn in the center of the lawn which had been donated to the National Gallery by Willilam IV in memory of the battle of Waterloo, but -- surely rather tactlessly? -- returned to a subsequent monarch some 80 years later.
Some hosts may have difficulty in speeding the parting guest, but not Britain's royal family. At 6 p.m., they filed firmly back into the palace, past guests who applauded to express their appreciation, affection, gratitude. And in a way, that's fair enough. They've been to a spectacle rather than to a party. But one they're not likely to forget.