Piecing together the royal puzzle

When Queen Elizabeth travels, she takes feather pillows with her. The blotting paper she uses is black. She chews coffee sugar after dinner. She dislikes milk pudding, Charles Dickens, and ivy. Her first corgi was named Susan.

You didn't know these things? And do you mean to say that you can't list 12 things the queen particularly likes?"

I can.

This is because, for some unexplained reason, there is a volume in our bathroom entitled: "The Book of Royal Trivia." On page 145, it describes 12 of her majesty's likes. Compared with some of the preferences of other royals past and present, the queen's are unexceptional. George III, for instance, was keen on "button making." George VI liked watching home movies backward. The Queen Mother as a child had pet pigs named Emma and Satan.

The queen's particular likes include horse-racing, warm weather, Scottish country dancing, long-stemmed deep-pink carnations, deerstalking, bright red dresses, and the Beatles' film "Yellow Submarine." (The book doesn't say whether she likes these all at once or separately.)

And she likes jigsaw puzzles.

And herein lies a puzzle.

"The Book of Royal Trivia" came out in the early 1980s - before many of the less-trivial royal events and "revelations" occurred. It has an air of happier times. Today's books about royalty tend toward detailing more serious and crucial affairs.

One result of this critical atmosphere, "the palace" lets it be known, is that the royal family is now intent on a greater openness. Nobody expects to see the queen and Prince Philip riding around London on bicycles, but there is evidence of them speaking quite casually to ordinary people and also sometimes betraying their inner feelings. For example, when the royal yacht was decommissioned not long ago, her majesty was visibly moved. She has been seen grim and stony-faced on occasion, but I can't recall her publicly expressing simple sadness like this before.

One of the enigmas of British royalty has been its reticence and secrecy - its VIP mystique. For years what they said went largely unrecorded (except when the queen broadcast her Christmas message). Documentaries and news reports, even today, usually show them from a distance as they tour factories or chat with stars lined up at film premires. Indeed, lip-reading royal remarks is a pastime indulged by the curious and clever.

I suppose that's why it was such a surprise, when I met Prince Philip, that as he opened his royal mouth, out came, with striking simultaneity, audible words.

I was at school. The school had been around for five centuries, so he probably thought it was about time he paid it a visit. A few of us were arranged in the art room, painting. Well, we didn't actually start work on our paintings until a split second before he stepped into the room. Someone breathed "Now!" and we all pretended to paint furiously, as if we'd been at it all morning.

I am certain that the Duke of Edinburgh (as this Greek prince is also known) was not in the least taken in. But he watched me for a while anyway and then graciously enquired: "So, you just dab it on any old how, do you?" We all laughed, and I thought: "So much for my having a painting in the royal collection." But it wasn't his bluffness that came as the real shock. It was the fact that he was rather expertly dubbed.

It is extraordinary. Here is a group of individuals who would probably admit to being a lot less remarkable than the roles they play. Yet they persist in giving the impression that they are the roles they play. So when we find out that they breathe the same air, watch the same TV shows, eat the same food, and speak the same language we do, we are taken aback. Almost thrilled. Why?

AND now there's a new royal "disclosure," put forth by the Associated Press. "Queen Elizabeth," the report reports, "has joined a jigsaw library that keeps her in puzzles for 30 a year."

Why this is presented as news I am not sure. Particularly when the report itself goes on to quote Mrs. Crompton, the retired schoolteacher who runs the said jigsaw library, stating that the queen "has been a member for 12 years and borrows about 12 jigsaws every year at Christmas."

The item ends with this: "Faced with this inroad into the Queen's inner sanctum, Buckingham Palace was noncommittal. 'The Queen may well assemble jigsaws, but we don't comment on her private pastimes,' a palace spokeswoman said...."

Oh no? So what's all that about a new "openness"? Top-secret jigsaws?

Trivial they may be. But why on earth should they be private?

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