Royal etiquette has rules about who can speak first, where to look, what to call them, how you should stand and when you should sit. It is a mysterious business to the uninitiated. Some dissenters argue it’s not necessary to follow tradition in an age where a young woman with ancestors who worked in the coal mines could become a princess. At our royal briefing, Vincent informs us that royal protocol is a “lot more relaxed these days. The decision to curtsey or bow is totally up to you.” You are perfectly within your rights to follow the example of Australian Prime Minister and Wales-born Julia Gillard, who opted for a polite bow when meeting the Queen last year.
Thankfully, if we get it wrong, the paparazzi won’t be there to capture any breaches of protocol. Not so for heads of state. Compare the reaction to two famous incidents of breaches of protocol. Michelle Obama raised eyebrows when she put her arm around the Queen during a 2009 UK visit. The Queen reciprocated by slipping her arm around the first lady. Some 20 years earlier, Paul Keating was branded the “Lizard of OZ” for the supposedly heinous crime of putting his hand on the Queen’s back during an official tour of Australia. We may have a private encounter, but embracing the Duchess would be straining credibility.
We wait in two rows, as you do, for the royals to appear. Vincent gives us a final pep talk: “When speaking to a male member of the Royal Family, refer to him as ‘Your Royal Highness’ on first reference and ‘sir’ on all following references. For the Duchess, it’s ‘Your Royal Highness’ and ’Ma’am’.” The TRHs are doing the rounds in the Members Lounge; meeting veterans, and examining a display containing the personal diary of Sir Edmund Hillary, and the Highgrove Florilegium (one of only 175 published for the Prince’s Trust). All at once, the security men descend, followed by the much-anticipated couple. Sensibly, they split ranks with the Duchess swiftly making her way down one side and Prince Charles descending on our row. A quick curtsey, a sincere exchange about my role, a lament from the Prince about “never having time to linger in museums”, and my royal encounter is over.
Graphic designer Karen Tribbe, a former captain in the New Zealand Army, falls into military mode with her perfectly executed curtsey. Decked out in her service medals, pearls and blue blazer, she chats with ease about her eight-year service record. Meanwhile, exhibition developer Janneen Love is presenting the Duchess with, yikes, a pair of jandals. “It’s in celebration of our Urbanlife project,” says Janneen.
The Duchess is delighted, and the pair talk Philip Treacy hats for a full 43 seconds. Then it’s all over. Security guards bustle the royal pair out a side door to their waiting car.
In medieval times, monarchs were divinely appointed to rule by Gods – and they demanded to be treated as gods. It was bow or be beheaded. How times have changed. During this tour Prince of Charles has so far been hugged by a sweaty athlete and shaken hands with dripping wet, near-naked folk. There’s no way Janneen Love will be banished from the colony for giving royalty a pair of jandals.