Back in 1972, in the days when a royal opening a hospital or gracing a flower show was considered ‘news’, I was sent by the Daily Mail to cover Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon attending the Ideal Home Exhibition in Olympia. As the Mail was sponsoring the show this was guaranteed promotional space – still more so since it had recently been redesigned as a tabloid appealing to women, after years of decline as a failing broadsheet with a distinctly masculine inflexion.
No doubt concerned with more pressing ‘proper’ stories, the news desk had forgotten to assign a journalist to the event, so I was suddenly ordered across town and arrived just in time to see the Princess and her husband being greeted by the Mail’s owner, the late Lord Rothermere, and a line-up of bowing flunkies. I hung about at the back trying to find out from other hacks if I had missed anything important. Despite my efforts to be inconspicuous HRH suddenly looked in my direction and strode towards me, leaving her husband and Lord R wondering where she was going.
‘Have you been sent to report on me today?’ she asked, not unkindly.
‘Well, that’s the intention,’ I stuttered, fearing I was in for a royal rocket for being late on parade.
‘Then you had better come with me,’ she commanded.
Margaret led the way past show houses, bathroom fixture stands and stalls selling DIY tools. From time to time, Snowdon and Lord R attempted to come between us and lead her gently by the arm away from me to the excitements of the latest in kitchen utensils and lounge suites, but she always managed to escape their grip and return to my side.
As a bachelor living alone in a flat in suburban Chingford I didn’t know much about what made an Ideal Home. Desperate to keep the conversation going in a way that seemed in tune with our surroundings, I remember asking:
‘Tell me, Ma’am, do you do much do-it-yourself?’
The very thought of the pampered, rude and spoilt Queen’s sister, a legend of arrogant indolence even by royal standards, putting on her overalls for a spot of drilling with the Black & Decker at Kensington Palace was somewhat surreal, and she replied ‘We have people to do all that sort of thing.’
After an hour or so of such desultory conversation, the time came for the royal party to leave. A Mail flunkey rushed forward with the obligatory bouquet. Margaret looked at the blooms for a moment before plucking out one long-stemmed red rose and handing it to me. ‘I’m presenting this to you as Fonteyn presents Nureyev a flower at the end of a ballet at Covent Garden,’ she said.
A photograph of this shows us both laughing uproariously at our private joke, while Snowdon looks daggers at me. ‘Let’s meet again,’ she said, sliding into the royal Daimler. ‘Perhaps you would come to tea?’
Sadly Margaret and I never did enjoy toasting crumpets together by the fire in Kensington Palace. Nigel Dempster, the Mail’s legendary gossip columnist who moved in royal circles and wrote a bestseller about Margaret, told me I was simply a useful fall-guy, used to wind up the former Antony Armstrong-Jones. The couple, frequently fuelled by alcohol, were constantly feuding, flaunting their affairs: Snowdon often humiliated his wife in public, and she was getting her own back. Not long afterwards she took up with Roddy Llewellyn – but, if you’ll forgive the conceit, I was Margaret’s first Roddy.