"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book

Subscribe

When Lizzie met Maggie. By Gyles Brandreth

Blog | By Gyles Brandreth | Jan 15, 2024

The Queen and Mrs T, Claridge’s, 1995

The Grim Reaper has been having a high old time of late.

I’ve barely had a moment to keep up with my diary, I have been so busy writing letters of condolence, attending funerals and giving addresses at memorial services.

I was especially saddened by the passing of Prue Penn, 97, a long-standing friend of Elizabeth II and a woman so alive it’s hard to believe she could be dead.

A few years ago, Lady Penn got my address from a mutual acquaintance and, out of the blue, sent me an email. (She was computer-savvy: her grandchildren called her ‘techno-granny’.)

It was a fan letter, really. She told me I was the only writer who seemed to understand the unusual relationship between the Queen and Prince Philip.

She invited me up to Scotland to meet her and we hit it off right away. We were both immediately sorry we hadn’t met years before. Charmingly, she called ours ‘a departure-lounge friendship’.

Inevitably, we swapped our favourite royal stories. There was only one of mine she hadn’t heard before. It was told to me by the equerry who was on duty on the day Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979.

Mrs Thatcher arrived at Buckingham Palace for her first official audience with the Queen. As the equerry walked Mrs T along the Palace corridor to meet Her Majesty, he reminded her gently that it was traditional to curtsey to the Queen, and the new Prime Minister assured him that this wouldn’t be a problem.

She was ready with her curtsey. She had been practising it.

They reached the room where the Queen was waiting. The equerry stepped forward, bowed and said, ‘Your Majesty: the Prime Minister, Your Majesty.’ Margaret Thatcher then executed the most graceful full curtsey, going right down to the ground – where she stayed.

Mrs T then threw a desperate glance towards the equerry, who came beetling over to help – but he couldn’t hoist her up unaided.

So Queen Elizabeth II came forward, took the other side, and together they returned the Prime Minister to the upright position.

If you like royal stories, please seek out my new podcast.

It’s about first memories. It’s called Rosebud (if you remember Citizen Kane, you will be able to work out why) and it’s simply me in conversation with someone I think is both special and interesting.

Ann Glenconner, 91, recently shared with me wonderful stories of her childhood encounters with the little princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, in the 1930s, when Margaret was already being naughty and Lilibet was already in control. Geri Halliwell of the Spice Girls and Jay Blades of The Repair Shop both came up with entertaining (and unexpected) tales of their close encounters with our new king.

Of course, Rosebud features many oldie favourites (Judi Dench, Joanna Lumley, Sheila Hancock etc), and my New Year resolution is to meet people who though not fabulously famous are certainly very interesting.

For example, I want to talk to the most intelligent person in the land. Who might that be? I have already recorded a conversation with Rowan Williams. So don’t suggest him, but if you have other ideas, please let me know, either by email to hello@rosebudpodcast.com or via a letter to The Oldie. When I was a student at Oxford in the 1960s, we were encouraged to think that the most intelligent people in the country were Fellows of All Souls, the Oxford college founded by Henry VI in 1438. All Souls has no undergraduate members (and has had female Fellows since 1979). Each year, recent graduate and postgraduate students can apply for a small number of fellowships through a competitive examination, often described as ‘the hardest exam in the world’.

In 1969, my friend Robert Jackson (later an MP and minister for education and science) had just become a Fellow and quite often took me to dine at the college as his guest.

‘I like the company of clever people,’ I told Robert. ‘In fact, I want the company only of people who are clever, funny or beautiful.’

‘Well,’ said Robert, ‘we should manage two out of three here.’

I especially remember my encounters with the celebrated All Souls Warden John Sparrow. He was gently waspish, but very charming.

Robert explained, ‘He likes young men – and old wine.’

Over the port and dessert, Warden Sparrow showed me the memoirs of one Charles Osman, who became a Fellow in the 1880s and left a memorable account of the fellowship examination.

In the history paper, Osman was able to ‘ramble around all manner of topics’ – the Greek conception of the state, the social conditions of medieval Scotland, the claim of Napoleon to be the successor of Charlemagne, the history of the Crusades and so forth. The account concluded, ‘There remained the paper of translation from five languages, ancient and modern, where I found four of them easy enough.’

In 2024, I want to meet the Charles Osman of our day. If you know who he or she is – or if it’s you! – let me know. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!