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The Real Queen Mum: Life and soul of a thousand parties; DAY ONE OF AN ENCHANTING MIRROR SERIES.

EARLY next month will see a touching annual ritual which becomes more precious with every year that passes - when her adoring public line up at Clarence House to say "Happy Birthday" to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

To mark the completion of her 99th year, we are proud to publish the most comprehensive and intimate portrait ever written of this woman who has played a part in all our lives.

It has been compiled by journalist Graham Turner who gained unprecedented access to some 40 members of the Queen Mother's inner circle. Many of the people he talked to have known her for as long as 70 years and have never spoken publicly before.

Cheshire-born Graham, 66, a distinguished writer for 40 years, was helped by the Queen Mother's private secretary, Sir Alistair Aird, who started him off with a list of 20 people he could approach with the blessing of Clarence House. He supplemented those interviews with numerous contacts of his own.

"I had no idea of what kind of person she was when I started out," says Graham. "I ended up speaking to five members of the Queen Mother's own family and quite a few ladies in waiting. They were extremely open and helpful and in many cases quite jolly and I slowly built up a picture of what I think she is like."

Graham paints a portrait of a person who has had "great sadnesses" but who has a remarkable gift for putting them behind her and enjoying herself.

"Anybody who has ever had a meal with her will tell you she is the most terrific company. She loves gossip and jokes and she never, ever whinges. She's a great relisher of life."

Graham says she lives in the grand style - as her pounds 4 million overdraft testifies - and is undoubtedly spoiled. "Her payback to us is that she is whole-heartedly for the country and for duty. At the same time there is no sense in which she is not going to have fun. "And for an old girl of 98, I say 'whoopee!'"ON HER 98th birthday, after a walkabout, parties and a theatre trip to see Oklahoma, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother sat down to a dinner party at 11.45, and didn't turn in until 1.30am.

"I was in bed long before she was," said an exhausted lady-in-waiting almost 40 years her junior. Last September, this same 98-year-old danced eightsome reels, albeit sedately, in the drawing room at Birkhall, her home on the Balmoral estate.

She did not seem to regard it as anything extraordinary, "but everyone else had their hearts in their mouths", one guest recalled.

In March, the Queen Mother met Sir Michael Oswald and Nicky Henderson, her racing manager and principal trainer, to discuss the season's breeding programme, knowing full well that any suitable progeny will not be in their prime as steeplechasers for at least eight years.

"She's breeding to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in nine years' time," said Oswald. "I never feel she's thinking 'I won't be there to see it'."

The Queen Mother is clearly a lady of phenomenal stamina. She is also something of an enigma. Even now, remarkably little is known about her, save for the carefully choreographed image of gracious smiles and summery silk-and-chiffon dresses.

Long conversations with her relatives, friends and courtiers make it perfectly clear that the marshmallow image is both bogus and does her no favours.

The real Queen Mother is a woman of passionate views, steely character and a mischievous sense of fun. A lady-in-waiting recalled: "A well-known public figure, a peer of the realm, used to come to Clarence House quite often and on one occasion let out the opinion that it was really very middle-class to use fish knives.

Ever thereafter when he was coming to lunch, Queen Elizabeth wouldsay, 'I think we'll have fish today and, of course, those very nice fish knives'. We used to roar with laughter.

"She'd never let the staff know that she was pulling his leg, but she does hate pretentiousness."

WHEN it comes to her own problems, the Queen Mother is quite astonishingly stoical. She is no sort of health bore, does not welcome inquiries about how she is feeling and, in truth, has little time for anyone around her who happens to be under the weather.

She did not tell the resident lady-in-waiting that she was going to have her first hip operation, at the age of 95, until the morning she went into hospital. The Queen did not find out until she arrived back from New Zealand two days before it happened.

On the other hand, she certainly never stints her guests. "We were invited to Covent Garden with her on a couple of occasions in the Sixties," said a friend, "and I can remember being staggered by the amount which was consumed, both food and wine. Two footmen from Clarence House brought vast tureens of Lobster Newburg into the retiring room, and there were simply oceans to drink.

"Then we all went back to Clarence House for sandwiches and they weren't these tiny little things filled with cucumber, but great man-sized doorsteps."

It is much the same at the picnic lunches "down at the old Bull and Bush", the Queen Mother's affectionate nickname for her "fishing hut" on the banks of the Dee at Balmoral.

"Those lunches are what the Royal Family calls a picnic," said one of her ladies-in-waiting, "but they really amount to a banquet.

"There's egg mousse, shrimps, lots of cold meats, vol-au-vents, jam puffs, coffee and wine. People are often late if they've been fishing, and we drink Bloody Marys - sometimes rather too many - until they turn up."

The Queen Mother's liking for good wine and spirits has not diminished at the same rate as her appetite for food. She likes to drink gin before meals, champagne during them.

"She is very much a gin drinker," said an Anglican bishop, adding a shade ungallantly, "I think it's pickled her!"

One long-standing friend remembers being in charge of the drinks at one lunch party given for the Queen Mother. "I knew she liked a big gin and Dubonnet," he recalled, "so I gave her a whopper, which I suppose amounted to a triple, and then went round the other people.

"When I came back to her four or five minutes later, her glass was already empty, so I offered her the same again. "So delicious," she said, "perhaps just a little more.'

"She had three of those triples before lunch and her fair share of wine during it. Yet afterwards she walked briskly for several hundred yards in a dead straight line, talking lucidly. She must be the greatest living advertisement for gin."

Each year, on her birthday, Ivor Spencer of the Guild of International Professional Toastmasters, presents the Queen Mother with a nebuchadnezzar of champagne, the equivalent of 20 bottles.

"It'll be very nice when your family come," Spencer said to her at one recent celebration. "Even it they don't," replied the Queen Mother, "I'll polish it off myself!"

She lives in almost Edwardian splendour. "She has a very grand life," said a Palace insider who occasionally visits Clarence House, "five or six cars with a special series of number plates, three chauffeurs and five chefs.

"Clarence House is another world, a time warp. Whenever I go, three liveried footmen bring in a really full tea."

In the Queen Mother's mind, she is simply maintaining the style required of an anointed monarch.

"She wants to uphold a great destiny and a great country," explained Michael Mann, the former Dean of Windsor. "She feels that Britain is Great Britain and that, therefore, ours must be no banana court."

SHE inhabits what is effectively her own private kingdom, unrestricted by any obvious financial constraints. The courtiers at Buckingham Palace do not seem to know with any certainty just how many staff she does employ.

According to those who know Clarence House intimately, however, she has a staff of between 30 and 40.

There are two pages, William Tallon and Reginald Wilcox; three or four footmen; two dressers (lady's maids); a chef and his assistant with two or three helpers in the kitchen; a housekeeper and four or five housemaids; three chauffeurs; three lady secretaries; her private secretary, Sir Alastair Aird; her treasurer, Sir William Anstruther, plus an equerry and several orderlies. Lunch guests observe that "there are always four or five servants waiting at the table".

At Royal Lodge, in Windsor Great Park, where she spends weekends when she is in London, there are a steward (butler), Ronald Wellbeloved, a couple of assistants; two chefs; two housemaids and a head gardener with two helpers. At Birkhall, her home on the Balmoral estate, there is a housekeeper.

Each year, she has to be subsidised by the Queen "very materially", according to a man who knows the royal finances with a fair degree of accuracy.

Did that mean six or seven figures, I inquired? He would rather not answer that, he replied. All he would say was that, whatever her overdraft - it has been rumoured to be pounds 4 million - it would not surprise him.

Everyone who knows the Queen Mother readily agrees that she is neither concerned about money nor interested in it. "She simply does not think about it," remarked one lady-in-waiting. "Why should she?"

Friends say that one only has to see the extent of her assets - "unbelievable jewellery", including a diamond necklace which once belonged to Marie Antoinette, a collection of Faberge even larger than the Queen's, not to mention a large collection of valuable paintings, to realise that a pounds 4 million overdraft is peanuts.

However large the annual overspend, the Queen Mother continues to entertain on a lavish scale.

There are racing house parties at Royal Lodge for meetings at Sandown, Ascot and Cheltenham; fishing house parties during her a fortnight at Birkhall in May, to which Ted Hughes used to go every year; what has come to be known as the Geriatrics' Weekend at Royal Lodge in June for old friends such as Lords Runcie, Hailsham and Carrington; a house party at Sandringham in July for the Flower show.

It is in the autumn, though, when she has moved to Scotland, that the parties really get underway.

IN AUGUST, there are two house parties at Mey, her home beside the sea in remote Caithness. Then, after the Queen Mother has spent a weekend with the Queen at Balmoral, the festivities at Birkhall start.

"She has house parties every single week for the whole of September," said one of her nieces who is also a lady-in-waiting. The parties always go on from Monday till Saturday, and then a new crowd show up the following Monday.

"After I've done three weeks there, I dream of not having to change for dinner, sitting in front of the telly and having a boiled egg. But, if you've been doing it for 76 years, as she has, it just comes naturally."

There is scarcely time for another visit to Mey, at the end of the month, before the Queen Mother drives back again to Birkhall, where she acts as hostess for Prince Charles's stalking parties. By that time her ladies-in-waiting are virtually out on their feet.

"I just can't do these parties of hers," said one, now in her 80s, "they're so unflagging. That's the reason I tried to resign recently, but she just said, 'Congratulations! Life becomes such fun after you're 80! One sleeps for 24, even 48 hours after a month of it.

"People say, 'You must be absolutely mad with four meals a day done for you', but it is totally exhausting."

Not for the Queen Mother. "I remember going to Birkhall a couple of years ago," said a 50-year-old friend of Prince Charles, "and, at midnight, there was a group of so-called young men sitting round the dinner table.

We'd been stalking and shooting on the hill all day, and she herself had been outside for much it. But, whereas most of us had our eyes half-closed, she was still the life and soul of the party. One had to remind oneself that she was 97."

It is exactly the same at Royal Lodge. "I remember Martin Gilliat coming out of dinner," recalled a guest at one dinner party, "and, when we got back to the drawing room, he said, 'Now boys and girls, you've had a wonderful evening, you've been wined, dined and entertained, so it's time you cleared off'.

"Then there came this light, tinkling voice. 'Oh, no you don't,' said Queen Elizabeth, 'the evening's only just begun. It's just because he wants to go to bed'."

This relentless round of parties is an unchanging element in a year set in amber. "She thinks you keep on doing the things you've always done unless there is a frantically good reason for stopping," explained one of her nieces.

The Queen Mother's days at Clarence House follow a similarly predictable routine.

"After breakfast in bed," said a lady-in-waiting; "she'll appear in her sitting room between 10.30 and 11am. At 11, a tray of tea arrives and she sits at a card table reading her letters."

LUNCH at Clarence House is either for four - her lady-in-waiting and perhaps a couple of former equerries - or 14, if there are guests. The Queen Mother reckons that is the ideal number. She thinks ten too few and 16 too many.

In the afternoon she will potter round the garden with her two corgis, Minnie and Rush. She has tea alone in her sitting room and often dines alone as well.

She enjoys watching cooking programmes on television but not too much else, so there is a good deal of video viewing, with Keeping Up Appearances, Morse and Fawlty Towers high on the list of favourites.

Even when she is bent on seeking solitude, the Queen Mother is unfailingly courteous to people who would normally be regarded as intruders.

"She has a little two-roomed shack on Invercauld, the next estate to Balmoral," said one of her nieces, "and we sometimes go up there for a break. The road is pretty rough, but it's peaceful and the views are wonderful.

"Five years ago, we made the trek and, to my horror, saw a man and a woman - obviously hikers - sitting in front of the hut. 'Oh, what a bore,' I thought, 'How can we get rid of them?'

"That wasn't Queen Elizabeth's reaction at all. She got out, chatted them up, gave them a couple of gin and tonics and sent them on their way, glowing. Nobody else in her family would have done that."

Graham Turner, 1999. These extracts first appeared in The Daily Telegraph
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Turner, Graham
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 10, 1999
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