It is fifteen years since that chilly March afternoon when the 101 year old Queen Mother slipped away in her sleep. She had been unwell for a month, but her frailty proved too much. The Queen, her much-loved daughter, was at her bedside and held her hand until those last moments.
To the British people, even the most hard-hearted of Republicans, had felt a certain affection for this sweet-faced old lady, known for her large feather-adorned hats and warm smile. Many regarded her as “the nation’s granny” and her passing also marked the end of one of the few remaining links with the Edwardian era.
She is back in the news with the publication of a new book, Behind Palace Doors, by Major Colin Burgess the Queen Mother’s former equerry. Parts of this intriguing memoir has been serialised in the Daily Mail and, true to its title, provides some glimpses of life in the Queen Mother’s service.
Her public perception was one of warmth and considerable affection. But there was far more to it than that captivating smile, gentle wave and air of kindliness. The truth is that she was an astonishing spendthrift who expected — and demanded — her lifestyle to be expensive and extravagant.
It is astonishing that, despite pleas from the Queen and her bankers Coutts, she ran up an overdraft of — wait for it — of £7 million. Yes — £7 million. Nor did she ever show any intention of cutting back on her expenses.
The Queen shelled out £2 million a year to keep her in the style and manner to which she had become accustomed and Prince Charles helped out from his own pocket. (It was as well he was her favourite grand child).
She had five homes, most of which were fully staffed as well as up to 60 full time servants who catered for her every demand. These ranged from housekeepers and chefs, ladies in waiting and chauffeurs, gardeners and footmen. There was even an elderly night watchman with lamp who sat outside her bedroom at night.
Every “need” was catered for. For instance, at her lodge on the Balmoral estate, flowers were planted to bloom to co-inside with her arrival in August and a log fire burned in every room — summertime, too.
Nothing was forgotten. In her bedroom at Clarence House, her London home, even the clothing of the two cherubs on her four-poster bed had their angel’s clobber washed and starched regularly.
She loved food and drink — particularly drink. No day would pass without considerable amounts of gin and Dubonnet, wine and “snifters”. She also greatly enjoyed entertaining and the cost was an irrelevance. It was considered vulgar to raise such a matter — particularly when someone else was paying.
Sunday lunch was always a grand affair and she felt hard done by if she was ever told her menu was too expensive. Not that anyone, even the Queen, ever said so. A typical Sunday lunch would comprise soufflé, lobster croquettes, rare lamb, new potatoes and peas from Windsor with sugar sprinkled on top, followed by raspberries with Jersey cream or meringue with black cherries in liqueur. Just a snack, really.
How can any of this be justified? The reality was that the Queen Mother came from a different age, the Edwardian period, when it would be unthinkable for a member of the Royal Family to live any other way. And many, of her generation, think she was entitled to such a lifestyle as a fitting reward for her morale-boosting presence during World War Two.
It will be interesting to see whether any of this extravagance is commented on in Major Burgess’s book. Her cost to the finances of the Royal Family (let’s face it, they’re not exactly on the poverty line) would have amounted to many millions by the time of her death. And that’s before you count in the cost of her race horses and her personal betting.
One of her regular guests put it neatly: “When you were with the Queen Mother, enjoying her company and hospitality,it was like going back in time to a world that vanished with her passing.”
But nice work if you can get it.
In hospital, it is usually in the cold dark of the early hours that death makes a call. I have just spent two nights in a small ward of an London hospital where I witnessed such a grim visit.
There were six of us, all elderly men, in this corner of the NHS. A couple had suffered strokes, another clearly had dementia and would call out at night “Where Am I? Where is Rita?” (Rita turned out to be his late wife — so his cry was very sad.)
Others were recovering from various serious illnesses and there was me with a hip problem. But the moment of truth — that death is really never far away — came in the early hours of my second day.
I was awoken by the sound of scampering feet, of that rattle made when when the curtains around a hospital bed are pulled and of a whispered conversation. Nurses and a night duty doctor were grouped around one of the beds. Even in the darkness there was an atmosphere of foreboding.
Two of the nurses left, one to return with a porter and a trolley. There was the sound of someone being lifted and through the half gloom I saw a blanket-covered form wheeled past. I later learned that the poor, demented man crying out for the late wife in those cold hours had himself died.
And I shall never forget the terrible sadness in those cries.