It didn’t take me long to break royal protocol. The call came a few weeks ago from the Governor General’s office inviting me to a private dinner at Admiralty House with Prince Charles and The Duchess of Cornwall (aka “Camilla”). “Oh lovely,” I’d replied, secretly wishing it had been with William and Kate but suppressing that ungrateful thought as best I could. “Count me in.”
Then last week on The Today Show, I was talking with Karl and Georgie about the royal visit and mentioned that I would be dining with Charles and Camilla later in the week. “Let me just bend down and pick up those names I dropped,” I said. We laughed. Ha ha ha.
Another call from the GG’s office.
Apparently I wasn’t meant to mention the dinner due to security and protocol. I vaguely remember something about that in the initial photo. Ooopsie.
Not knowing how to prepare for a dinner with royalty, I spent the Friday afternoon practicing my curtsey with my children. Try it. It’s harder than you think. My hands kept automatically holding out an imaginary skirt as if I was a 5year old doing a ballet concert.
One time, I actually fell over. And I wasn’t even in heels yet.
My 4 year old son only wanted to know one thing: would the Prince have his sword? And could I get a photo of it.
In my head, I knew exactly what I was going to wear. The dress code was “dinner” and my outfit was perfection. Until I actually put it on when it became completely and utterly rubbish. The next hour was spent in an increasingly desperate frenzy as outfit after outfit was pulled on and quickly discarded. Too boring. Too short. Too flashy. Too much skin. Too Nana. Too hot. Too try-hard. Too sparkly. Too neon. Way too neon.
I eventually settled on a grey, one-shouldered dress worn with my favourite sparkly coat and ankle boots. Good luck curtseying in those. Them heels be way high.
I jumped in the car and promptly got stuck in traffic. No matter, I thought. The invitation said 7pm and we’d been instructed to be there by 6:45 but surely the Royal couple wouldn’t turn up on the dot. With all my previous experience of royalty, I was certain that was not how their royal highnesses would roll.
At 6:56pm, my phone rang. The GG’s office again, asking where I was.
“I’m just parking,” I blurted into my phone. And it was only a little bit of a lie.
With police and military personally swarming everywhere, I flashed my invitation, got my name checked off the official list and did my best attempt at an elegant sprint down the long pebbled driveway to Admiralty house.
About halfway down I spied the GG and her lovely husband appearing along a path and stopped. Should I run over to greet them? Keep running? Were Charles and Camilla about to arrive?
I settled for some wild, apologetic hand gestures while mouthing “SOR-RY I’M LATE” and continued my brisk stumble down the drive towards Admiralty House.
On arrival, I was given two cards. One had the seating plan and the names of my fellow guests. The other had my name and a number on it. “That’s the order in which you will line up to be announced to the royal couple,” I was instructed.
I hurried to the lawn where the other guest were mingling. There were only about 15 of us and we were all slightly bemused by our surroundings and the fact we were about to meet royalty. I made my way over to Poh who I knew a little bit and introduced myself to Toni Collette and Hamish Macdonald from Channel 10.
As we stood in a small huddle and nervously sipped champagne – served by decorated military personnel (many of whom were female) and tried to act like this was how we all spent most Friday evenings, a small military quartet played and we gazed at one of the most spectacular views of Sydney Harbour you’ve ever seen.
Then we were instructed to form our line as Their Royal Highnesses were about to arrive.
This bit was funny as we all tried to get in the right order.
‘Hi, I’m number 7,” I said. “And you are?”
“I’m number 11.”
“Oh, then I think you’re a bit further down that way. Has anyone seen number 8? Send them my way.”
I get very silly when I’m nervous.
The Royal couple arrived and it was quite surreal, seeing in the flesh, two people who are so iconic as to be almost imaginary. I would have felt the same way had Oprah or Obama walked in. It’s quite hard to process the idea of a living breathing 3 dimensional icon being so sort of….human and standing in front of you.
As we made our way up the line, we had to hand our little cards with our names and numbers to a uniformed officer (or something – I was distracted by his extraordinarily shiny shoes about which I tried unsuccessfuly to engage him in conversation) who announced each of us in turn.
When I’m nervous, apart from being silly, I also tend to behave inappropriately by accident.
And so it was.
As I shook Prince Charles’ hand, I forgot to curtsey (in the end nobody did except Poh who sort of bobbed) and blurted out “Prince Charles, I’d love to see your sword!”
My words sort of hung there in the air for a moment, with their inappropriate sexual innuendo and as I noticed Camilla lean over with an amused yet quizzical look, I quickly scrambled to try and salvage the situation.
“You see my son is 4 and when I told him who I was meeting this evening he wanted to know if you had a sword! Because, you know, you’re a Prince! Hahaha!”
Much relieved laughter from the royal couple and the Governor General who was probably wondering why she’d invited me in the first place.
Prince Charles then said something I can’t remember and then I shook Camilla’s hand and blurted out something to her about did she enjoy Bondi and then I was ushered over to where my fellow numbered guests were waiting for our school photo which was taken on completion of the formal introductions.
Afterwards, we mingled a bit more on the lawn with Charles and Camilla and at one point the GG pulled me over to talk to Charles. As I tried to explain what Mamamia was to the Prince and he tried gamely to understand, our talk quickly moved to social media and I found myself urging him to get a Facebook page and to as “the boys” to explain to him how Twitter worked. “Even the Pope is on Twitter,” I told him as if me, ‘the boys’ and the pope all just hung out online.
On the lawn and then inside at dinner, I had the chance to talk to some of my other guests and my lord, weren’t then an extraordinary bunch. There was Corporal Daniel Keighran, who was awarded the Victoria Cross a couple of weeks ago for his astonishing bravery in Afganistan, Jonty Bush who was the former Young Australian Of The Year and an advocate for the families of homicide victims, an opera singer, an indigenous dancer, a children’s cancer researcher.
Here is the full list of guests:
Lieutenant Commander Kylie Beumer RAN, Ms Alex Blackwell (vice captain Australian Women’s Cricket Team), Ms Jonty Bush (Champions Against Violence director), Dr Megan Chircop (Children’s Medical Research Institute), Ms Toni Collette (actor), Mr Michael Corkhill (Grassy Creek Merino Stud), Mrs Carolyn Creswell (Carmen’s Fine Foods), Ms Tanya Denning (National Indigenous Television), Ms Taryn Fiebig (Opera singer), Dr James Fitzpatrick (Patches Paediatrics), Ms Mia Freedman (Mamamia), Sir Christopher Geidt KCVO OBE (Private secretary to the Queen), Mr Nick Glaetzer (Winemaker), Ms Ella Havelka (Bangarra Dance Theatre), Corporal Daniel Keighran VC, Ms Poh Ling Yeow (chef, artist), Mr Hamish MacDonald (Channel 10), Miss Catherine Marriott (Influential Women), Dr Sam Prince (One Disease at a Time), Mr Stephen Smith (Opera singer), and Dr Angus Turner (Lions Eye Institute).
At dinner, I did what I always do which is eat my bread too early but other than that, everything progressed pretty smoothly.
The Governor General made a lovely speech and said that she had wanted their Royal Highnesses to get a glimpse of Australia’s future in the young people who were doing things in a variety of fields to better the country (no pressure).
This is what she said:
Good evening my friends.
Your Royal Highnesses.
I think I can pretty well assume, as we’re from the same generation, that like me, you were told as kids not to show off, especially in front of guests.
I make an exception to that rule for visitors from overseas, particularly for the Royal Family.
I want you to see the best of our vibrant multicultural society, to understand who we are in 2012, our achievements, our challenges, our hopes and aspirations.
I was delighted that you began this special visit in Longreach in the heart of the outback to meet those gutsy bush people, to celebrate the much loved institutions that serve them, that they have built with vision, determination and hard work: The Royal Flying Doctor Service, the Qantas Founders’ Museum, The Stockman’s Hall of Fame.
There was a bit of showing off there, the whip cracking, the fine stock horses, the little wallaby wrapped up for Her Royal Highness to cuddle, the yarning on the side of the road, the most perfect red sunset on the wide horizon across the grassland plains at the BBQ under the gums.
This evening you join a gathering of Australians who signify our future, our optimism, innovative, creative young ones, whose talents and contributions make my heart skip.
I admire their commitment and industry, the effort put in every day, the intellectual rigour.
I rejoice in their diversity.
I envy their vivacity, risk taking, having a go.
Each one unique, but all sharing values we respect, values that are translated into commitment, dedication, and clever ideas.
I observe an altruism in their personal and professional lives.
In the sense of making a difference, going for the best, doing the hardest thing.
Your Royal Highnesses, you know a little of our guests, their conversations this evening with you will show off the richness of our arts, theatre, film, opera, dance, careers soaring, enhancing our cultural life.
Medical research, scientists in the lab and in remote Indigenous communities, fighting disease, closing the gap.
It is exhilarating to see them at work, to reflect on the purpose that drives them, solving problems outside the square, with kindness and compassion in their hands.
You will see the entrepreneurship of young business leaders growing our finest merino wool – it feels as soft as silk; producing food that is selling like mad in the United Kingdom – healthy and yummy; wine that wins prizes galore.
Communicators, reporting on war, famine, the Arab Spring, giving women a voice, their own voice.
Your Royal Highnesses, courage is here at the table too. Members of our Defence Force, our soldier who wears the Victoria Cross.
My friends, Your Royal Highnesses, I offer you the warmest of welcomes to Admiralty House.
Prince Charles said some words in response and was genuinely funny, self-deprecating and rather down to earth.
Afterwards, we adjourned to the sitting room for tea, coffee and trays of coconut ice and chocolates and a bit more mingling when I explained the tradition of “chucking a sickie” to Camilla when the subject of their hectic schedule came up.
She practiced the phrase a few times and declared it to be quite marvelous.
Then, around 10pm, came the announcement that “their Royal Highnesses would be retiring for the evening” and with some genial handshakes and friendly waves, they really did retire, upstairs to their bedrooms at Admiralty House.
The Governor General and her wonderful husband Michael also left, the quartet packed up and it was just us left in the drawing room, comparing notes and looking around not quite believing we’d been left alone unsupervised.
One of us had referred to the Royal Couple as “you guys” (as in ‘what have you guys been up to since you’ve arrived?’) while another was forced to explain to Charles the origins of the term ‘dag’ after someone used it in conversation and he inquired as to its meaning.
We took a few photos and wandered off into the night, back to our civilian lives, with a very strong sense of the bond between Charles and Camilla and – to me at least – a new perspective on what is arguably one of the great love stories of our times.