Britain’s Labor Party may prove to have taken office just in the nick of time so far as the nation’s armed forces are concerned. Certainly in the closing weeks of Conservative rule the situation was deteriorating at a great rate if one judged it from a seemingly unrelated series of events. The chronology of these is not important: they all took place within a couple of months, and the first, as I recall it, had to do with the Horse Guards.
Two troopers, it transpired, complained that they had been unfairly accused of not presenting a sufficiently smart appearance. They refused duty, were punished, and there was a line little flurry in the press about whether the officer concerned had overstepped the mark. Since the Horse Guards exist solely for the purpose of presenting a smart appearance, the offense seemed to me to border on the heinous, but I believe the troopers were merely confined to barracks for a few days instead of being shot or transported.
This was nothing so remarkable, 1 suppose, but I could not help thinking of it while I was watching the changing of the guard one day at Buckingham Palace. The Queen had come down from Scotland for the day, and the royal standard drifted gracefully in the summer breeze. It is always more stimulating to attend this ceremony when the Queen is in residence, for one likes to suppose that she is overseeing the proceedings, even as you and I, but if she saw what I saw on this occasion, it must have scandalized her as much as it did me, perhaps even more.
All was going smoothly. The Irish Guards marched out in great style, with their pipers, and shortly afterward the Guards’ band emerged, playing “California Here I Come” and managing to get an extraordinarily military quality into an air that I usually associate with the late Al Jolson. Not the least of the band’s effect is of course due to its fabulous drum major, who makes the capering between-the-halves “director” at our professional football games look, in comparison, a drab thing indeed. (While in the courtyard, the band had rendered a Beatles’ song, which caused a British woman standing near me to complain, “Well, I say now. . . .”) The band was well into the roundabout, and the crowd was beginning to break up, when suddenly two guardsmen came out the gate on a dead run. Each was clutching with one hand his bearskin hat to keep it from falling off—the uniform is not really designed for the sprint —and his rifle with the other. They caught up with the band and managed to fall in, almost furtively and with a kind of we’ve-bcen-here-allthe-time manner. They had been left behind. Someone had blundered. The band had marched out with its rear altogether unguarded.
I do not know whether the Queen happened to witness this contretemps, or what conflict of marching orders may have caused it, but I assume that someone was at feast Spoken To about it. More complicated was the matter of the naval exercises, when Her Majesty presided at the ceremonies opening the new Firth of Forth Bridge. On that occasion the flagship of the home fleet, ceremoniously maneuvering with other naval craft in the waters below, was in collision with a destroyer. Neither vessel sank, fortunately, and although the Daily Express gave considerable space to the story, the Times found it worth only very brief mention, presumably on the theory that accidents are bound to happen whenever two or more vessels are moving in the same waters.
Another seafaring story dealt with the theft of a “luxury yacht” valued at $300,000. Stolen from her moorings and headed into the Irish Sea, the yacht was the object of a wide search by naval and air force units. She was discovered and stopped by the elderly skipper of a railways ferry, unassisted, midway on his routine crossing. He had heard the story on a news broadcast, recognized the yacht on sighting her, and told the two juvenile delinquents who had stolen her to come off it — that sort of thing would get them nowhere — to which they immediately agreed. Neither the royal Navy nor the Queen was present on this occasion, but both returned to Page One most impressively a few weeks later.
The scene was Charlottetown, P.E.I., where the Queen was about to ascend the gangway of the royal yacht Brittania. A crowd of some thousands watched the Queen approach the gangway and stop suddenly. “I’m not going up there. It moved,” she was quoted by the Boston Globe’s reporter Leonard Lerner as saying. Just then the gangway collapsed against the yacht’s hull. His story continued: “Officials on the dock said the near-mishap was caused by wind and tide rolling the Brittania away from the pier. Some of the yacht’s mooring lines had been cast off in preparation for sailing.” Commanding a royal yacht would be quite good duty, one supposes, if it weren’t for those infernal winds and tides, and all that water.