The British rail transport system is marked by an endless stream of public announcements.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are operating a good service on all our lines except for a minor delay on the District Line caused by signal failure.
Please mind the gap between the train and the platform as you exit and stand clear of the doors. Please stand clear of the doors, the train is now ready to depart. Stand clear.”
The usefulness of these instructions divides opinion. Tourists find them amusing while locals seem to endure the broadcasts through gritted teeth.
Practically, however, they mean that it is almost impossible to get lost or to miss your stop. And I knew I had arrived at the right place when the announcement came at around 9.45 am.
“The next station is Green Park. Change here for the Piccadilly line. Exit for Buckingham Palace. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.”
I was early, but then you learn to be because the British keep time obsessively.
The invitation had come a few weeks earlier informing me that I had been tapped as one of nine students to represent the British Foreign Office-sponsored Chevening Scholarship programme at a reception to be hosted at the Queen’s official residence.
You understand that you are dealing with a strange institution rooted in tradition stretching back more than 1,000 years from the wording of the invitation note:
ROYAL INVITE RSVP “The Master of the Household has received Her Majesty’s command to invite you to a Reception to be given by The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh (the Queen’s husband) for Youth, Education and Commonwealth. A reply is requested to: The Master of the Household, Buckingham Palace.”
I was not particularly excited. I expected one of those events where you turn up, are herded into a room and listen to lengthy speeches about this and that.
From the underground train station, you approach Buckingham Palace through a vast, sprawling park with tree-lined paths covered by lush, green grass, which at this time of the year is topped by the orange leaves of trees shedding their extra foliage in anticipation of the long winter. Outside the palace, I joined dozens of tourists milling about taking photos.
Strangely, almost half of them appeared to be Japanese.
This may be explained by Japan’s royalist history.
Their country has an Emperor whose family has held the seat of power since 660BC, almost 400 years before Queen Elizabeth II’s forebears seized the English crown.
The merry tourists seemingly could not take enough photos next to the marble monuments outside the palace.
Infected by the enthusiasm of the crowds, I yielded to temptation and also took a shot there in roughly the same way that Kenyans love having pictures taken at the KICC compound to show that they have, in fact, been to Nairobi.
A few minutes later, our guide arrived, pinned lapels on the suits of the men and the dresses of the ladies and we were ushered in.
The exterior of the palace is not as grand as its interior. There is a large forecourt about the size of a football pitch ringed on all four sides by squat, roughly four-storey buildings of a stained, brown colour similar to wet sand in the desert.
The interior is something else.
You walk around floating on a huge, thick, red, patterned carpet and everywhere you look there are small, golden statuettes and large canvas paintings on the walls staring back at you.
The high ceiling is offset by dozens of sparkling bulbs hanging on huge chandeliers.
Once we got into one of the large waiting rooms, we exchanged small talk with some ambassadors from various Commonwealth countries before we were asked to form a queue and walk into another part of the building.
I had not expected we would each be granted an audience, well, actually, a 30-second handshake with the Queen, but, alas, that was the order of business.
We filed in slowly and a gentleman in a black suit would shout the name of the person, who was to receive the royal handshake next.
“This is Mr Mohammed from Malaysia! Next is Mr Laleshwar Singh, high commissioner of Guyana!” A quick handshake and you move on.
“Next is Mr Murithi Mutiga from Kenya!” The same quick handshake and the queue kept moving.
The Queen is shorter than she looks in photos and has a radiant smile, which is not surprising because shaking hands may be a routine task to you and me, but for members of the royal family it may as well be their fulltime occupation.
She was dressed in a simple, light-green dress with a gold watch, a pearl necklace and earrings to match and small, shiny black shoes.
I had read somewhere that people are coached before meetings with the Queen on the correct protocol and manner in which they should behave around her. Girls, for example, are taken through lessons on how to curtsey before her.
I had gone through no such orientation.
When I walked in she extended her hand, I shook it while smiling rather sheepishly and bowed slightly, trying to avoid going too far down and being laughed at by my friends in the way President Obama received criticism at home after bowing too deeply while meeting the Emperor of Japan. (The Americans believe the most powerful man on earth should never bow before anyone.)
After the handshake, we proceeded to a large reception hall where we sat in rows and waited.
The Queen, her husband and their entourage walked in after a short while and we all stood.
After everyone had retaken their seats, the small instrumental band at the stage, all dressed in black, played the Commonwealth anthem and then unleashed a slow, rather mournful orchestral tune as a follow up.
SLEEPING THROUGH ENTERTAINMENT
Classical music is not really my cup of tea, but I resisted the temptation to sleep.
The same could not be said of the gentleman next to me who nodded off the moment the band sent a symphony floating into the mid-morning air.
In 20 minutes, after a second musical performance by pupils dressed in their best starched blue uniforms, the event was over without a single speech.
We were then asked to move to another state room next door where there was an exhibition of classical art by painters such as the French maestro Rembrandt.
Again, I don’t have the most refined tastes and art is not really my cup of tea but I struck up a conversation with a senior member of the royal staff as others enjoyed the paintings on display.
“Where are you from?” the official asked. “Kenya,” I said.
“Where in Kenya?”
“I’m from Meru, at the foot of Mt Kenya.”
“Oh, Meru! I spent my honeymoon there many years ago, well before you were born. We went to the Meru park and then the Maasai; the Maasai Mara.”
The man had clearly spent a lot of time in the top echelons of British public service and he had fascinating views about world politics.
He was particularly engaging on the subject of whether, in an age of American domination and a rising China, the two powers would inevitably be drawn into open conflict in the next two decades.
YOU ARE NOT A JOURNALIST, ARE YOU? I was enjoying the chat thoroughly but, at some point, the gentleman got suspicious at my questions and asked. “You are not a journalist, are you?”
The conversation petered out after that and we concentrated on enjoying glasses of fizzing champagne while the official switched to explaining the origin of some of the works of art on display.
Apparently, most of the ones in that room were painted by the French artist Claude Lorrain and depicted life in Venice when it was one of the world’s great cities.
On the other side of the room, the Queen walked around exchanging pleasantries with guests.
This is one of her principal duties. In years past, the King of England was the all-powerful sovereign who ruled over all his subjects, sometimes enforcing his edicts through brute force.
Around the year 1,000 the last Anglo-Saxon monarch Harold II was defeated by a Germanic tribe from the French region of Normandy.
The most powerful figure to emerge from those wars was William, Duke of Normandy, also known as William the Conqueror. His family ruled England, Scotland and eventually Wales for years.
However, members of the British upper class were not happy with arbitrary monarchical rule and in 1215, they forced the royal family to accept the Great Charter (Magna Carta), which called for the respect of the rule of law and paved the way for eventual parliamentary democracy.
The monarchy has been maintained to this day although the Queen plays only ceremonial roles.
She officially appoints the Prime Minister after an election by granting him audience at the palace in a ceremony known as “kissing of hands”, she confers knighthoods on those picked by the PM for the awards, and presides over the official opening of Parliament.
The institution she leads has not been without controversy, particularly in the 1990s as the marriage between Princess Diana and her son and next in line to the throne, Prince Charles, went off the rails. Public sentiment then turned against the monarchy.
Things were not helped by the death of Diana while in the company of her boyfriend in a high speed crash as she was being tailed by photographers in Paris.
There were calls for the abolition of the monarchy among sections of the public, who argued that it is an expensive and singularly undemocratic institution.
SYMBOL OF UNITY
Traditionalists, who argue that the Queen is the UK’s most important symbol of national unity (and the royal family is a magnet for tourists to London and elsewhere in the country), won.
The monarchy survived that wobble and today the Queen is warmly regarded by the public and polls show strong support for the institution with more than two-thirds of adults having a favourable view of the Queen.
She certainly does a good job of hosting her guests and listening to the thousands of strangers, who visit Buckingham Palace every year.
At some point as she walked round the room, the Queen approached the corner where I was and a staffer asked us to stand in a semi-circle and wait to speak to her.
She came round and asked us to introduce ourselves. “I am Murithi Mutiga from Kenya. I’m studying politics at the London School of Economics.”
“Oh, the LSE?” she asked. “How is that. Is it interesting?”
“Yes, ma’am, it’s very interesting.”
“Good,” she said and moved on to the next person.
That was that!
I walked out and back to normal life having experienced a fleeting peek inside this most peculiar of British institutions.