Palaces, personalities and pigeons

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Buckingham Palace: celebrity magnet?

Sorry to see this week’s papers announcing that the Duke of Edinburgh has been advised to miss a few engagements. Age is catching up with him, I guess, though he’s younger than my Dad, and looked well when I saw him the other week.

Spot that effortless name-drop? But I did see him at Buckingham Palace in May, honest!

A colleague and I joined 2,500 other guests in the Palace Gardens to celebrate the diamond jubilee of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, the fantastic scheme that encourages young people to learn self-sufficiency through expeditions and volunteering.

We formed fifty groups of about fifty people each. Prince Philip apparently managed to speak to every group, quite an achievement. That involved a lot of standing around waiting, though none of us complained. We were shepherded into the right places and formations: slightly comically because, every time our enthusiastic organiser tried to issue instructions, a nearby military band struck up, rendering her inaudible.

Certificates were presented to Gold Award winners, and commemorative plaques to participating schools (which is why we were there). The presentations were made by what I think we term minor celebrities.

In my group a lot of people were very excited that our “sleb” was Anton Du Beke. I misheard the announcement, and thought we were being greeted by Ant and Dec: I spent some time looking for the second bloke and puzzling about how whichever one had turned up looked so different from how he does on the telly. Patiently it was explained to me, somewhat pityingly, that Anton’s a top dancer whom I should recognise from Strictly.

I might, if I watched it. As it happens, Mrs Trafford and I watch neither Strictly, nor Bake Off, leaving us culturally out of step with a vast swathe of the population.

I guess Anton features a great deal in the magazines and newspapers that feed off the nation’s favourite TV programmes: but his name meant nothing to me. I liked him immediately, and he spoke well, though was constantly interrupted either by the band or by a warning that the Duke was “just about to come – oh no, he’s gone to another group!”

The group next to us had an Olympian, though I never discovered what his sport was. A friend of mine was in a group with Ainsley Harriott (I know he’s a TV chef), who was reportedly entertaining.

Don’t get me wrong. We were hugely honoured to be invited to The Palace to receive our school plaque, which will be proudly displayed, and delighted to be part of celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Award. Moreover, it was generous of fifty celebs to give up an afternoon to shake the hands of proud youngsters and teachers, and to smile at the kids’ parents.

I was too polite to tell Anton I’d never heard of him, though he’s currently at the top of his profession. There again, he didn’t know me from Adam either. Perhaps he’d be pleased not to be recognised occasionally. Besides, such experiences are good for the humility: certainly headteachers can get above themselves!

Indeed, I guess all this story proves is that celebrity and fame are all relative, and definitely transient. As usual, all this has been better expressed in poetry, years ago, in Shelley’s Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

There again, there was the self-aggrandising headmaster who demanded a statue be commissioned when he retired. Colleagues and pupils were outraged by his hubris, but the Chair of Governors was relaxed about it.

“Let him have his way,” he said, “And the pigeons can speak for all of us.”

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