George Lash, Canadian newspaper man and publicist, believed that all the interesting episodes in life are not exclusively owned by ex-princesses, former secretaries to sultans and explorers of jungles and wastes, but that the little nobodies might have tales worth listening to if only they would talk. So he sat down and wrote a book, “.4 Nobody's Business," in which he told of his own experiences. Maclean's thinks it’s good stuff, and presents here the first of four chapters it has selected.
MOTHER GOOSE has sung her songs of the queen’s parlor and the queen’s court. Alexandre Dumas has permitted us more than one peep at strange goings-on in reginal boudoirs. But no one, as far as I am aware, ever has thought it worth while to reveal the secrets of the Queen’s pantry. To that particular end. therefore, I shall attempt to chronicle the events of one lively morning in the pantry where the Queen of England stores her china.
It is situated in a wing of Buckingham Palace, and is the third or fourth door on the left after you pass a statue in the main foyer at the foot of the grand staircase. The statue, as I remember it, though I make no pretense of accuracy on that score, is of a decidedly nervous-looking lady who has just emerged from or is about to enter a bath. However, it is quite irrelevant to the purpose of this tale and is mentioned merely to help you find the pantry. Since it is now well established as a guide post, let us proceed with all speed to our destination.
The manner of my entry into the Queen’s pantry is another of those funny commentaries on life which tend to prove that, while one thing may lead to another, you never can tell w'hat will lead to which or vice versa. In this instance, the road to the Queen’s pantry lay via a very dirty duck pond into w'hich I had unintentionally fallen while engaging in a revolver duel with a German w'ho, fortunately for me, w'as just as poor in his aim as I was. For this submarine exploit I w'as awarded a decoration.
Medals are not worth much when you try to hock them for a meal, but the manner of presenting them is impressive. There were about twenty of us in the pantry, to which
we had been led with some ceremony by a liveried footman or butler, I’m not sure which, as 1 had never seen one of either before except in the movies, and Hollywxxl never does those things correctly. All of us were there for the purpose of receiving medals, although as far as I know none except myself had won his for falling into a French farmyard cesspool. We were there on invitation of His Majesty the King, who had sent us very nicely engraved cards. These had been promptly taken from us at the palace gates by a sentry who, despite the authenticity of our j)assix>rts and his ritualistic salute, nevertheless eyed us with considerable suspicion until we were ushered into the royal residence through a rear door, probably the tradesmen’s entrance.
We did not, of course, all arrive together. We rame singly or in pairs, depending largely upon how many pubs we had visited en route and the amount of assistance we required for pedal navigation thereafter. The matter of receiving jewellery from His Majesty is not one to lx* taken lightly, and considerable personal preparation is necessary if one is to be in the proper frame of mind to appreciate the
DEAR OLD ENGLAND, which was bom, weaned and brought to its present great estate largely on class distinction, cannot forego a traditional separation of sheep from goats even when heroes are being honored, and therefore, once inside the portals of the palace, we were rapidly divided according to the ty pe of distinction we were about to receive, and shepherded to convenient jx>ints where we could be reached without difficulty when His Majesty would be pleased to receive us. It is my earnest hope that St. Peter has not appointed any Englishmen as assistant gatekeepers, for if so, on Judgment Day there is bound to be a traffic jam while the claimants for places within are sorted and ground in accordance with the strictest rules of precedence.
It is not to lxexpected that for dirtying one’s uniform in a duck pond one can receive a very high order of merit from one’s sovereign, and so it was that 1 happened to find myself conducted to the pantry to join the nineteen others who were also well down toward the foot of the honor list. The comparative insignificance of the decoration may perhaps explain also why all but one in the pantry jxirty were “blasted” colonials—this included two Irishmen and three Scotsmen -and not a single individual with a ranking higher than that of captain.
The Queen’s pantry is not a pretentious one. No hunter after a flat in any city would give it a second look. It is rectangular in shape, with quite a small window that looks out upon a cement-lined light well, above which a glimpse of a tree
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top can be caught. Two sides of the room are lined with shelves behind glass doors, and every shelf is burdened with china. A most amazing set of china. Every piece of the same pattern, and at least two pieces for every purpose from a soup tureen to a salt cellar. I suppose a Queen more than almost anybody else must be prepared for emergencies. It is difficult to imagine the Queen of England running over to a neighbor's to borrow a couple of cups because "George, my dear, has brought an Ambassador and two Cabinet Ministers home from the office for dinner without giving me a word of warning.”
I don’t suppose the King had anything to do with it. But the royal equerry or whatever was responsible should have known better than to shut twenty battlescarred warriors or. as they say in England, “bloody heroes.” in a room—even if it is the Queen’s pantry for two hours and expect them merely to twiddle their thumbs or talk rot like a group of politicians. War makes men restless. They must have more than chatter to occupy their attention. Accordingly, for what occurred some liveried member of the royal household is almost entirely to blame.
It is rather amazing how tempting china can become when it is sheltered by glass ckxirs and one has nothing else to look at for two hours, unless one counts as something the faces of nineteen ugly colonials and one almost completely incoherent Englishman. We felt a twitching in our fingers. We began by touching the glass, then we wanted to handle the china itself. But our desire would not have been realized if an Australian captain, nonchalantly admitting that his civil-life profession was that of a safe-cracker, had not deftly picked the lock of every cupboard with a knife. Probably just keeping his hand in.
Free to do so. we removed pieces of china and examined them with interest. One of I the three Scotsmen, rolling his r’s like a machine gun gone wild and proudly announcing a pre-war association with the Edinburgh Museum as a curator or janitor or something, spoke feelingly of the antiquity of the specimens before us; but his treatise, enunciated with a decided Gaelic accent, was difficult for us to understand and we were relieved when a fellow Scotsman quieted him with a curt, "Cut oot the gab, Jock."
Auctioning the Queen’s China
OUR INTEREST in Her Majesty’s dinner set was beginning to wane rapidly and might have passed entirelv liad not a young officer, whose nationality and
rank will remain concealed, conceived a sudden enthusiasm, largely engendered by frequent sips of rum, to auction off the Queen’s china. Apparently he had been a bailiff’s assistant at one time, and the thought of a forced sale of the palace chattels to satisfy an unpaid tax bill appealed to what he considered a sense of humor. I regret to say that this opinion was unanimous. with the lone exception of the young Englishman, who took no part in subsequent proceedings except to look on with a lugubrious expression such as perhaps once clouded the countenance of a royalist ancestor witnessing the execution of Charles I. The self-appointed auctioneer mounted the only chair in the room and began the sale in accents that swerved from Oxford to Whitechapel and from Montreal to Sydney, N.S.W.
“Ladies and gents,” he shouted with a nasal twang fine enough to have substantiated a claim to kinship with the late Mr. Coolidge, “we are assembled here today to participate in one of the most marvellous, stupendous and remarkable offerings of household goods and chattels ever to be placed under the hammer in this ’ere country or hany hother. Every piece in this fine collection is guaranteed to be genuine and cannot be duplicated if youse guys was to search Selfridge’s from attic to cellar. The tender ’ands of Her Majesty the Queen ’as caressed every piece with the love of a mother as has raised six children at least, including ’is Royal ’Ighness Prince of Wales. Come one, come all. Loosen up. you tightwads, and buy, buy, buy. The highest bidder wins the piece, gents. Come along, me lucky lads, let’s ’ave you.”
He paused impressively and with critical eye surveyed the shelf nearest to him. He carefully selected the largest object, which happened to be a soup tureen. Then, not so carefully, he balanced it jauntily on one hand above his head and continued his harangue.
“We come now to the first piece in this fine collection.” he announced. “To people what know, this here piece is a soup tureen. It is used to keep soup in while grace is being said. But it can also be used for many other things.”
He eyed us slyly as if to discover how well versed we were in table etiquette.
“If you don’t like soup,” he said confidentially, “you can use it for other purposes. You can bawth the biby in it, or if you ’aven't a biby, you can bawth thecanary in it. It can be used for washing clothes or for carrying bait. Its possibilities are stupendous and almost without number. Ladies and gents, what am I offered for this ’ere
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hextraordinary piece of goods? Do I 'ear tuppence?”
"Twa farrthings,” came a rich burr from near the door.
"Three. Four. Thruppence. ’Arf a bob. A tanner.” The bidding grew brisk.
"Half a crown,” shouted somebody.
“Now there’s a gent as understands fine things,” declared the auctioneer. " ’Arf a crown and cheap at double the price, says I. Come one, come all. Lay a little bit on the old sergeant-major. Do I hear two-and-six? No? Going, going. For the third and last time, ladies and gents. Gone! Sold to the gent with the gold tooth for ’alf a crown. An’ won’t the missus be pleased !”
Piece by piece the crockery of the royal household was disposed of to hilarious representatives of various parts of the British Empire, with not a single bid from the lone Englishman to keep any of these priceless relics of the House of Windsor on home soil. Scotland got two teacups for a penny each. Ireland drew a cream jug and six breadand-butter plates for a couple of shillings. Canada took possession of the soup tureen and a teapot for about a dollar and a quarter at par. Australia and New Zealand bid the fabulous sum of about ten shillings for twelve saucers and a gravy bowl. South Africa entered into ownership of a number of salt and pepper shakers for five shares in the Kimberley Diamond Mines; and Newfoundland, true to form, exchanged a pulp mill for a fish platter and a butter dish.
The auctioneer, thoroughly warmed to his work, was endeavoring to exhibit the crockery to fullest advantage by doing some dangerous balancing tricks with it, when the door opened and a flunky pushed an astonished face into the room.
“How much do I hear?” asked the auctioneer.
“Hi’ll tike care of that,” said the flunky, hurriedly elbowing his way through the crowd and put hands on the soup tureen.
“Eh?” said the auctioneer. And then to show that no flunky could overawe him, he bellowed. “Sold! Sold to this gent in the clothes with the silly look on ’is fice. And I ’opes as ’ow yer grandmother drowns ’erself hin hit.” With a flourish he relinquished the prize to the flunky.
For a moment, there was a complete stillness in the room. And then the deposed auctioneer turned to the intruder.
“And you, my man,” he said, “remember this. When you speak to a superior officer, say ‘Sir.’ ”
The flunky, showing every sign of believing that he was in a room with a group of madmen, made no reply. He only stared, open mouthed, swallowed hard a few times and proceeded with his task of picking up china and replacing it upon the shelves. His work done, he moved to the door. There he stood with shoulders squared and a “you’ll touch it over my dead body” look in his eyes until some minutes later, when we were formed into line and marched toward the palace courtyard to have bits of * this and that pinned to our manly bosoms by His Most Gracious Majesty the King.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of four articles by Mr. Lash. The second will follow in an early issue.
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