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The unforgettable day I met the Queen

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Once-in-a-lifetime experience: Ira Philip with his late wife, Ismay, right, and daughter Deborah, emerging from the Grand Entrance to Buckingham Palace with his MBE. Getting to and from the palace for the investiture proved exhilarating(Photograph supplied)

This columnist, in many decades of writing hundreds of features, can count on one hand the number of times one was started with “I”.

One exception, which appeared in the Mid-Ocean News on August 14, 2000, related to my having been awarded an MBE. I can imagine there was a similar exultation this week when the Queen bestowed the title of “Royal” on the Bermuda Regiment on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.

I thought it timely to retrieve from my archives, the Mid-Ocean feature that reads as follows:

There’s no point making believe that going to Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE from the Queen is “no big thing”, because it is a big thing anyway you look at it. It is an enviable, once-in-a-lifetime experience for a select few.

What I wanted to report in that article was getting to and from the palace could be equally exhilarating; bear in mind the old song, It ain’t what you do, but the way that you do it.

Among the many folks who insisted I should go to London for the investiture, as opposed to having it at Government House in Bermuda, was my longstanding friend Ken Campbell, former editor of the London-based West Indian Digest and the Caribbean Times, both of which I serviced as the Bermuda correspondent.

Ken told me: “Ira, you must do this thing right. I will arrange it for you. You have to arrive at the palace in style; you need a smart car. There will be lots of spectators there. You must have an investiture luncheon, the media must be there.”

He went on, adding, “Leave it to me. All you have to do is fasten your seatbelt and get to London”. I yielded to Ken with the proviso that he did not require me to wear a top hat and tails.

It was Ken and his lawyer wife Lucia, who years beforehand put me onto Akira Press, the London publishers of my book Freedom Fighters: From Monk to Mazumbo. They also took care of much of the detail for the successful book launch party in Brixton (which was to London what Harlem was to New York).

I went along with the programme, with the fun starting right at the Bermuda airport. I was accompanied by my late wife Ismay, daughter Deborah, oldest grandchild Don Jr, sister-in-law Marjorie Grant and her daughter, City of Hamilton councillor Sonia Grant (who was also attending a conference of the American Bar Association). Along with us came our good friend, the late videographer Errol Williams. With pure youthful devilment and his budding sense of humour, Don got a thrill watching people’s reactions when he strategically dropped the word that we were going to London to see the Queen. It worked quite well when we arrived at Gatwick Airport and later at our hotel. The officer processing our passports could not have been friendlier. His jocular comment as he whisked us through, was: “Tell the Queen I need more money! She knows where to find me.”

When the big day arrived we were in our hotel lobby at the specified time. While waiting the arrival of our limousine, we acceded to requests from some of the tourists there to take our photos. Christopher Thomas, the dapper managing director of Executive Cars, arrived and escorted us to our Mercedes Benz, all arranged through the Campbells’s contact at the Jamaican Embassy.

Ken was correct, the palace environs were swarming with people from near and far anxious to see the comings and goings. Conspicuous among them were members of entertainer Shirley Bassey’s fan club, who cheered her as she arrived in grand style to be invested as a Dame of the British Empire.

At the grand entrance to the palace I, along with other recipients, was separated from family and escorted to one of the picture galleries for a briefing according to our respective honours and light refreshments. We were a motley group, all on one level, from as far afield as Botswana, Barbados and Macclesfield, all cited for public services in music, education, sports, entertainment, religion, science, etc. The only other Bermudian present was Dr Edward Harris, honoured for services in architectural, marine and cultural history in Bermuda. We warmly greeted each other, clicked our glasses and drank a typical Dockyard toast of “Cheers!”.

We were called before the Queen in alphabetical order. She was on a dais in the Grand Ballroom, attended by two Gurkha Orderly Officers and her Yeoman bodyguards. One could not help but feel good, walking towards her, down that long red carpet to the music of an orchestra of the Coldstream Guards. My most pleasant surprise upon entering the ballroom was to spot my wife. She had an elevated end seat, which to me looked like one of the best seats in the palace. As I walked by her, she winked her eye and restrained a smile as if she had staged a coup of sorts. I was so stunned I could hardly wait until it was all over to talk to her. She explained that when she was being escorted (by the “gentleman usher”) towards the centre at floor level, she remarked to him, “Sir I have travelled a long way from Bermuda for this and would like to be able to see my husband when he gets his medal”. He said “Alright”, changed his direction and told me not to tell anyone that is was he who sat her there.

I was amazed over the firmness of the Queen’s handshake. She asked if I had come to London especially for the ceremony, and what the award was for. I told her I had served in the Bermuda Senate; was a journalist and an author. She said congratulations and smiled. I bowed and backed off. I discovered afterwards that all of my movements through the palace, like those of other recipients, were captured on videotape by remotely-controlled cameras for an individualised 30-minute “path of honour” documentary which would be made available to me.

We were again in the hands of Ken and Lucia Campbell for the investiture luncheon. They had chosen Brown’s Hotel, reputed to be London’s oldest five-star hotel located in the heart of Mayfair. It was there that Alexander Graham Bell made his first successful British telephone call and Rudyard Kipling completed his popular work, The Jungle Book; Agatha Christie based her book At Bertram’s Hotel on Brown’s. The hotel is in walking distance of the palace. While the rest of the family set out on foot, Ismay, Deborah and I chose to savour the last of our Mercedes Benz. What should have been a ten-minute drive took more than three times as long due to a bomb scare that shut down the city’s underground system.

It was aimed at disrupting the Queen Mother’s Birthday Parade, scheduled for later that afternoon.

We did not mind the delay because it enabled us to make a grand entrance into the dining room where the rest of our guests — all family and longstanding friends — were waiting.

Among them were celebrated actor, Earl Cameron and his wife Barbara, entertainer Joe “Conch Shell” Benjamin and editor of New World and Asian Telegraph Online GD Govender. Our party of 20 also included George Braddock, managing director of The Gleaner, regarded as London’s top Caribbean newspaper and Dr Harris, who cancelled his original plans in order to join us. I need hardly say the food was delicious, service superb and the fellowship most compatible.

It was a hectic week for us in London and I went right along with the programme. The Camerons had a dinner party for us, walked us around Soho and drove us to night spots; we spent an afternoon in Brixton as guests of Joe Benjamin.

Our party had by now swelled to include Ann Daniels, the old Capital Broadcasting Company’s star radio and television news presenter.

From Brixton it was off to Hackney for a reception celebrating the opening of the Centenary Pan African Conference.

The Conference (which is another story in itself), brought together African people from North, South and Central America, the Caribbean, Europe and Africa.

The Campbells had arranged for me to have full delegate status representing Bermuda.

I had no hesitation obliging when asked to pay a 15-minute tribute to Mazumbo, Dr E F Gordon, Bermuda’s most dedicated Pan-Africanist.

To cut a long story short, I must say we spent our last night in London entertaining in our hotel none other than the irrepressible, ever charismatic Kingsley Tweed. We reminisced about many things that have happened during the 40 years that elapsed since he left Bermuda following the Theatre Boycott in which he had a leading hand.

Memorable occasion: Pictured in Windrush Square with Brixton Town Hall in the background are, from left, Ann Daniels and her friend Jean, Ismay and Deborah Philip, Roiyah Saltus-Blackwood and Don Philip Jr(Photograph supplied)