Seeing the World and Buckingham Palace

I had so many American friends, I almost became Americanised. There was an old couple from San Francisco who were very close to my family. The man's father was the owner of a large group of stores. When he died he left all his property to his two sons and they became very rich. The one I knew, helped to run the business and was very active. He became the president of the bank America for a time. His wife had been a teacher and an actress. She was beautiful and had played in films. He had three daughters, two married one single, all lovely and charming. I first got to know them when I was asked to meet them at the airport and take them to the hotel, and then on tour.

They had been to England once before and also around the world. When we started the tour, I could see that the wife was well acquainted with British history and wanted to know details not just the outlines. We got on very well once she could see that I could cope. She had arranged an itinerary and I followed it exactly. But she caught me out once. When we were in Scotland she asked me what a lady’s kilt was called. I said I didn't know. When I enquired later, I found it was just the same as men’s. I was very fond of writing little puns in verse. When I totted down a few lines they laughed, so whenever I thought it was appropriate I did the same again. The man had been an athlete who was chosen as a reserve to run as a sprinter for USA in the Olympics at Paris. While he was at college there was great rivalry between the universities in San Francisco. He always managed to win his races but the rivalry was not just confined to sport. His college kept an axe in a glass case in the corridor. It had been used for some famous purpose and had a history. One night the axe was missing. There could only be one answer. The students from the rival university had snatched it and they displayed it in triumph and boasted about it. After a short period, no one knew how, but the axe was back. I’ve no idea how many times this happened.

The man and his wife came twice. Later we visited them in San Francisco and they gave us a tour. It is such a lovely city, rebuilt after the terrible earthquake, with its wonderful bridge, lovely buildings and many hills. He loaned me his car and we went to Yosemite National Park with its fascinating cataracts. While we were there we visited another couple, a professor teaching medicine and a retired head mistress. When they had been touring with me in England we had been all over - to Dover, Lands End, John o’Groats and the Isle of Skye. He was a very keen photographer. He would stand on his head sometimes to get the right shot. He loved taking pictures of salmon jumping to get to their breeding grounds. He also loved the architecture of cathedrals, abbeys and old churches. He loved music and I kept playing my cds and introduced him to the famous Irish flautist. James Galway. When we were in their home they introduced us to their way of serving crab. It was delicious. I was glad not to be taken to San Quentin but the fourteen mile drive along the coast with all the little animals popping up and down and even the occasional whale is worth going to see.

I drove others from San Francisco. One couple were unusual but delightful. The man was a fundraiser for the Opera House. They couldn't be hard up because they possessed paintings of world famous artists. They were both gourmets and when we were on tour they would only eat in the finest places. I was not allowed to join them. On one occasion we had been to Woburn Abbey and the little village close by only had one decent hotel for them. They went in for lunch. When they came out he was laughing and he told me what had happened. When he was asked what he wanted after reading the menu he told them that there was nothing on the menu he liked so could they have eggs done a special way. The poor waitress didn't know what he was talking about. She got the chef to come out but he also had never heard of it. So our good gourmet said, “Would you mind if I go in into the kitchen and make it myself?” The chef was a little bewildered but he said okay. He made enough for himself and his wife. The chef watched and learnt something, but it was extremely unlikely that anyone else would ever come in and ask for eggs to be cooked in the same way.

When I called for them the next day he went to the cashier in the hotel to draw some money. He had a book in his hand and his credit card in the other. He put the book on the counter while he was checking his money. The lobby was full of people. Suddenly there was a bang. Everyone was startled. Voices shouted out, “Don't anyone move.” The man who shouted had a pistol in his hand but as he looked around he could see that the book on the counter had fallen on the floor. He quickly put the gun away and said, “Sorry folks, carry on.” He obviously was the security man.

Through a friend in the travel business I was able to get a discount for a world tour for my wife and me. At one point we were leaving San Francisco and on the way to Mexico. We boarded the plane thinking that we were on the way. Instead we heard an announcement informing us that they believed a bomb was planted somewhere on the plane. For safety reasons we had to taxi to the far end of the aerodrome so the search could take place. The group who we were with and all the passengers and crew were taken to the furthest building. It was very crowded so we were almost on top of each other. After an hour or so, we were served with tea. I happened to be talking to one of our group on my left. The stewardess was pouring tea into my wife's tea cup on my right, I turned and my elbow nudged the girl's arm and she poured the tea over Joan's neck and back. My wife screamed at the scorching. She was immediately given treatment and a change of clothes and I was in the dog house. We all had to wait. There was nothing we could do so they played some popular music. After three hours we were taken back to the plane. Our entire luggage was on the ground and we had to collect it and take it to a table where it was examined. The hand luggage we had to take on the plane with us.

An announcement explained that it was a false alarm but they were not taking any chances. Amongst my hand luggage, was a box with a doll in it. I had bought a lovely Japanese's doll for my granddaughter, all dressed up in traditional detail. The stewardess was helping to push the box under my seat because there was no room in the luggage rack. As she leaned over to push the box in place, the man sitting next to me from our group, called out in fun, “Careful lady, that's where the bomb is!" The stewardess looked at him and said, 'Haven't you had enough?' and she went away. Two minutes later two huge men, obviously FBI came and took the man off the plane. Everyone was curious and looking through the windows. All they could see was the man, two FBI agents and the captain of the plane all in conversation and the man in tears. Thirty minutes later, the man returned to his seat. The captain spoke to the passengers telling them that if we had been in Mexico instead of the USA the man would now be in prison. He said, “As it is he not only delayed us longer but if I had wanted to I could have refused to allow him on him on my plane. Let it be a lesson to you - never make jokes about such a serious situation as this."

My wife got over her accident and we arrived in Mexico and had a wonderful time. Among all the things that impressed me was the dramatic difference within a mile or so. One district had the wealthy in their magnificent houses and another abject poverty with people living in broken down huts. In the car we were in we thought the driver was mad. He drove on and off the pavement whenever it suited him. I said, “Why can't you wait until the traffic is clear?” He said not to worry because everyone did the same. It so happened, that it was a religious holiday. In the centre of Mexico City there's a large square with the cathedral at one end. We saw a young woman on her knees with a baby in her arms crawling across the square to get to the cathedral. But there was music everywhere and so much to see of the country’s past history. I take my hat off to them.

We returned to London when we completed the tour after visiting places in the Pacific and found there was work waiting for me. I was to call for a distinguished Lord and take him to Buckingham Palace for one of the Queen’s special dinners. Although he was the son of one of England's greatest explorers he was distinguished in his own right. He had been a government minister and was the leader of his party in the House of Lords. The Principal of the Ladies’ College in Oxford had mentioned to me that she knew him well in the intelligence department. I mentioned her name and we became friends. He was a perfect gentleman. In spite of his upbringing, his achievements and his intellect, he had no airs or graces. After listening to him I realised that I knew nothing about the inside of Parliament and the House of Lords. I had to do something about it. I drove him home, but never had a chance to see him again.

(This passenger was Edward Shackleton, Baron Shackleton - Minister of Defence for RAF in Harold Wilson's Government, Paymaster General and Leader of the opposition in the House of Lords.)

The next time I went to Buckingham Palace, was to take an old army officer who was to be knighted by the queen. While the honours ceremony was in progress I got to see a little of the palace and was even taken to the basement where there was a canteen for servants and people like me. The palace is so huge not many people know how many rooms are there. The corridors and staircases and some rooms are full of paintings of royalty past and present. The place is just majestic.

My very next job was to take an Australian man to some special clinic. He was a speech therapist. While I was driving he asked me if I would like to hear an interesting story. I said, “I’m all ears as big as they are.” He said that many years before he had been called to go to Kensington Palace to see if he could help the Duke of York with his stuttering. The Duke was later to become King George VI. He got there and found the Duke playing tennis, at which he was good. So the lady in waiting asked him to wait. While he was waiting he was asked if he would like some tea. He said, “Yes please if it's no trouble.” The tea arrived in a most beautiful tea service. He admired the service and the lady told him that there was a little story about that tea service.

The service had belonged to Queen Victoria and she had it at Buckingham Palace. It is the custom when a new Prime Minister is elected he must go to the queen and kiss her hand for acceptance. The new Prime Minister at the time was Disraeli. When Disraeli got to Buckingham Palace he was very nervous and he asked one of equerries how he should behave and what the protocol was. He was told to speak only after the Queen addressed him and to follow her movements and do the same if possible. The Queen settled in her room and Disraeli was told to enter. He went in bowing, approached the Queen and kissed her hand. She greeted him very cordially and said, “Mr Disraeli I am about to have some tea, would you like some?” Remembering his instructions his reply was, “Yes please your Majesty.” The beautiful tea service was brought in and tea was served by the lady in waiting. Queen Victoria took a sip so Disraeli took a sip of his tea. After four sips the queen poured some of her tea in the saucer. Disraeli, trying hard not to show surprise, did the same. The queen looked at him and said, 'Mr Disraeli what are you doing?' All flustered, he replied, 'Well I saw you pouring the tea into your saucer so I'm doing the same.” The Queen laughed and said in a cheeky voice, “I intend to give mine to the cat. What do you intend to do with yours?” Queen Victoria got on very well with Disraeli and they became good friends visiting each other's homes and meeting on government business. Disraeli had a lovely mansion in Beaconsfield and when he became a Lord he took the name Lord Beaconsfield.

(The speech therapist was Lionel Logue. He didn't cure the King's stutter but gave him techniques to help minimise it. I think he may have upset some of the Palace staff but the King was grateful to him.)