My only contact of any kind with the Queen was in 1953. I was a reporter on a local newspaper, the Luton News. The editor assigned me to interview people named in the Coronation Honours list, to mark that glorious June day when Elizabeth II was crowned in Westminster Abbey.
There was a mischievous look on the editor’s face. He waited for me to look over the list. I was startled to find that it included me. I had been awarded the most modest of gongs, the British Empire Medal, at the age of twenty-one.
This was as a result of my two years as a conscript in the Royal Air Force. By pure chance I was posted to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) led by the future US President, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. I had the lowly rank of senior aircraftman.
I was lucky enough to serve an American army major. SHAPE was in its infancy and we had virtually to invent an international administration from scratch. The major gave me authority way above my rank and, together, we got it sorted. I had no idea he would nominate me for a medal.
The Queen did not pin it on me personally. That was done by the commanding officer of an RAF base, but she did write me a letter of congratulation, with a mimeographed signature.
And so began the long haul of the Queen’s reign and my career in journalism, a kind of Queen and I passage through seven decades. We lived in parallel but very different universes, and it was this that finally provided the context for my book, The Last Queen. In seventy years, the monarchy’s relationship with the media underwent a total sea change, which I followed at first hand.
I also got to know one member of the royal family, Tony Snowdon, as a colleague on two newspapers and as a friend. When Tony married Princess Margaret he was the first royal husband who worked for a living. The marriage didn’t turn out well, but throughout Tony remained true to himself and his prestige as a photographer just grew and grew.
And, despite the collapse of his marriage, the Queen also held him in high esteem because of his public composure and dignity. She gave him £75,000 to buy a villa in Kensington.
And, as is clear from my book, Tony had qualities that marked him out from some of the other men in the royal family, particularly Prince Charles. Tony’s knowledge of and involvement with a new generation of British architects helped to get their work recognised. Charles, in contrast, set himself up as scourge of modern architecture without any knowledge or understanding of it.
That is one reason why I concluded that he is unsuited to be King. His habit is to surround himself with sycophants who reinforce his own cranky prejudices. Asked if, on succeeding his mother, he would give up what he calls his ‘convening power’ he said, ‘Well, you never know.’ Indeed, we don’t.
Tony, meanwhile, was a force for practical innovations that had an impact on people’s lives. For example, he discovered that the average width of a wheelchair was twenty-five inches but that train doors were twenty-two inches wide. He successfully campaigned for wheelchair accessibility.
Charles will, of course, succeed his mother. That’s the constitutional order. She has though, with her remarkable stamina and sense of duty, deferred that moment for a lot longer than we could ever have hoped.
Interest piqued by Clive's blog? The Last Queen is out on 27 October and can be pre-ordered here.