A couple of months ago a very smart envelope popped through my letterbox. Inside was an invitation to spend Valentines night with The Queen. Had I been selected to be Her Majesty’s Valentine, I wondered? Then, reading on, I saw the invitation was also from the Duke Of Edinburgh, and I realized he was unlikely to be playing gooseberry…
In fact the occasion was to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens a writer I have always loved, and learned a lot from. He was in many ways the originator of the “page turner”.
I arrived at Buckingham Palace in suitable style, in a chauffeured limmo, with only some of the gloss taken off when police opened the bonnet, boot, searched beneath it and shone a torch, suspiciously at me. Then we drove through into the inner courtyard and into the covered carriage drive. Then I went into the building and upstairs into a magnificent long room, with name tags laid out, and began to mingle. For some minutes I didn’t recognize anyone, and was also pleased to see I was the youngest in the room by a good decade – but that rapidly changed. Really good quality Champagne flowed from an army of waiters, as well as non-stop canapes, and as the room filled, I began to spot familiar faces, as well as a few friends – writer Simon Brett, and agent Jonathan Lloyd boss of mega-agency Curtis Brown, who told me he had been invited because his wife is a great-grandaughter of Charles Dickens! I saw actor John Nettles (Bergerac and Midsomer Murders) and chatted with really delightful Derek Jacobi, who I worked with back in 1973 along with Oliver Reed on a really bad film called Blue Blood… Rowan Atkinson was there, and I watched with interest, wondering whether he would repeat his Blackadder performance and head-butt The Queen when he bowed – fortunately he didn’t! I had a long conversation with Ruth Rendell about the joys, woes and compulsion of writing, and also about supernatural thrillers. She told me a curious phenomenon – that although she resolutely does not believe in ghosts, she gets scared witless by ghost stories! I also had a fun chat with Jilly Cooper who is always a delight. I talked to Anne Robinson, telling her I was delighted that my Roy Grace novels had twice been a question on her cruel but fun TV show The Weakest Link.
After about fifteen mins there were about 300 people in the room and we all joined a line, going through into an adjoining room where we shook hands with The Queen and the Duke Of Edinburgh. I was very pleased to see she was wearing gloves – as my family business, Cornelia James, holds the Royal Warrant at glovemaker to The Queen. My mother, Cornelia, actually made the gloves The Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, wore with her going-away dress at her wedding in 1947 – and our firm has made almost all Her Majesty’s gloves every since – and also for most of the other female members of the Royal Family. She seemed delighted when I told her, and we had a further chat later in the evening when she was brought over to meet a group that included myself and six others. I didn’t get the chance to tell her the only other writer from a glove-making family was William Shakespeare! But we did talk briefly about the first books we could remember reading. After some moments though Her Majesty said it was Arthur Ransome’s Swallows And Amazons. She is a remarkable lady, with a wry sense of humour and a great aura around her. And despite being much shorter than one imagines, she comes across as someone of immense stature. I left the very generous and warm hearted event feeling that, as we look at the turmoil in the world around us, and some of the appalling corrupt, greedy and violent rulers around the globe, how fortunate we are to have such as dignified and decent person as our Head Of State.