Long ago, in the year 2000, I went to London and worked for the Queen. Yes, the actual Queen of England. As they say, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. I certainly had not prepared to work for royalty, per se, but I had spent over a year doing all manner of administrative temping jobs all over town. No matter what office environment you threw me into, I could be relied upon to figure out the idiosyncrasies of the photocopying machine, the kitchen, and the hierarchy. I am adaptable and resourceful and brave enough to travel to the other side of the world solo. Despite all this, my nerves were such that I was clammy as a damp crumpet when I approached the golden gates of Buckingham Palace to attend my interview. If you have days when you suffer from imposter syndrome, imagine how I felt going up to the policeman on duty at the gates, announcing that I had an appointment and asking if I could come in, please!
To my relief, I got the job, which began in the Queen’s Anniversaries office. This is a brilliant department of the palace, where the 100th birthday cards, plus greetings for 60th, 65th and 70th wedding anniversaries and other special events are organised. The tradition was started by the Queen’s father, King George VI, and was continued by Her Majesty. (Only the ruling sovereign is referred to as His or Her Majesty; other senior royals are HRH, which stands for His/Her Royal Highness.) It was surreal to be working in a place that is part of royal history, for possibly the most recognised Head of State in the world. Every day I dressed with great care and made every effort to be punctual. I was friendly to the other staff, who all considered working there to be a great honour and I did my best to learn the job. It was essential to stay focused and not have any lapses of attention although the work was often repetitive. If a letter had even one comma out of place, it had to be done again.
It was difficult, sometimes, to avoid getting frustrated. I was always pushing ahead, eager to clear my desk and get all the messages out, but this was work which simply could not be rushed. Mistakes were not allowed to exist! Yes, we were sending out important messages on behalf of Her Majesty, but did she even see the letters? Was she nothing more than a distant figurehead while we fretted daily over tiny errors? I wondered this aloud, as respectfully as I dared one day, and one of my colleagues leaned over to reply.
“You would be surprised how involved she is and how much of an interest she takes,” he confided with a smile. “Look at this.” He indicated a pile of letters from the world outside, which had been opened and sorted. “We include some every day with the Queen’s correspondence and she reads a lot of them. You can tell which ones because she marks them with red pencil and sometimes sends us notes or comments as well.” I took the card and read the few words in red pencil on the envelope. The Queen of England had read that letter that very morning and now I was holding it in my hand. Wow. My colleague grinned. “I know, it’s rather bizarre sometimes. I had to archive some of Queen Victoria’s letters once and it feels remarkable, the little pieces of history that you handle. Yet another reason we need to do our part to make sure things are completely correct.”
Every piece of correspondence that left the palace was checked three times; once by the writer, then by another colleague and then finally by a senior secretary. This is why books for publication are ideally self-edited by the writer, then by an editor and finally checked once more by a proof reader. A fresh set of eyes at each stage is more likely to pick up mistakes than the one person checking the same thing three times. My pedantic nature and eye for errors were sharpened and I was so proud of the documents I created that passed the careful checks without needing to be redone.
The work was going well and I was asked to fill in for one of Prince Phillip’s secretaries while she was away on holiday. I was then in the most remarkable position of working for a Queen in the mornings and a Prince in the afternoons. If I had thought I was prepared for this, the work in the Duke of Edinburgh’s office required an even greater level of concentration. I happened to be there in the weeks around HRH’s birthday, and this meant a flood of birthday messages had to be answered. People may not realise this, but all letters to Buckingham Palace get a reply, and the form the reply takes depends on the correspondent. Members of the public get a letter via Royal Mail and Heads of State and royalty get a telegram. I didn’t know that telegrams still existed! All the kind birthday greetings had a reply of thanks sent and it was fascinating looking up addresses for other royal castles in Europe.
HRH Prince Philip was also patron of a vast number of charities and military groups and would usually be asked to attend their annual events or meetings. All of this correspondence had to be managed as well and each type of greeting or invitation had their own special style. I did my best to stay patient, learn fast and pay scrupulous attention to detail. Every item of correspondence I produced was checked by a Private Secretary before being presented for HRH’s signature, and anything that was not flawless had to be done again. Sure, sometimes it was disappointing, but it is a smart system for any document that you wish to be faultless — first, one person writes it, then another fresh set of eyes edits it, then it is checked one last time before it goes out into the world. This applies equally to a blog, website, company report or novel. All of this experience was invaluable to me when I set up my own editing business years later.
What else did I learn working for Prince Philip? Always dress the part! When I began working in his office, I was quietly advised to wear a skirt or dress. Why? Because the Duke was known to pop into the office unexpectedly and if he did, they would ‘present me’, which is what happens the first time you meet a member of the royal family. This is grander than a mere introduction; it would require me to curtsey. A curtsey doesn’t look right at all when performed in trousers, so I took the advice and dressed accordingly. As predicted, one day HRH did indeed drop by and I was presented. His piercing blue eyes assessed me and my hand was taken in the very firm handshake of one who has done it a thousand times. A few words of genuinely courteous thanks, a chat with one of the footmen and he was gone, off on another public engagement.
I learned a great deal working at Buckingham Palace. I feel honoured to have contributed in a small way to the work done there. The knowledge acquired whilst in the service of Prince Philip and the Queen has helped me develop a unique set of skills and perspectives I now use every day in my role as an editor. No matter who I’m working for, be it prince or author, royalty or writer, I get up each day knowing that I’ll be doing something satisfying and worthwhile, as the work I do makes the writing of others shine!