Past presenters include President Reagan and several kings and queens of Asia and Europe, including the Queen of England. This time we got Prince Philip.
He is known less formally as "Phil the Greek," on account of his parents having been the former king and queen of the Hellenes. We were a familiar crowd and he was a relaxed host. He joked about his colorful alias during the reception.
Before going to the palace, Trust and Cutty Sark representatives lunched together in the underground rooms of the Stafford Hotel's wine cellars, part of a subterranean tunnel system dating to the sixteenth century, tunnels that run extensively under London's streets.
After the Port was served, our French chairman rose and reminded us that it was one day and fifty-five years after the end of World War II. He spoke at some elaborate length about what a mighty struggle it had been and he eloquently thanked the English for their crucial support of France.
Refills accompanied choruses of "here-here." We were a nicely oiled and mellow troop that ambled through the park to the big gilded palace gates. Past knots of gawping tourists who took our photograph, past the constable checking our names, and past bearskin-helmeted, scarlet-coated grenadiers who presented arms and came to boot-crashing, brain-jarring attention.
A young Guards officer met us. He was doing a couple of years with the Royal Household as an aide-de-camp; it wasn't career-enhancing military duty but it was interesting, he said. We liked him at once.
He led the way up a green-carpeted, winding staircase to a long corridor lined with portraits in ornate gilt frames. A thick red carpet tapered to a point on the far horizon. The perspective was like looking through a telescope backwards.
Midway down the corridor we turned left into a formal reception room decorated in what the eighteenth century called chinoiserie, surrounded by hand-painted silk wallpaper of mandarins and empresses and large Oriental porcelain vases. Andirons in two fireplaces were dragons and pagodas. The chandelier was a vast frosted-glass contraption, hand-painted with flowers.
Besides a couple of tables at either end of the room there was no other furniture.
This was the room behind the center balcony from which King George VI and Winston Churchill waved at a jubilant crowd on VE Day in 1945.
We were split into two groups, Cutty Sark's minders and the Trust--the Jets and the Sharks--at opposite ends of the room. The tea crockery was elegantly translucent and served by liveried footmen wearing frock coats, trousers, and waistcoats all in black and sporting lots of oversized, bright brass buttons. Tweedledums and Tweedledees bearing trays. The cups bore an anchor motif in gold and green. Someone remembered the china as having previously been aboard the royal yacht Britannia.
Prince Philip entered the room without any especial announcement and we were all introduced, one after another in rows. Earlier, the aide gave us "The Form" of what to do on first meeting royalty. That this was no ordinary social was plain in the invitation, which said the event would be "in the presence of."
We were going to meet an aura.
But my neck wouldn't bend. My mouth would not form the words, "Your Royal Highness."