Dinner at Grosvenor Square
It all began when I was invited to lunch at the Official Residence of the Canadian High Commissioner. The High Commission was looking for candidates in their late teens and early twenties. One person would be chosen to be flag bearer for Canada on Commonwealth Day. There were at least a dozen candidates. All of them, without exception, were bright and charming youths. All of them represented a noble country. On that day I met true and honest Canadians living in the United Kingdom, some of which are now my friends.
I never thought I was going to be chosen. Indeed the odds were against me. Probability wise, I had a greater chance of dropping food on my tie, or embarrassingly knocking over my drink onto some priceless carpet. But in the end, I was chosen. The process was very Canadian. Having assembled a group of equally qualified persons, luck was chosen to demarcate individuals. The choice would be announced at the luncheon.
The lunch itself was a grand affair, especially for someone, like me, who is now accustomed to dining at a student residence cafeteria. Here, I did not have to point at a surprisingly similar display of fish, meat, or vegetarian option, and wonder whether to sit next to the beverages dispenser, for easy access to hydration, or near the back, for peace and tranquility. Here, there was a seating chart and I was served three wonderfully presented and delicious courses. An army might march on its stomach, but diplomacy truly marches on fine dining. After such a marvelous display, had I been a foreign ambassador, I might easily have carelessly signed away a piece of territory or concession to some resource rich parcel of land. Luckily, I am not an ambassador.
The decision process was very fair. You might expect me to say that as I was chosen in the end. You may say that those who profit from nepotism probably think the process fair as well. Yet, it was fair. Indeed all the candidates agreed, beforehand, that it was better to leave the decision to Lady Luck. And so, as we were being served coffee, and I was observing how I had successfully manage not to drop food on my clothes or ruin a priceless artifact through my usual clumsiness, the process began. Our names were written onto separate pieces of paper and put into a Mountie’s hat.For a few dubious seconds I thought we were going to play charades. The High Commissioner swirled the pieces of paper around, pick one, and carefully read it. My name came out.
I was going to be Canada’s flag bearer at Westminster Abbey on Commonwealth Day.
I nearly spat out my coffee when my name was announced. A hearty round of congratulations followed.
We Canadians enjoy congratulating each other. You may only have finished your meal without leaving a signal trace of food, or done your laundry without your whites coming out in three different shades of pink, but a Canadian will congratulate you as if you have discovered a cure for cancer. We are a happy people who feel genuinely happy for each other. Yet, there is an unspoken rule about such displays of fraternal good wishes: a Canadian must always remain modest.
It’s not that we have a lot to be modest about, as a nation we have accomplished many great things. We just are. An anecdote captures this sentiment well. When it was announced, at a cocktail party in 1957, that Canadian statesman Lester B. Pearson had won the Nobel Peace Prize, a woman is said to have exclaimed, “The Nobel Peace Prize! Lester Pearson! Who does he think he is?” Even in success we Canadians must remain modest. You can win a Nobel Prize, so long as you barely mention it, if at all.
The Commonwealth and Canada
The Commonwealth is an organisation that has its roots in the British Empire. The commonality the members of this club share is that Britain unfurled her flag upon their shores.
We have now come to see empire as a mixed blessing. We see it as a phenomenon which carried horrific trauma and suffering for indigenous populations; as an act of selfish and violent extraction to benefit a faraway metropole. We also see it as a benevolent force, which brought education, medicine, administration and infrastructure, albeit European, to new lands. In a way, it all goes back to the Monty Python sketch in The Life of Brian were insurgents debate the benefits and drawbacks of the Roman Empire.
Whatever we may think of empire, the Commonwealth has emerged as a force for good. 53 countries, brought together by historical accident, now tirelessly endeavour to promote common values of justice, peace, prosperity, social progress and democratic advancement. In this, I believe they have largely succeeded. Of course more effort is needed, as rights are still denied to some, and strife is still endemic to certain societies, in this the Commonwealth must continue its noble work.
The Commonwealth is often referred to as a family. I think this is a good metaphor. Families have their disagreements and their moments of pride and joy. Families may have an aunt who as a distinctive fashion sense, an uncle who has an eccentric manner, or a cousin who is always eager to drink the Christmas punch, but they are families nonetheless. They have their disagreements, but they still strive together. As a family, they have common interests which they seek to promote.
The Commonwealth ideals are paralleled by Canada’s own. My country may not share the quaint eccentricity of Britain’s unwritten constitution, or the bold universalism of America’s, but its values are sincere. The Canadian constitution promises a decidedly unambitious “Peace, Order, and good Government”. Yet these three pillars represent our nation. They represent our strengths and our successes.
We have achieved peace from war and internal conflict. We are perhaps the only country which mythicizes its police force, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (or Mounties), and the idea of the lone law enforcer bringing benign order to the land. Whereas the United States had its Wild West, with the Mounties we had our Mild West; we had and have our order.
We have achieved good government. We have not seen perfect government, and like all countries we have our governmental failures, we have our disenfranchised. But over our short existence as a nation, we have become prosperous. We have a public healthcare system which guarantees that none will be left behind. We have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms which assures our equality and our freedom. And when our armed forces are deployed, it is not as warmongers, but as peace keepers. We are the true North strong and free. Our only aggression comes on the ice hockey rink. Here we play our sport and rejoice in what brings us together from sea to sea to sea.
These are the values I was to keep in mind at the Commonwealth Day ceremony.
Commonwealth Day at Westminster Abbey
At this point you may be wondering when I will get to the part where I saw the Queen. Indeed, it seems to be that quite often, when you announce you are going to England, acquaintances often ask, jokingly, “When are you going to see the Queen? Tell her I said hello.” To which you must answer something amusing, such as, “I’ll try. But you see ever since the tea biscuit incident at Windsor we are not on the best of terms. And she knows why!”
I must ask you to be patient. I will mention Her Majesty in due course.
Commonwealth Day this year was on 10 March. The High Commissions of the 53 states were each asked to produce a flag bearer. And so, on the said morning, dozens of well-dressed youths descended upon Westminster Abbey.
This was the first time I had worn a three-piece suit. I had had it dry cleaned for a small fortune, which will undoubtedly allow my dry-cleaner to spend her holiday on the Côte d’Azur. The suit is actually more comfortable than it looks, even if the waistcoat proves to be rather like a corset. It does provide for a multitude of pockets which can store anything from keys to small snacks (pork pie anyone?).
This proved a tad amusing as I passed security. Half a dozen uniformed police officers gave me quizzical looks as I attempted to find and empty all my pockets. By the end, I must have looked a frightful mess as one officer remarked that my lapel was in disarray.
The morning of the ceremony was dedicated to practice. It may not look it, but it is surprisingly difficult to handle a flag in a way that is made to appear effortless, and to be somewhat synchronized with 50 or so other people. To achieve this result, we were first arranged into two symmetrical columns. The order of the flags was determined by the date of membership of the country. This put Canada and the United Kingdom at the front, which meant I had to set the pace with my British colleague. This was a responsibility I was hoping not to bare. If anything went wrong, or I tripped and caused a domino effect, it would knock down everyone from New Zealand to Cameroon.
We spent a good hour and a half literally going in circles around the Abbey courtyard. This is the one thing a master’s degree does not prepare you for. It was quite hard, as we formed two columns, to give the appearance of a line, when the inside column goes around the corner it must slow down, while the outside column speeds up. To make this clearer to you, I had asked a four year old to devise a diagram, but he has yet to get back to me.
Once we mastered corners, we took a biscuit break, where we were giving a lonely biscuit.
The latter half of the morning was spent practicing in the Abbey itself. We were to enter, proceed down the Abbey half-way and stop. Here we would form a guard of honour for the High Commissioners. Once the High Commissioners had passed we would go up to the altar, and split into two to take our seats. In the final hymn we would regain our flags and open the procession out of the Abbey, lining the plaza outside as the Queen and members of the Royal Family regained their motorcade.
The practice went well. We did it a few times with and without the orchestra. The music helped to set the pace, which we were told to keep nice and slow.
We had a spot of lunch before the ceremony at the Methodist Hall. We were then rushed back to the Abbey and given time to make sure we looked our best, and pieces of our outfits were not slanted or out of place.
Each flag bearer had a picture taken of themselves with their flag. Then came the hour or so were we patiently waited.
I remember one of the organisers saying, “There is nothing to worry about. People do this all the time at their weddings”. To which I replied, “Yes, put how many people do this at Westminster Abbey in front of 2,000 individuals.”
Finally, we were given the signal and ushered in. It was much more crowded than during rehearsal. Everyone was in there best clothes and regalia. It was pomp and circumstance at its finest. All went well. All I can say is that I was concentrating very hard and setting the pace to “don’t trip-1-2, don’t trip-1-2…”
During the ceremony the flag bearers were seated largely out of sight. We were somewhere between a memorial to Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton. Indeed on the procession out I was to step over Newton’s memorial plaque and that of Winston Churchill. It’s not every day you step over two famous historical figures.
We got our flags during the last hymn and proceeded out. The doors opened before us and immediately we were greeted by a wall of photographers. Never have I seen people so eager become so disappointed in such quick succession. There were flashes for about two seconds before they all put their cameras down and started chatting to each other. They obviously initially thought we were some officials worth taking photographs of.
Then came the moment we had all been promised. We would see and meet the Queen! Forevermore, I would tell the story at get-togethers and be referred to as the man-who-met-the-Queen-once-and-keeps-talking-about-it.
We stood in the freezing wind for a good five minutes, the royal Bentley and motorcade nearby, and crowds cheering across the road waiting to get a glimpse at royalty. Then the choirboys came out of the Abbey and positioned themselves in front of us. When the Queen emerged out of the Abbey, into an ocean of cheers, she amicably talked to them. We flag bearers were in the background, only to get a glimpse.
And so she left, comfortably waving from her Bentley.
Now, instead of saying “I came, I saw, I talked to her”, I can only say, “I came and I saw”; but what a sight. I may have been just a peg in an exercise of pomp and pageantry, but it was an exercise I believe in. I have promoted an organisation which is a force for good, and a country I am extraordinarily proud to call home. And lest we forget, in the end I got to see the Queen.
I also go to witness an intriguing game of “Find Your High Commissioner” were chauffeurs emerged from their cars like moles trying to spot their employers; but that is another story…