I planned to write this article, long before I realised it would coincide with the Queen’s diamond jubilee. I’ve was never quite sure how I felt about the Royal family and the Queen’s 60 year reign over Britain and Commonwealth nations.
1977 seems far away. Hazy around the edges, faded like a photograph. I didn’t give a thought to the Queen on her silver jubilee. We made bunting, closed our little street, wore red, white and blue and ate limp sandwiches set out on trestle tables.
Twenty years later the Queen’s daughter-in-law was killed in a car accident. I was about to go on my first diplomatic assignment – a “representative” of the UK – and I was forced to think about how I felt about royalty again. You could smell the flowers, left outside the Queen’s palace, across St. James’ Park, and all the way to the Foreign Office. On holiday in America, New Yorkers told me “we are so sorry about your Princess!” I was bewildered. Saddened. I signed the book and wore black to work, as did many women. My favourite philosopher Jean Baudrillard called the attacks on the World Trade Centre an “absolute event”. The death of Diana was Britain’s absolute moment.
I was still unsure how I felt. But I understood through my American experience that the monarchy might just have a role. If only to bring money-spending tourists to our shores.
Thirteen years on in 2010, across St. James’ Park, I found myself sitting in Clarence House, talking to Prince Charles’s people and learning for the very first time, exactly how much the Prince puts into his impressive range of charities. He supports the arts, young people, the environment and responsible business. His only international charities are focussed on Asia and Afghanistan. Still at the Foreign Office, my interest is in Pakistan. We talk at length and have much to share – we have some very common ambitions.
My mind is made up about the value of the Royal family. And in a cruel twist, on the very same day, I hear that my mother has been killed in a car crash. I sob in the arms of a British Pakistani Lord. Here was my very own “absolute event” – where symbolism overwhelmed – and in a strange way, ensured an ongoing relationship with Pakistan.
It felt rather “Night at the Museum” being at the Natural History Museum in the dark. Torrential rain had rendered the 300 guests soggy, yet still jubilant. The mostly British Pakistani crowd filled through security checks dripping with giggles and embraces for friends, who would also be privileged enough to meet the Prince that evening.
I was a guest of the award-winning Seed Ventures. The tuxedoed crowd around me was suave and sophisticated, one of them was my favourite British Pakistani Lord. But the woman around me, were the most impressive. Playwrights, journalists, activists, business women – at a glance you might say middle-class elite – but scratch the surface and you get a burning passion for change and integrity.
We joked like school children as we waited our turn with the Prince. It was like royal speed dating. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have been sure about this meeting. But on that evening, I knew it was an honour – not least because of the occasion.
Once we had grinned stupidly and shook hands, we found our candle-lit seats, beneath the amazing skeleton of a giant dinosaur. The Lord told silly jokes. The playwright found some wine. Then, amongst the finery and splendour, 600 eyes found the giant screen, as a film began to play.
I nearly choked on my naan. Images of Pakistan’s floods flashed before us. There were horrified and saddened faces beneath the shadow of the diplodocus. Every bit of my white-middle-class-post-colonial guilt washed over me. Here was I, sitting amongst the eloquent and well-dressed, eating perhaps the finest food I had ever eaten, watching destruction and human suffering.
Then the Prince got up and spoke.
The event I was attending was the Pakistan Recovery Fund Galla dinner. The heir to the throne spoke from the heart about how he was moved to set up the charity after his wife and him saw the suffering of Pakistanis on the news (you see media isn’t always a bad thing). He had also given a personal donation through Islamic Relief, which I will wager was probably bigger than the £25 I managed.
I knew that the Prince already supported Pakistan with his network of approved British Asian Trust charities – charities like DIL, who nearly took me to Everest – but until his speech, I was not necessarily convinced about this “personal affinity” he felt for Pakistan. His words, were smart, moving and those of a man who understood Pakistan better than many so-called “experts” I have met.
As I looked around me at the beautiful crowd, I began to understand that elite, and ancient groups of people, can be tremendous agents for positive change. We spend a lot of time thinking that the only solutions are in “grass-roots” action (a term which I hate). But mobilising those already with money, power and influence is no bad thing. As I left that night, they had raised £350,000 for the Pakistan Recovery Fund in one evening – they probably raised more – and certainly raised some awareness.
Although the dinosaurs died out, they still draw tourists – and awe and inspire.
So, Happy Diamond Jubilee Your Majesty. If only for the tireless charity work carried out by you and your family – “long may you reign over us” – as the rain fell over us, but did not dampen – the night we met the Prince and the dinosaur.
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