Queen's garden party seems part of another age

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

September 08, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- It seems now like an age ago, earlier in the summer before all this marital strife hit the headlines. It was a perfect English summer's day for the Queen's Garden Party. It only rained twice.

The Baltimore Sun was invited, and arrived eager to see the royals in their natural habitat, to rub shoulders with a few of the Queen's intimates.

There were nearly 9,000 such intimates at the party. But it's a big place, Buckingham Palace; nobody could have felt crowded.

And since it was a garden party, the guests were deployed across the fragrant camomile lawn that fans out behind the palace.

There were two royals in evidence: Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, encircled by a wide ring of rubberneckers, about three deep. The royals chatted with one or two at a time, those admitted to the center of the circle. The acceptable distance seemed about 15 feet.

The queen wore a light blue suit with dots, and a hat with a wide brim. Other women at the party wore light, Victorian dresses and hats with floppy brims.

Two bands sheltered under round tents on opposite sides of the lawn played alternatively. One performed classical music, the other show tunes. But being military bands, everything they played had a parade ground sound.

Those guests not gawking at the royals wandered through paths of crushed brick that wound through the garden. They crowded into a long summer house where cakes and sandwiches were served, along with tea and coffee in delicate cups. Others strolled by the edge of the duck pond or regarded the flowers of every variety growing on every side.

About one-third of the men wore morning suits, with gray or black top hats and coats with long tails that made them look like beetles.

Around five o'clock it began to rain. Some darker women, from the lands of monsoons, ran under the trees. The men in the morning suits either opened umbrellas or walked under the trees.

Everyone stood still as it got darker and the rain fell harder. Before long it was even raining under the trees, but there was nothing to do but stand there, like statues.

The sound of the traffic beyond the wall, not noticeable before, became evident as the cars and buses swished around Hyde Park Circle.

Then the rain stopped and everyone started walking again, which is apparently what one does after tea.

Three members of The Rescue Society ambled by in charcoal uniforms. A Russian military officer strode among the toffs. There were ambassadors with sashes across their chests, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, firefighters, Salvation Army colonels so proudly austere.

A flow of saris rippled past, and a woman in a chartreuse hat approached; the sun, which had retaken the sky, went through the hat brim and turned her face a vegetable green. There were other women in dresses of colors rarely seen, with skin like milk.

Soldiers in red tunics and others in green kilts were there; their brass buttons caught the sun. A corporal wore a blue cap with red piping and a feather cockade. A few older men had blackthorn walking sticks.

A British Army officer came by with a walk so particular to Englishmen of a certain sort: perfectly erect, eyes down, hands locked behind the back. His wide brown belt had been polished furiously.

One of the bands began to play "Finlandia," a somber tone poem by Sibelius. It drew the clouds back into the sky. The small pennants flipping atop the band tents suggested a medieval joust; they punctuated all the color around them.

And then there were the clergymen, with their dog collars, cassocks of red and black and their fussbudget looks.

But the most conspicuous of all were the plainclothes policemen trying to look inconspicuous.

"Here, you seem to be taking a lot of notes," said one of them. "I'm with the police. Do you have identification?"

It was produced. Doubt continued to cloud his suspicious face. Politeness was unnatural to him, something required by his superiors.

"Journalist, huh? Are you legitimate?"

More ID was produced and reluctantly he conceded.

"Well, seems all right. Enjoying yourself?"

"Was until now."

The party was over. The rain had come again. For the queen it seems never to have stopped.

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