Just another day at one's office

Exclusive by REBECCA ENGLISH, Daily Mail

Last updated at 16:11 19 April 2006

As she marches purposefully along the vaulted corridor, the echoing clack of her heels is unmistakable. Turning a corner, a small, bespectacled figure in peach comes into view, pursing lips with concentration as she scans the sheaf of papers in her hand.

This is the Queen as few see her, the working monarch who will celebrate her 80th birthday on Friday, still pursued by 'those blessed red boxes' containing state papers she must read and sign.

In the course of a year she will take part in 500 engagements: privy council meetings; investitures; banquets; receptions. It's a gruelling schedule and by being allowed to watch her at work, I was given a unique

glimpse not just into the Queen's working day, but the way in which she has stamped her personal authority on the role — "I believe it is more a way of life than a job," she says.

It is early evening and the Queen is holding a reception at Buckingham Palace for 500 members of the emergency services who risked their lives in the 7/ 7 bombings. The garish state rooms crackle with anticipation. Ladies check their dresses and gentlemen their ties. Drinks are served and guests sip them nervously.

Nerves are not confined to "ordinary" members of the public. In the White Drawing Room, an array of notables and politicians await: Home Secretary Charles Clarke, London Mayor Ken Livingstone and Metropolitan Police Chief Sir Ian Blair.

For all his political bluster, Clarke is like an overexcited schoolboy, hopping from foot to foot. He even knocks over his — fortunately empty — glass and flashes a sheepish look at the Press. For once, the response is sympathetic.

The sudden appearance of her cheerily indispensable Page of the Chambers, Ray Wheaton, heralds the Queen's arrival through a small secret door disguised by an ebony veneered cabinet.

Accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, she walks in without fanfare, but immediately everyone is aware she has arrived.

On first meeting the Queen, it's surprising how tiny she is. On TV, she looks stout, the quintessential sturdy-calved countrywoman. In person, she is petite but somehow still manages to convey a feeling of solidity.

Her helmet of permed silver hair is reassuringly familiar, her voice less nasal than one expects and her smile, when bestowed, transforms the sternness of her face.

As she enters, even avowed republican "Red Ken" bows obsequiously and shuffles forward to seize his chance to make polite small talk.

The nation's hostess

After exchanging pleasantries for a few minutes, it is clear the Queen is ready to meet the heroes of the day. Turning to her husband of 58 years with a smile and raise of her right eyebrow, she says: "Well, let's plunge in."

Acting as the nation's hostess is something the Queen takes seriously, Indeed, she has developed this role during her half-century on the throne, with intimate monthly lunches in addition to the formal banquets, receptions and garden parties the monarchy has traditionally offered.

Moving into the waiting throng, she and her husband work the room like the couple of pros they are.

Though she appears to be making her way through the crowd unescorted, the Queen's equerries, Lieutenant-Commander Heber Ackland and Captain Jeremy Currie, weave a few steps ahead, preparing the next group of people for her to meet.

The procedure is subtle, seamless — almost balletic — and organised with military precision so everyone feels they have come close enough to royalty to make the evening the event of a lifetime.

Another of the regular features of the Queen's calendar is the accepting of credentials.

All foreign emissaries are officially accredited to the Court of St James's and one of the first requirements of their position is a private audience with the Queen to present their papers of introduction formally.

Today, it is the turn of HRH Prince Mohamed bin Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia, and Abhimanu Mahendra Kundasamy, High Commissioner for Mauritius, both of whom have been brought with their wives to the Palace in horse-drawn carriages.

To make use of her time efficiently, two High Court judges — husband-and-wife team Mr Justice Openshaw and Mrs Justice Swift — will also receive honours.

Upstairs in her apartment on the first floor of the palace overlooking the gardens, the Queen has been mugging up on her briefing notes since early morning, with the help of her Private Secretary, Sir Robin Janvrin, as well as embarking on the first of her red boxes.

Shortly before noon, she takes the lift to the 1844 room (the date is painted on the ceiling) and slips in discreetly through a side door.

Inside, there are four gilt chairs upholstered in blue striped satin. Next to the Queen's seat is a walnut, marble-topped table on which rests a posy of carnations and a small plastic buzzer.

Puasing to check her notes one last time, she presses the bell to indicate she is ready for her first visitor and positions herself in the centre of the facing the main double doors.

Standing there with her familiar black patent handbag on her arm, she looks all of her 80 years.

But as the doors swing open before her to reveal the waiting ambassador flanked by her Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, Sir Anthony Figgis (resplendent in plumes), and an equerry, the Queen's spine snaps straight and it is business as usual.

Bowing, the two men usher the Saudi representative into the Queen's presence, before stepping backwards out of the room as she moves forward to shake the ambassador's hand.

The Queen chats with the prince for almost 15 minutes. As per her briefing, the issues discussed include his own CV and his country's political and economic situation, as well as other topical subjects deemed worthy of conversation.

It is up to the Queen which of these subjects to tackle, but all will be discussed without her venturing into the realm of politics — a skill admired by many but mastered by few.

Served by 10 Prime Ministers

Since she came to the throne in 1952 — a year before Tony Blair was born — she has been served by 10 Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill being the first.

Despite meeting her on a weekly basis, none has managed to tease out her political leanings.

A few minutes before his time is up (the Queen has no need for a stopwatch; she instinctively knows just how long to keep talking), the ambassador's exotically attired wife, who has been waiting patiently in the adjacent Bow Room, is invited to join them.

Seamlessly, the Queen switches track. "What a pretty gown — I hope your carriage arrived all right," she enthuses, as if they were two old friends chatting over their latest High Street buy, prompting a delighted smile from the princess.

"I was so scared about what to wear," she confided.

The Queen herself wasn't always so confident.

"I remember when Jacqueline Kennedy came to visit in 1963, the Queen could hardly stand still for nerves at meeting the world's most talked about woman," recalls one long-standing courtier.

"The amusing thing was that the President's wife was standing outside doing exactly the same thing. She was like jelly at the thought of appearing in front of royalty.

"It made me realise how much they had in common: two young women in positions of enormous public prominence finding their way in the world."

According to Sir Anthony Figgis, credentials are an integral — if little appreciated — aspect of the Queen's role as head of state.

Every country is received with exactly the same pomp and circumstance (a point which goes down particularly well with smaller territories who find it hard to believe they are treated on a par with the US).

The Queen, who over the years has conducted more than 3,000 of these audiences, affords every ambassador the same time and respect.

"To meet a head of state in any country is a significant moment in a diplomat's career, but there is something about meeting the Queen that is considered rather special," says Sir Anthony.

"The occasion has a certain magic and mystique. It is something they will carry with them for ever.

"The ambassadors she meets are always nervous and there is a certain amount of relief once the event is over, but they always comment to me how astute and friendly she is.

"I've seen the toughest republicans melt in two seconds flat."

The banquet

Before the banquet to mark the state visit of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Queen shows another side to her character.

Two hours before the meal is due to begin, the Queen appears at a side door to the ballroom to cast her eye over the final arrangements.

As banquets are the climax of royal hospitality, the menu (grilled halibut with spinach croutes and fillet of beef with truffles and foie gras, with an ice cream bombe for dessert) was approved weeks ago.

So was the wine list (a Puligny-Montrachet Premiere Cru 1999, Chateau Gruaud-Larose 1985 and Veuve Clicquot champagne) and even the china.

Like any house-proud dinner party hostess, the Monarch takes her responsibilities personally and is unwilling to leave anything to chance.

Dressed in a matronly ink-blue dress and with her arms tightly folded, she surveys the 160ft horseshoe-shaped table, laden with gold cutlery and a profusion of flowers.

Some 170 guests will dine that night and personal whims have been catered for. The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, for example, have silk cushions on their seats and bottles of organic olive oil by their plates.

Each chair is placed exactly 27in from the table, and the Queen examines the positioning of every glass, menu card, knife and fork.

At last, she turns and smiles. "When people come in it's quite something," she says, before sweeping her eyes around the room for one last time and walking upstairs to dress for dinner.

Little more than two hours later, she is back to take her place at the head of the table, resplendent in aquamarine jewels the size of pigeon eggs, a gift from the people of Brazil more than 50 years ago that she has dusted off for the occasion.

It is a late finish for the Queen, so she will not face more documents that day.

But the next morning, the routine will begin again and the red boxes will be waiting.

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