Back to Britain, Part 5

Trooping the Colors with the Queen, ‘Grease’ in London

June 10-25, 2003 (Updated Dec. 3, 2003)



1. London revisited

6.  Royal Gardens at Kew

11. Tate Gallery at St. Ives

2. Dolphin Square Hotel

7.  Tate Britain, Riverwalk

12. Eden Project, Heligan

3. London Eye, Piccadilly

8.  Greenwich Naval Museum

13. Rainy day in Cornwall

4. V&A, Tower of London

9.  Roman baths at Bath

14. Land’s End, Penzance

5. Queen Troops the Colours

10. St. Ives’ Trewinnard Hotel

15. To Gatwick and home


Index to 46 Photos


By Lewis Nolan

Return To Nolan Travels Home Page


June 14, 2003, Saturday – In London


Our timing could not have been better. The second Saturday of June is when the Queen officially celebrates her birthday with a stunning parade called the “Trooping of the Colors.” It is a huge event in London and it seems that hundreds of thousands of  residents and visitors line the parade route from Buckingham Palace to a reviewing stand a couple of miles away. It is one of the few times when the Queen and her family is on public display, along with hundreds of mounted and marching members of the Royal Horseguards and other military units all turned out in their finest.


Redcoats Troop the Colour
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Queen Elizabeth’s actual birthday is in April. But the pageantry has been held in early June for many years, probably because the weather is better and potential crowds much larger. We had a glorious day for the event, with sunny skies and a predicted high of 73 degrees. We were told that there have been a few times over the years when the parade was delayed for several hours due to really bad weather.


Betty and I rode the tube from the Pimlico Station to the St. James Park Station, then followed the crowd for a mile or so to the parade route. It was easy walking since the streets near Buckingham Palace were closed to traffic. Security was the tightest I’ve ever seen. We could hear helicopters buzzing about and saw hundreds of policemen and military personnel, some carrying automatic weapons that I’ve no doubt were fully loaded.


I’d guess that snipers were on the rooftops and military jets were circling a few moments away. The symbol of British tradition and power must be a tempting target for terrorists from all over the crazy world. England is very accessible to terrorists – be they from Ireland, the Middle East or Africa. It is sad that such extreme security has become a necessity for the Queen and her family. The Royal Family has done nothing but spread good will and provide entertainment and perhaps inspiration for millions of people.


I must admit to a certain satisfaction that came from attending the Trooping of the Colors pageantry, terrorists-be-damned. In fact, a big reason we are here was the British government’s immediate and unflinching support of the United States following the mass murders in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.


Although the sidewalk spot we chose alongside St. James Park was five-deep, we had a good view of the parade. Colorful banners lined the route. Strategically placed ambulances and security forces were in plain view. There was no telling what was not in view.


The polite Londoners refrained from the pushy and boorish behavior sometimes displayed on American sidewalks. A gracious and knowledgeable gentleman who is a veteran of the annual Trooping of the Colors parades gave us a running commentary on who was who and why they were there.


The first parade element was a military band on horseback. The musicians wore funny looking, blue-colored, fuzzy riding caps that appeared to be jockey headgear on steroids. Next came sedans transporting minor nobility – various cousins of the Royal Family. Then came an open convertible carrying Prince William, second in line of succession (first in line is his father, Prince Charles, the Queen’s eldest son), and William’s younger brother, Prince Harry.


It is obvious that the British people – particularly teenage girls - are in love with the sons of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana. Both are handsome young men and very much in the news. The papers were full of coverage about Harry’s graduation from Eton a few days ago. Eton is the celebrated military school that has prepared so many of England’s political and military leaders over the generations. An oft-quoted remark is that the war with Napoleon’s France was really won on the playing fields of Eton.


The next parade element was a cavalry unit that included the Queen’s sister, Princess Anne, and the Prince of Wales (one of Charles official titles). Both were dressed in full redcoat gear and bearskin hats. The crowds cheered and applauded loudly. I didn’t hear a dissident voice. Then came an even more splendidly attired cavalry unit, the Royal Horse Guards. They all wore shiny, armour helmets and breastplates.


Finally, an open convertible slowly drove by, carrying a smiling and waving Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Phillip. She was wearing a blue dress. She passed within 20 feet of us but did not speak. How rude. I guess I should have expected as much. This was the second snub we’d gotten from the Windsors. We were in London when Andrew - another of the Queen’s sons - married Fergie. We were not invited to the wedding. Can you imagine that? Accordingly, we didn’t send a present.


Once the Queen’s convertible passed, Betty and I decided to walk a mile or two and revisit several places we’d not seen in many years. So we missed the flyover salute and the return parade back to the palace from the reviewing stand. Seats in the reviewing stand are available for a lucky few, who dress to the nines for the occasion and honor. We saw several women wearing big, showy hats in the style favored by the Queen and the late Queen Mum.


Two days later, The Times carried a full report on the day’s pageantry in its “Royal Circular” column. The ever-so-dry and matter-of-fact column tracks the comings and goings of the Royals in an ageless, formal and respectful reportage not seen elsewhere. It’s must reading for a former American newspaperman like me.


Its report in the edition of June 16, 2003:


Buckingham Palace. June 14: Her Majesty was present at The Queen’s Birthday Parade on Horse Guards Parade this morning at which The Queen’s Colour of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards was trooped.

The Queen was accompanied by The Duke of Edinburgh (Colonel, Grenadier Guards), The Duke of Kent (Colonel, Scots Guards), The Prince of Wales (Colonel, Welsh Guards) and The Princess Royal (Colonel, The Blues and Royals, Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons).


Her Majesty was attended by General the Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank (Colonel, The Life Guards, Gold Stick in Waiting), General Sir Michael Rose (Colonel, Coldstream Guards), the Duke of Abercorn (Colonel, Irish Guards) and Major General Redmond Watt (Major General Commanding Household Division).


The Lord Vestry (Master of the Horse), Major Felix Wheeler (Crown Equerry), Lieutenant Colonel Sir Malcolm Ross, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cartwright (Mounted Equerries in Waiting), Captain the Hon Benjamin Hamilton (Coldstream Guards, Dismounted Equerry-in-Waiting) and Colonel Hamon Massey (The Blues and Royals, Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons, Silver Stick) were in attendance.


Lieutenant Colonel Simon Falkner (Chief of Staff) and the Silver Stick Adjutant were present.


The Troops on Parade, under command of Lieutenant Colonel G. P. R. Nortan, Grenadiere Guards (Field Officer in Brigade Waiting) received The Queen with a Royal Salute.


Prince William of Wales, Prince Henry of Wales, The Earl and Countess of Wessex, The Duke of Gloucester, Princess Alexandra, Commodore Timothy Lawrence, RN, and other Members of the Royal Family drove to Horse Guards Parade and witnessed The Queen’s Birthday Parade.


On the conclusion of the Parade, Her Majesty drove in a carriage back to Buckingham Palace at the head of The Queen’s Guard, preceded by the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, under the command of Major Simon Hall, the Massed Bands of the Household Cavalry, the Sovereign’s Escort of the Household Cavalry, under the command of Major Alan Lawrence, The Life Guards and the Massed Bands of the Guards Division.


On arrival at Buckingham Palace, The Queen’s Guard entered the Forecourt and formed up opposite the Old Guard, the remaining Guards marching past Her Majesty. The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery and the Household Cavalry ranked past the Queen.


Her Majesty, from Buckingham Palace, witnessed a fly-past by C-17, Tristar, Sentry, VC10 and Nimrod aircraft, flanked by Tornadoes and Jaguars of the Royal Air Force, led by Squadron Leader Keith Hewitt, to mark the official celebrations of the Queen’s Birthday.


Royal Salutes were fired today by The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery in Green Park, and from the Tower of London Saluting Battery by the Honourable Artillery Company, under the command of Captain William Sallitt.”

Queen Elizabeth takes salute
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Other items in that day’s Court Circular column noted the presentation of awards by the Duke of York at Lakefield College School in Toronto, Canada as well as the presentation of prizes by the Duke of Gloucester at a tennis match at the Queen’s Tennis Club in London.


I don’t know whether the above news items would be deemed worthy of print by The New York Times, which proclaims on its masthead, “All The News That’s Fit To Print.” We who toiled in the Scripps-Howard vineyard at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis used to quip that our motto was “All The News That Fits.”


The style of The Times is probably the closest that any newspaper in England comes to the way the American press covers the news. But unlike the leading papers in the United States, The Times makes no pretension to objectivity. The Times’ news columns (not just the editorial columns) are full of the writers’ personal opinions, values and often piercing wit. The Times is practically the official voice of the Conservative Party.


The Conservatives are ideological cousins of the Republicans in the U.S. It was the party  of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It opposes the liberal Labour Party at every turn. Labour, more akin to the Democrats in the U.S., has been the ruling party in Parliament for several years. Its standard bearer is Tony Blair, who is firmly in command at No. 10 Downing Street (official residence of the Prime Minister).


Consequently, The Times blasts away at Blair, the government and its policies day in and day out. It makes for delightful reading. There is none of the weaseling so often seen in American journalism where opinionated editors and reporters craftily “shape” the news while pretending to be even-handed.


Our walk toward Piccadilly Circus took us by the red-brick Palace of St. James, which is about a half-mile from Buckingham Palace. Prince Charles and his two sons, William and Harry, live in the Palace of St. James.  Their home is surprisingly small compared to grandma’s house, which is where the heirs to the throne will live someday. The Palace of St. James, like that of Buckingham Palace, is surrounded by security. Across a narrow street that was closed to vehicles this day is an Anglican Church called the Royal Chapel.


We were told by an affable policeman (in London, the Bobbies are important dispensers of directions and good PR) that the Royal Chapel is not attended by the royal family for security reasons. What a drag – unimaginable to me – to have your life ruled by precautions to keep people from
Betty by Palace of St. James
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killing you. And it’s not just from being tightly guarded from terrorists. Crazies, paparazzi, adoring subjects and perhaps the ultimate indignity – American tourists – are also kept at a safe distance.


We enjoyed walking through St. James Park and took pictures of the blooming flower gardens, the swimming pelicans and other waterfowl. Once at Piccadilly Circus, Betty cashed some travelers checks at a conveniently located American Express office and exchanged her dollars for British Pounds. We then walked on the wide sidewalks through the crowded streets to Leicester (pronounced lester) Square in the Theater District. We visited its heavily patronized, half-priced ticket kiosk. Shows that are not sold out offer same-day tickets at a big discount, with proceeds going to a fund to help needy actors and actresses.


Our first choice was the musical “We Will Rock You,” about the band Queen. But the kiosk’s supply of tickets ran out before we got to the window. We waited for a replenishment run, but when no tickets appeared after a few minutes we went for our second choice, “Grease.” We got a pair of great seats for 40£ ($68.40 at the current exchange rate of $1.71).


And a great choice it proved to be. I have never enjoyed live theater as much as I enjoyed the British version of the Broadway and Hollywood movie that was set in the 1950s. I’ve never been fanatic about live theater like those Americans who spend their vacations in London and New York just to see the shows. But I nearly always made time to see a show when I traveled to New York on business two or three times a year before I retired. Plus Betty and I have attended several touring productions of Broadway shows when they stopped in Memphis and any number of local productions. None has even come close to the blast of energy and entertainment that came off Grease’s London stage.


As noted in the Daily Telegraph’s review, “usherettes were having to restrain the audience (including your critic) from dancing in the aisles.”


We had a pair of seats in the third row, near the center of the Victoria Palace Theatre across the street from Victoria Station. The English cast of singers and dancers were absolutely terrific. The rave reviews given them by the London press were eminently deserved. This was live theater at its best and far, far superior to the movie version of  “Grease.” And I liked the movie a lot and have seen it many times. “Grease” now ranks as the No. 1 grossing musical of all time. It launched John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John into stardom and made a ton of money for its investors.


As good as Travolta and Olivia were in the movie, I thought the cast of the London stage musical was even better with the singing and dance production numbers. Especially memorable were their renditions of the songs “Greased Lighting” and “Beauty School Dropout.”


Oddly, a couple of the actors kept with their 1950s, schoolyard “tough guy” characters and smoked on the stage. I can’t imagine a New York fire marshal permitting that. Even more strangely, the distinctive smell of marijuana wafted off the stage when one of the actors fired up his cigarette.


We happened to sit next to another pair of Americans, two guys from San Diego. Coincidences spring up whenever we travel in this very small world. One told us he owns an antique shop at Oceanside, Calif., and that business was good on the day last month when our son, Casey, and several thousand other triathletes ran by during a half ironman event. The shop owner and his friend appeared to be in their mid30s. They were on their way to Ireland and seemed to appreciate the tips we gave them about visiting Dingle, where we’ve vacationed three times.


Dinner was at the Gallery, a pub that serves pretty good food at a reasonable price. It is across the street from the Pimlico tube station and a block or two from our hotel, the Dolphin Square. Betty had a New York Strip Steak and I had a small filet mignon, both served with salad and French fries. The fries are way off the Atkins low-carb program. But they sure were good. I know it’s going to be tough getting back on Atkins after eating potatoes and real bread on this trip.


We struck up a conversation with a delightful couple seated at an adjacent table, Jeff and Angie Martinez of Jacksonville, N.C. He is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps and a helicopter pilot. Jeff formerly was stationed at Quantico, Va. He often flew former President Clinton and Vice President Gore around Washington on Marine One.


More small world coming. Jeff and Angie were also staying at the Dolphin Square for a week. I had also been stationed at Quantico - even if it was a long time ago. I was far from the example of an outstanding Marine that Jeff is, but all Marines share a certain kinship and respect for the Corps. (Ever notice the sprinkling of former Marines who always stand when the Marine Corps Hymn is played in public places?).


Jeff and Angie recently bought a home in Jacksonville that is large enough for their five children. She is a full-time mom but looks like a brand-new bride. Jeff recently returned from a four-month deployment in Iraq. They left their kids with her parents so they could “honeymoon” by themselves with a trip to London.


They weren’t just touring London. They were attacking it. The couple had an incredible supply of raw energy. They started early in the morning, walked for untold miles all day long and kicked up their heels at entertainment events at night. It reminded us of the full-court-press that Betty and I used to apply on our vacations when we were much younger.


I firmly believe that it is only because the Marine Corps attracts exceptional men like Jeff that it is the most potent fighting force the world has ever seen. We learned that he joined the Marines at age 17, was valedictorian of his high school class in San Francisco and won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He entered the Marine Corps after graduation and spent a lot of time training at Quantico and then later in his career flying helicopters as part of the Marine One unit that serves the President and Vice President.


More small world: I also had grown up in Northern California (Sacramento). I, too, had been at Quantico, where I served as editor of the Quantico Sentry, the base newspaper in the late 1960s. I had somehow achieved the rank of corporal before scrambling to get out early on a school cut to attend graduate school at my alma mater, Mississippi State University.


Jeff served as Vice President Al Gore’s chopper pilot. I got to know then-Senator Al Gore fairly well when I handled government relations as a vice president of Schering-Plough HealthCare Products. I served as captain of Gore’s barbeque team, the “Senate Sizzlers.” I was greatly honored when I was invited to sit in the family area for his swearing-in ceremony for his last term in the Senate. Later, Betty and I attended several VIP events during the inauguration of Clinton and Gore and I briefly visited with Gore twice in the White House.


Jeff and I had a lot in common besides Corps and Gore. While our time with Jeff and Angie was brief, it didn’t take long for friendship to blossom. I found him to be really a nice guy and an outstanding American. The Marine Corps and our nation is extremely fortunate to have men like him who are willing to go into harm’s way and endure long absences from their loved ones. And Jeff is extremely fortunate to have Angie – an educated and outstanding young woman in every respect – at his side when he is home and keeping the home fires burning when he is away. I’m afraid I embarrassed them both when I got serious and told them how much Betty and I recognize and appreciate their sacrifices so that we can live under the umbrella of freedom provided by our military might.


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