It was the WI Centenary AGM at the Albert Hall. I had to go and collect the Lady Denman Cup, which I won last year for writing a poem, ‘What my WI means to me’.
We knew that the Queen, the Princess Royal and Sophie Duchess if Wessex would be attending, but assumed it would not have much to do with me. Although I was anxious about going up on stage in front of 5000 women in the hall and thousands more watching in cinemas, but assumed, like most things to do with the WI, it would be an understated little moment. I’d been told that my cup would be presented by the national Chairwoman.
Went up on a coach with others from East Sussex, which set off from Hastings at 6.50am! I did consider going on the train, but wanted the company and support of my two friends +Jean Hatter and +Shirley Lawes.
Philosopher was going to the cinema in Eastbourne with a crowd of women to watch from there.
Needless to say, our coach got totally stuck in traffic, and even though my agenda said that prizes would be given out just before lunch, I was supposed to report to the Prize Co-ordinator or something before the event started at 10.30. I got increasingly, and being me, loudly and disruptively, panicky. Soon the whole coach was infected with it. Tactics were discussed, fruitless phone calls made, mirrors passed forward so I could do my make-up, coach was lurching, lippy all over face….. It was a blessing to have Shirley and Jean.
Little did we also know that meanwhile, up in London, the Royals’ schedule had been announced, or even altered, late, and the royal party were arriving earlier than anticiapted.
Coach got to RAH at 10.20. I abandoned my gang, who sadly, could not sit with me, ran the last couple of hundred yards and fought my way through thousands of women. I decided to report in and then go to the loo, repair face, hitch tights up (see later) etc. When I finally reached my front-row seat among other prize-winners, speakers and dignitaries, the hall was already full, the five-minute bell had gone, and I was grabbed by a frantic woman in a big hat.
‘STEPHANIE GAUNT? Thank God! We’ve been worried to death! You’ll be up first, your cup’ll be presented by the Queen. Don’t forget to curtsey!’ She rushed off without another word. I was horrorstruck. Battleaxe isn’t too much of a royalist, but even so…..
‘Just remember – don’t touch her!’ The woman in the next seat seized my arm and pulled me down beside her. Bladder momentarily forgotten, I did as I was told, and watched, dazed, as the WI Board of Trustees, in an alarming array of the most risible hats imaginable, assembled on the stage in front of me and the proceedings began.
After a few announcements (actually, over an hour passed while I was frozen in a stupor of terror), the Royals filed, or tottered, in, and we all sang the National Anthem. Princess Anne looked quite cheerful for once, and Sophie looked good, too. Very elegant white dress. I always admire those long, skinny upper-class race horse legs those women have. The Queen looked little, in her usual pastel matching get-up.
I was vaguely aware of the huge crowd behind and above me, but had gone conveniently blank. Apparently they flashed extracts from my poem onto the big screen right above my head, but I never even saw it.
|That could be me, walking across in the front. Think this is from the Telegraph.|
|Taken by Philosopher in Eastbuorne|
Next thing, the Chairwoman was saying my name, and that my cup would be presented to me by the Queen.
After all these years, finally, a few pence of the money my parents spent on my public school education paid off. The never-used file from a long-ago deportment lesson on a rainy afternoons, when it was too wet for hockey, somehow whirred to the top of the hard disc. I went onto complete auto-pilot. Stand up, wait for nod from stage. Walk across the floor of the hall, climb steps to the stage with knees properly together and swivelled to the side, so as not to show inelegant back view. Walk confidently across the stage. Don’t stand too close, smile, make eye-contact, smile, back foot goes behind, drop down into straight back curtsey dip, smile, briefly clasp the outstretched gloved hand.
Close to, she seemed a fragile old lady, but her gaze assessed me coolly. Underneath her thick make-up she looked pale. She spoke very quietly, and I had to stoop right over her, dangerously close, to catch what she was saying. Our exchange was not edifying.
‘Where have you come from?’
‘Yes, Hastings, Sussex by the sea.’
‘Air, a poem, was it? Very well done.’
‘Thank you very much.’
‘Well done indeed.’
I took the cup, a large, heavy thing, turned round to leave the stage and for the first time, became aware of the audience. I gave them a cup-final hoist of the cup before going back down the steps, then it was done.
Turns out I was the only person to have an award presented by the Queen. It sounds an honour but part of me thinks that they needed to give the Royals something to do to make the time schedule work. Another couple of women went up to get things from Anne and Sophie.
Her Maj then read a little speech.
|From Mail on-line|
We all stood up to sing ‘Jerusalem’, apparently at the special request of the Queen. With the RAH organ thundering away, and 5000 women bellowing their heads off, it was very impressive and quite moving. I actually felt a bit tearful, but it was probably the aftermath of extreme stress.
Philosopher took some photos in the Eastbourne cinema – we were not allowed to take any in the hall. Here are some of his – a bit blurred, not surprisingly.
|The Battleaxe bum…. speak up, Gran….|
The Royals filed off to cut the Centenary Cake back-stage, and the rest of the morning was pretty dull. We heard live from some elderly ladies in Llanfairwhatsitgoch where the first WI was founded in 2015, heard a talk from a wildly gesticulating Lucy Worsley, who may have been manic with nerves, and then settled to an endless and horribly clunky debate on our Public Affairs resolution on personal and health care.
Our WI back in Hastings is non-traditional, and we don’t get too much involved in WI political life. I think we could try maybe a bit harder – next time we’ll give our members more time to explore and discuss the national resolutions – if they want to!
In the RAH, I was more worried about the state of my bladder than the future funding of health care, and eventually had to leave the hall – not so easy when you are right in the very front. Downstairs I found an empty bar where the barman kindly got me a glass of water, so I had a good break before returning, to find them still going on about the resolution. Eventually it was abandoned for further clarification, or maybe everyone had just got too hungry.
At lunchtime, I gathered up the silverware and found Shirley and Jean. Walking around with the big cup was a laugh – hundreds of women said congratulations, and nearly all of them said ‘Are you going to fill that with champagne?’ The first few hundred times it was funny, but then it got a bit tedious thinking of witty responses. We wanted to eat our sandwiches, as is done by tradition, on the steps of the Albert Memorial, but by the time we got ourselves together there was not an inch of step, or of grass, left uncovered by ample female backsides. It was a lovely hot day.
|Battleaxe and cup, taken by Jean|
The afternoon was better – Tanni Grey-Thompson was very good and very funny. Banking chief Helena Morrisey, wore a fantastic dress and looked infuriatingly trim after nine children. She was also an excellent speaker. There was a good fashion show, too, and we sang ‘Jerusalem’ again.
Another long journey back on the coach. Was inundated with calls, texts, emails, photos until phone battery ran out. Got back to Hastings about 8.30. Long day. Worn out.
Turns out I was on the Daily Mail on-line. Here is a screen shot picture.
|Battleaxe’s Royal moment.|
I had months of thinking about my outfit, because I didn’t want to look traditional WI floral, or billowing linen tent, or New Style Shoreditch WI – pink hair and piercings. Eventually I chose a White Stuff linen dress, to wear with a little cream Great Plains cardi, orange shoes and orange beads.
As the season has been cold, I have not passed great milestone of Getting Legs Out. All white and horrible, so I had to wear tights. Eventually I tracked down a matching pale sage green pair of right thickness on Ebay in China. They were marked one size fits all but when they eventually arrived they were tiny, with horrible thin roll-down waistband. Spent entire day hitching them up.
Here’s the link to the NFWI You tube video. Go to 1.15. It’s straight after the ladies live from Wales.