When April 28th was mooted as a likely date for Wills and Kate’s wedding, I almost stamped my foot. The 28th is MY wedding anniversary - our 45th to be precise – and being eclipsed by trumpets and tiaras did not appeal. It may sound like sour grapes, but I didn’t want that silken train billowing over my far more modest memories of getting married, aged 19, inauspiciously pregnant in pink, and clueless about real life.
I’m no mean-spirited republican – quite the contrary: I was glued to this Windsor wedding because I have watched and written about the royals for years. Shortly before Princess Anne’s first Big Day I visited Buckingham Palace (the waiting room had red-flocked wallpaper and two guardsmen standing stiffly with gilded helmets under their arms. ‘Gosh’, I thought, ‘Ruritania.’) to have some wedding copy cleared by the press office. Alas, he censored a description of the bride’s former riding beau, Richard Meade, ‘having a lot of experience under his saddle’. He detected an implied double-entendre.
Interviewing the Queen’s couturier, the late Sir Norman Hartnell, I heard how he’d been climbing the Palace staircase on the way to collect his gong when he dropped and scattered his heart pills. ‘Oh heavens’ he lamented to his plus one ‘What now?’ ‘Leave them!’ hissed the friend ‘The corgis will eat them.’
I was there, vainly scouring the floor of the young Emmanuels’ Brook Street studio for telltale lace scraps or sparkles that might adorn the bride-to-be Diana. I became, briefly, an expert on the provenance of the Lindka Cierach bees embellishing Fergie’s wedding dress (what price that honeypot now?) and could do Mastermind on the Queen’s wedding bouquet (lost on the Big Day back in 1947 until found in the fridge by a footman. Her orchids (should you care to know) were accompanied by myrtle from a bush grown from the myrtle from Queen Victoria’s wedding spray. And the day after she married Prince Phillip, her flowers were laid on the grave of the unknown Warrior.)
Alongside the professional, my personal life played out for years around the corner, one might say, from the Family. Princess Anne was a couple of school years my junior at Benenden, where we all knew she’d overflowed her bath, prompting Matron to bang on the door demanding to know who was guilty…’It’s Anne’ owned the Princess. ‘Anne WHO?’ boomed Matron. Giggles ensued. ‘Don’t have a second name’ said the culprit.
When I married we lived for years on the modest edge of Windsor Great Park. We bought our newspapers from the village shop where Diana was so ‘beleaguered’ by the paparazzi when she popped in for sweets. Several times the Queen Mum in tulle pastel picture hat slowed her chauffeured Rolls to wave a gloved hand at the end of my lead rope where my little daughter trotted out on her first grey pony.
Years later, when said daughter was competing at Cleobury Mortimer Horse Trials I saw a leggy Zara Phillips, then mid-teens, sitting for hours at the water jump, soaking up how the top pros rode it, whilst lesser mortals took an early bath. It was obvious, even then, she meant world-beating equestrian business. Moving north in the nineties, we often welcomed a particularly lively horsey house guest who became Peter Phillips’ longterm girlfriend. Of this I say …Not One Word, largely because I was trained as a journalist in the BBC school of what may be said as well as what may not.
Given unbridled revelations of more recent years, it is strange to reflect that I scrupled to mention Diana’s pre-wedding bitten nails, and suppressed mention of Captain Mark Phillips’ mother breeding mink. This seemed a whiff of trade too far, given that her husband was already known to be big in sausages. It never crossed my mind to give away the jolly council house chatelaine who swore she’d have been rich if she’d taken up the ‘thousands’ offered by paparazzi to film a courting couple close to the throne from her upstairs back bedroom. ‘Were they, errm, canoodling?’ I probed. ‘And the rest’ said the roll of her eyes…
I have no qualms, however about admitting that my relief when William and Kate chose April 29th to wed, stems somewhat from sour grapes. The future Princess has done everything right and I, as a teenage bride, got it all so wrong. I’m willing to bet that the Bucklebury brunette was never really ‘Waity Katie’ at all, but working wisely to learn the royal ropes, possibly from Lady Sarah Chatto who also advised Canadian commoner Autumn Kelly (now Mrs Phillips) on monarchic mores.
I bet she took secret cookery lessons so that she could whip up no-stress chicken pies and treacle pud for William and his winged mates at RAF Valley. I, however, was so unprepared in the ways of the world (despite being a history undergraduate at Cambridge) that I never even realised I was pregnant and put morning sickness down to flu. Kate and Wills have lived together for years. My then boyfriend – Andrew - and I had spent perhaps four night together ever, and those, illicitly in my single-bedded college room. We were babes in the wood and utterly naive. As a newly wed I used to throw away his linen handkerchiefs, not knowing how to wash them.
In l966 it was, make no mistake, an irredeemable disgrace to be an unmarried mother-to-be from a posh London postcode. Horrified and humiliated, my mother considered despatching me to Switzerland for a termination, still illegal over here. Then she had a brainwave: I was to be hitched to someone she had in mind – an older man infinitely more settled and respectable than my wonderfully wayward 22 year old. She despatched me to meet this perfectly nice, unexciting guy who was willing, despite my condition, to propose. Apparently he’d hankered after me for ages, from afar. Looking back this was medieval madness…and so patronising. Why did I agree to go, only to be hugely embarrassed, to say thank you and no thanks? ‘The real question’ says my sister, looking back ‘ is not why you went, but how you ever found the strength to defy the parents and do what you and Andrew wanted. We’d always, always done exactly as we were told.’
Today it’s cool (and, after the Diana debacle, even desirable) for a royal bride to shack up with her Prince for a compatibility check and some carefree years of takeaway pizza. Back then, the Woodstock summer of love was only around the corner, but in middle-class London, ‘refinement’ was still highly prized and a girl lived demurely at home until she had a proper gold band on her finger. So it was agony to find myself to be at the vanguard of social change and labelled a disobedient rebel…one the one hand I wanted still to be the well-mannered, golden, scholarship girl, but on the other I simply had to have my own off beat way. I walked up the aisle to Bach, terrified, confused and ashamed. The only elements of the wedding I truly chose were the groom and the Maison Sagne cake, whose successor from Patisserie Valerie we still relish on special family occasions. Iced vanilla sponge with light chocolate cream….Ah, William, it even beats your chocolate biscuit cake!
I was only 16 when I met my husband, in a Cote d’Azur coffee bar. I’d been sent on holiday with my big sister and I still have perfect recall of a night that still seems – as it felt so overwhelmingly then – plucked straight from the movie romance of les Parapluies de Cherbourg. I wore pink Foale and Tuffin gingham; he was playing guitar with a friend. It transpired that we lived, back home, just a few streets apart. He drove us back to our Cannes hotel in his mother’s borrowed red Renault and we stopped on the way to bounce on beach trampolines. He told me he didn’t like girls using hairspray.
I told my sister the very same night that I was going to marry this man. ‘Don’t be silly’ she said. Man? He was a madcap boy who’d skived school to go dancing in Soho clubs most afternoons. He had no O levels and not a bean. He was training to be a tailor, which in pre-Dougie Hayward days was definitely not ok. But he wrote me three, deeply romantic letters a day when I went back to boarding school. We both loved ee cummings poetry and each other a la folie.
None of the adults in our lives gave us a chance of surviving together: ‘He’ll leave you with two babies’ foretold my stepfather-in-law grimly (and he a hotshot divorce lawyer). But ‘When we marry, it’s for life’ pledged Andrew – whose parents had parted painfully when he was four. ‘There’ll be no divorce for us.’ I knew, absolutely that he meant it, and over the years, when we’ve been broke enough to fear losing our home, when he has maddened me by his resistance to mow the lawn and we’ve fought over how to handle a son on drugs, those words have held an enduringly consoling resonance.
The secret of a long and happy marriage owes almost as much, I believe – to intention – to knowing that you are in it for life, through and beyond the bad patches – as it does to the luck of staying in love (or rediscovering it when you fallen out). He is Mr Risk, I am Mrs Financial Security, so in our case, strictly separate bank accounts have been essential. I learned from a wise friend who had made this mistake, that you should never, ever tell your man in anger to get out and go away, because men take things more literally than women and, wounded once too often, will indeed leave.
We have had, as we and the world wish for William and his Kate, an amazing married trajectory from a grim, rented basement flat, £5 a week, (even the saucepans were not our own) to a Yorkshire stone cottage with 15 acres and our daughter’s event horses grazing in the fields. We have witnessed a momentous sea change in marriage:whose mother-in-law would now opine that a wife was wrong to work because it deprived her partner of breadwinner’s pride? When I was a young wife there were no maternity tights and no nurseries. If you couldn’t afford a phone (black Bakelite landline handset), or washing machine, you wrote letters and hand-wrung the smalls. You couldn’t buy a sofa on credit so you sat on the floor.
When I took my university finals (I’m possibly still the only woman ditsy enough to sit both parts of the Tripos exam pregnant) my husband took our son into the Cambridge Mothercare to have his nappy changed, which chore the sales assistant performed willingly…can you imagine trying that on today? I was barred from my degree ceremony because it was deemed disrespectful to bow to gowned academics when great with child. The notions of ‘irretrievable breakdown’ to marriage and ‘no-fault divorce’ weren’t even a gleam in the judicial eye when I set up home. Yet 45 years on, I am the only one of my five closest college friends still married to the man they first chose – or married indeed at all.
For William and Kate I wish a similarly long and very happy marriage. How will they measure its success? Not as I do, which is by the heart’s lift whenever I hear his key in the lock. Living in a vast, spacious palace, Princess Catherine – perhaps by then our Queen – will necessarily forgo that homespun pleasure, being no doubt, miles away from her own front door. She’ll be 74, not 64 when she reaches her landmark sapphire anniversary, so she may have creaky knees and be unable to stride down a wild beach in pursuit of two terriers, which is what we did. Still, she already has the requisite gemstone, rock size. I just hope that, in 45 years, William can still exclaim as he did at that college fashion show 10 years ago (and surely will on April 29th) ‘Wow, Kate’s hot!’
I’m guessing that behind the scenes she signed up for some serious cookery lessons, the better to whip up a hearty chicken pie and treacle pud for Wills and their classy coterie.