Queen Elizabeth II held a garden party yesterday at Buckingham Palace in which 5,000 people prowled about in search of weeds, dust on the carved doors or other worthwhile outrages, since it is pleasant to say later, you know they have bindweed on their delphiniums.
But nothing could be found wrong except, of course, one did not have Her Majesty to oneself:
"My dear, can you see the queen?" asked a dutiful husband in morning coat and gray top hat.
"Of course I cannot see the queen," said the wife. "I can barely see the palace balcony, let alone the terrace."
Eight days before the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, some guests were hoping for a glimpse of the bride-to-be who showed up at the first of the summer's three Buckingham Palace garden parties last week. "Oh no, she isn't here!" said one woman craning from beneath a huge hat.
The garden front of the palace opens on a vast lawn without trees, bordered on one side by a tent 350 feet long and 20 feet wide in which perhaps tons of tea cakes repose.
They hold out valiantly, but at last are victims to ladies in flowered silks, virtually all of them with feastive hats and some with bursts of feathers as well.
"Tea!" asks a maid behind the serving tables of the tent.
You suppress a mad impulse to say no, not tea, but papaya puree. You get your tea in a white bone china cup ringed with gold and proceed with a smallish plate to ferret among the pastries, some of which prove to be fish paste, which is rather a jolt, but most are chocolate and some -- they are not without beauty -- are caramel.
One of the surprises of the party is how seriously the English take their calories. They quite settle in and some return for reinforcements.
A band struck up "God Save the Queen" and she emerged from the palace, paused on the enormous terrace, and calmly descended to the lawn. She gradually made her way, and so did Prince Philip, patiently stopping to speak to occasional guests (fetched out of the great crowd by equerries somewhat at random), in the general direction of the royal tea tent, a giddy structure of dazzling white wood fretwork. It is on the opposite side of the lawn from the one that's longer than a football field, and is fenced off, but there were plenty of chairs on the lawn just outside the enclosure.
"A lot of people head straight for those chairs," said an old hand at the queen's garden parties, "knowing she will go to that tent."
"Will the queen speak to them?" he was asked.
"No. How could she speak to 5,000 guests? Besides, she doesn't have to. They just want to see her. That's enough.
The lawn was littered with tables around which sat members of Parliament, a reasonable number of peeresses (though you can't tell a duchess by looking), some bishops in Day-Glo violet and an occasional foreigner in Middle East dress.
A stunning woman covered her rust-red silk with a silk tissue of orange-bronze, a scarlet flower in her jet hair.
Some of the women whose clothes did not seem particularly striking wore hats of note. If you think of a quite large meringue made of white satin you will understand one favored type.
An American male attracted considerable corner-of-the-eye attention with his glossy cordovan leather shoes. Well, what do you expect, nobody told him he would be going to the palace party.
Once the patriots settled on the chairs near the royal tent, and the day-in-the-country set claimed the little tables, the rest of the throng wandered about with teacups or set off to view the gardens of some acres beyond the lawns or flounced on the grass in the manner of a Renoir (they trusted) pastoral.
But most formed themselves into a general conglobation in the middle of the huge lawn, only instead of whirling about (as Dr. Johnson said autumnal birds did before plummeting to the bottom of the lake to spend the winter), they moved slightly, with dignity and some stiffness, a few feet this way, a few feet that way, and gradually fell into informal columns, between which the queen and her prince took their leisurely way.
"I say," said a well-turned-out man, "aren't there some waterfowl yonder?" Nodding to a thicket. Apart from mallards there were hot-house-looking ducks and a flock of rich coral flamingoes stalking about in shallow water. A hoary willow grew aslant the brook in which one rather expected to find Ophelia drowning than flamingoes strutting. But then the English are fond of exotic touches.
The English have not quite mastered the knack of speaking distinctly, and can make names difficult to catch, but an admirable specimen believed to be Bob Baird, a master of Eton, was seen admiring lingularias and epimediums at the edge of an artificial rivulet.
"Not a gardner," he said. "Mother was. I always regarded as rather destructive."
It was on the tip of his tongue, that boy that went to Eton but was also a senator's page in Washington. Mmm. No matter. He avoided the spangled forget-me-nots and headed off towards the lawn.
You could enter the garden party from several palace gates, but most guests preferred the ceremonial entrance, positively alive with lions and unicorns and gilt iron.
"It does not say much for British architecture," said a tail-coated man, "but it is after all adequate and to be frank, I like it. My friends say I have atrocious taste in architecture."
"It is important to ignore friends," he was reminded.
"Just so," he said. "This carpet is getting a bit worn," he said of the red stair-covering of the palace steps. A yeoman of the guard, in the red uniform that suggests King Henry VIII about to do something historical and probably fatal to somebody, maintained stoney silence at the comment about the carpet.
When you have 5,000 guests you really have a cattle situation to deal with, but the English do not acknowledge this.
In Washington people would perhaps die in the crush at the palace doorway, but in London they move swiftly through without seeming the least hurried. Inside the door frames is carved marble in designs that could not possibly be bettered for collecting grime (as one may so easily see in the American capital), but here the air does not contain dust, or else London is populated largely by marble polishers.
The palace sends you a sheet of paper with a large yellow X. You fix this to the windshield of your car, or your chauffeur does, and you sail right in. The driver does not get out, someone from the palace opens the door and it is amazing how rapidly traffic is handled.
If you come by taxi, you theoretically give him the yellow X. You place the X facing outside, not inside. One reason London often seems to work so well is that the English do not mind pointing out the obvious.
If you liked, after the two-hour party, you could listen to the loudspeakers summoning cars from an enclosure discreetly distant from the silk ladies in the garden:
"The mayor of Lewisham's car, please, the mayor of Lewisham's car. Lord Dranebawtel's car, please. Colonel Hawkmuggin's car, please. The Viscountess Tonsilette's car, please." The name is not always distinct, but the "please" invariably is. "Mr. Blake's car, please."
In a group of 5,000, you wonder if there's only one Mr. Blake, and you can imagine the two other Blakes having their cars sailing about the red gravel courtyard hours before they go home.
Some of the sturdiest guests did not leave in cars. Many a top hat, many a silk dress, even a feather or two vanished down the dark steps of the nearby subway stop.One gentleman, 81, showed a reporter how to get on a bus. Not all that simple, actually.
"Commanded the yeomen of the guard for 15 years," he said. "Yes, I stay in shape by walking a great deal. I enjoyed visiting America. Mount Washington. White Mountains, isn't it? Maybe Green. Up there, you know. I suppose it's a problem knowing what they want to read about in Washington."
"The queen wore a pink dress," he said. "Women always want to know about such things.Don't bog the dresses. I doubt 'pink dress' will do it, but that's what she wore."
He peered at Hyde Park drifting by. "This is our stop," he said. "Ha. Next stop. I think. Quite similar. We're only a block apart, you and I. nThat was the Hilton Hotel. Actually you can't see it, but it's over there somewhere. Here, we get off this next stop."
And we did. You do get discouraged not catching names, since as I say the English are a bit bad about speaking.
Got it. Maj. Gen. Sir Allan Adair, Bart., Gcvo, cb, dso, mc, dl, JP. He is listed thus in the phone book. Sometimes I think the English start their names perfectly audibly and just run out of steam. What with showing yokels how to telephone (an engineering degree helps) or get on a bus (alpine background helps) they are possibly a bit drained by the end of the day.