Two ladies came from the London Zoo, ready to talk about the nationally mourned death Saturday of panda Ching Ching ("She was ill for a long time"). A uniformed group from Salvation Army Headquarters was prepared to discuss good deeds, but two black-garbed monks from a Hampshire monastery could not figure out why they had been summoned to tea with the queen.
Nevertheless, when the bright blue invitation arrives, few British mortals are tempted to turn it down. This afternoon, 8,000 of them trooped to Buckingham Palace -- women in the mandated "day dress with hat," men in "morning dress" -- for the last of this year's palace garden parties.
Following a tradition begun by Queen Victoria in 1868, Queen Elizabeth II gives three such parties each July, spaced about a week apart. The invitation lists are drawn from the deserving and the presumably interesting among charity workers, public officials and politicians, the church, the diplomatic corps and an occasional journalist.
Everyone who is willing to crane his neck and stand on tiptoe gets a chance at least to see the royals, including the queen, Prince Philip, and whichever others of the top echelon draw the short straw for an appearance.
Talking to them, however, is another matter. In the hour between the beginning of the party and the arrival of the royalty, morning-suited men, each looking like John Gielgud, circulate through the crowd on the back palace lawn and chat up interesting looking individuals. A select few are chosen to pass through the line of Beefeater guards who protect the grassy pathway along which the royals are scheduled to walk.
Finally, Elizabeth appears at the top of the stairs, accompanied by her husband, various minor royalty and the queen mother who wisely carries a parasol to ward off the unusually blazing sun. The band, seated under a gazebo-like tent, plays "God Save the Queen," and the family descends to make small talk with the chosen few while the unchosen thousands stare respectfully.
"PHILIP IS LOOKING fit, isn't he," murmurs a man in a gray top hat. A woman in a pink-flowered dress (in possible imitation of the queen, most seem to dress in gaily colored but matronly summer frocks) asks her companion the identity of a young woman in the royal party.
"I don't think it's Lady Sarah. She's prettier."
Consensus is reached that two other tall, tanned men are the duke of Kent and "one of the sons of the duke of Gloucester."
The royal family walks through the Beefeater-lined gantlet, chatting with those selected for chatting. Their passing is a signal for the masses to head for the tea tent, and the band switches tempo to "Luck Be a Lady."
The two young Benedictine monks, perspiring in their long black garb, are giggling like schoolboys after a talk with Elizabeth's mother. They told her their monastery was built by some long-ago European empress, they said, and the "Queen Mum" replied that, yes, she knew the family.
As summer wears on, and the flow of government news becomes a trickle, Britons turn ever more to the monarchy for the entertainment that in less traditional industrialized nations tends to come from film stars. Not all of the royal headlines, however, are as pleasant as the garden parties.
Princess Michael of Kent, the German-born wife of a royal cousin, is in the headlines again just months after the tabloid press revealed during celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe that her father had been an officer in Hitler's SS. The pressure of publicity finally drove her to break down in tears at a charity event and sent her to a hospital for rest.
In recent weeks has come the "news" that Princess Michael (whose name, for some royal reason, is the same as that of Prince Michael of Kent, her husband) has a "deep friendship" with Texas tycoon Ward Hunt. This time, the princess escaped to a cruise ship in the south of France to find "a refuge from the realities of her rumor-battered life," in the words of The Mirror.
Although the prince joined her for the first six days of the trip, it was revealed this week that he had flown home early on a private plane, leaving her alone in the company of "Senor Don Carlos Perdomo, a 60-year-old Argentinian multimillionaire."
All is not yet lost, however. Last night, she flew back to London, the prince met her at the airport, and according to a Mirror exclusive, "They are delighted to be with one another again and don't expect to be parted for some time."
Princess Michael may have stolen the spotlight occasionally, but certainly not the stage from a much more prominent princess, Diana, the wife of the heir to the throne, the prince of Wales. The prince and princess of Wales are due to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary next week, and Diana is once again in public hot water.
Once known as "Shy Di" for her fear of the paparazzi and habit of bursting into tears or pulling down her omnipresent hat in the presence of photographers, Diana now is accused of being too bossy and hogging publicity from her husband.
The latest headline, which rumor here has it has transited all the way to U.S. supermarket tabloids, is that Diana gets on so poorly with the palace staff that at least 40 of them have quit or been fired since her marriage, including her husband's longtime personal secretary Edward Adeane.
It was left once again to The Mirror to set the record straight. In a major coup against its principal competitor, The Sun, The Mirror splashed its front page three weeks ago with yet another "exclusive" -- this time, an interview with Diana herself on the subject of staff. The story spread across several inside pages, although as it turned out, Diana had been brief and to the point.
Approaching Mirror reporter James Whitaker at a charity event, Diana said, "Mr. Whitaker, I want you to understand that I am not responsible for any sackings. I just don't sack people." End of interview.
YESTERDAY'S NEWS brought happy tidings for at least one aspiring title holder in Britain. After a 14-year effort, Scottish landowner Patrick Andrew Wentworth Hope Johnstone was granted the right to be known as the earl of Annandale and Hartfell.
His claim, contested by at least seven other family members, was upheld by a special committee of the House of Lords. The lords decided that, despite the facts that the 330-year-old title had not been used for centuries, that claims against it had been turned down in 1834, 1844 and 1879, and that Hope-Johnstone's line of descent came from the female side of the family, all was now in order.
The last claim to a peerage in the House of Lords was for the Baronetcy of Ampthill in Bedfordshire in 1976. It dated back to 1918 when Lady Cristabel married Lord Russel of Ampthill. In 1921, she gave birth to a son, but later sought divorce and claimed the marriage never had been consummated. More than 50 years later, her son claimed the baronetcy.
Under three hours of cross-examination, Lady Cristabel stuck to her insistence that her son was the product of a "virgin birth," conceived when she had used the same bath water as her husband.
The claim to the baronetcy was upheld.