Judy takes starring role at Palace

Judt Steel MBE
Judt Steel MBE

The London sky is dark over the Thames when I awake. It not yet 5am, but I still have bits of sewing to do on my dress before we arrive at the palace at 10am.

At nine, I’m putting the last touches to my petticoat. By this time David is up as well; I don the dress and he inspects me. “Very nice,” he says, and “You’ve got a hole in your tights.”

Judy Steel MBE

Judy Steel MBE

I look down. So I have. I want to wear these ones; they go with the brown shoes purchased yesterday from Show World en route to the train. I slip them off and start mending the hole. When did I last do this? At boarding school, 60 years ago, I think.

At the palace we meet our elder children, Graeme and Catriona, smart in kilt and hat respectively. Like my own hat, Catriona’s has come from a charity shop. I wonder how many others here come from that useful source?

We’re divided up as we enter the palace portals. The guests go off to find their seats; the medal recipients are corralled in the picture gallery, where we are offered water or apple juice.

The paintings are amazing: Titians, Rembrandts, Van Dykes, Tintorettos …no-one else seems to be looking at them. I wander round, my sight-senses overflowing with such abundance.

I talk to a group of soldiers back from Afghanistan, smart, brave young men who reply briefly and modestly about why they’ve been given the Military Cross. “Well, I rescued a few comrades,” says one, making it sound as though it was just another day at the office. “Under fire, I suppose?”, I probe. He looks bashful “Well ... yes.”

An officer, a very short man whom I top by at least half a head, is receiving the MBE (military). I ask him about his views on National Service: it is the first time I’ve heard the views of a military man on it.

I chat with other fellow recipients who have served the causes, children welfare, of science, of St. John’s ambulance, of local government. Unfortunately I don’t know until afterwards that amongst them is Kate Atkinson, whose novels I greatly admire.

Group by group, alphabetically and alternately female and male, we are called into the ballroom where Royalty awaits. I hear a Scots voice behind me and turn to the attractive, very young woman next in line. She speaks in that loveliest of all our national accents: Orcadian. Her award is for services to farming. Orkney being Orkney, it’s not long before we’ve established friends in common there. She tells me how she loves the Borders, and mentions our Common Ridings, and the Kirkwall Riding of the Marches, which was re-established in 1985.

“I was the standard bearer in the Silver Jubilee year,” she says calmly and I gasp with astonishment. “You mean you have women Standard Bearers?” “O, yes, she replies easily. “I think that since the riding of the Marches was re-established there have been more women than men.”

Our conversation cuts the waiting time drastically, and it seems only seconds before I’m at the head of the queue, ready to walk in, stop while previous recipient’s medal is pinned on, wait for her to leave, then move forward, turn left, curtsey and walk three steps toward Royalty. It’s Prince Charles. I last met him at Holyrood when I sat next to him at a lunch. The Queen was entertaining new Knights of the Thistle, of which my husband was the most recent. I sat between Prince Charles and his father and had a very jolly time indeed, talking horses to Prince Philip and theatre to the Duke of Rothesay. He is a true theatre enthusiast and I tried to persuade him to come and see Rowan Tree’s Hermiston, then playing at the Netherbow during the Fringe. I think I may have pressed a flyer into his hand.

Anyway, after he had said, with what seemed real sincerity, “I was so pleased to see you’d got this,” we spoke about this incident and he asked what I was doing next. “I’m very much involved with various projects over the commemoration of Flodden,” I said, and his face lit up with recognition. I remembered that Lord Joicey, who has been co-ordinating the many events on either side of the Borders next year, had mentioned a hope of getting one of the descendants of the main victim of the battle, James IV, to come to some of the events. So I said, “That there are high hopes, Sir, that you might be present.” You cannot say I miss a chance. It was almost time for the handshake that signifies the end of the conversation. Thinking, “I must not do what David did when he was knighted, and turn my back,” I retreat the obligatory three steps, curtsey, turn right and exit, winking at my family en route. That’s it, apart from the photographs. I really hate official photos, but before we know where we are, Graeme has run up an order of over a hundred pounds with one of the photographers – not, of course, on his own credit card. She thinks he is the recipient, and asks him what his award was for. Before he can say, “Laying monobrick driveways in the Borders,” I lay claim to my MBE, and also tell him, no, he can’t be photographed in it.

We do another, informal couple of photos on his camera, a member of a Sikh family pressing the shutter before Graeme does the same for them.

Then we leave the courtyard of Buckingham Palace for lunch – and Champagne – at the House of Lords, before the (40+ year old ) children and I catch the train from King’s Cross to Berwick.

On Saturday night, in Edinburgh, I give a party in a friend’s house for 35 of those who have been my companions along my journey through theatre. Though there are some I have only got to know in recent years, such as the brilliant young musicians Lilias Kinsman Blake and Rachel Newton, many of them go back to shows in Kirkhope Village Hall, and the James Hogg Festival, of 1985. Several of them are republicans, but they seem happy to share the award: and after all, I would never have been offered it without them.

It? Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, of course.