Brian was invited to Buckingham Palace for the second time on December 8, 2011, as one of Britain’s ‘explorers and adventurers’ to mark the centenary of Scott of the Antarctic’s last fatal expedition. Here is his account of that day.
There was a terrific wind on Thursday evening as I set out to meet the Queen. Up in the north a gust of 135mph had been recorded, and at least two of those wind generators had burst into flames through over-spinning. I finished writing all my Christmas cards and sent them out with presents, and then limped to the Underground before taking two lines in three stops via Liverpool Street and Bank to London Bridge Station, then further limping to the home of an old friend called Moira, whose daughter Matilda was seven years old that day. Anna, an artist who flies with me, was looking after Moira’s twins Hector and Ptolemy, and her own daughter Jessica, while Moira taxied off to pick up Matilda. Anna made me promise to filch a piece of chocolate from Buckingham Palace, but I was quite open about it all evening, also vowing to secure a second piece of royal chocolate for Matilda’s birthday. Moira turned up, and an unimpressed Matilda, while Jessica had the mother and father of a nappy rash and bellowed, Hector stumped around looking like a future Rheinhardt Messner, climbing everything in sight, and Ptolemy also had a whinge.
It was a simple four stops to Green Park station, then I had to stump through the trees of Green Park itself, in the gloom, other figures obviously heading the same way to the traffic lights on Constitution Hill. The lights shone through the black trees and wind noises were obvious; to the west was the now-building Bomber Command Association Memorial that my friend Tony Iveson had initiated. At the Palace, there was a line at the left entrance to the parade square – where the Changing of the Guard occurs each day – and I was picked out, not just to show my ticket, but to hustle around for my driver’s licence with photo to show I was who I was. The line stretched through an arch into an inner courtyard and round a square, walking now four deep, until we were met by Palace servants who sent the men to one cloakroom, and the women to another. Here I saw my first familiar face, RMH – Richard Meredith Hardy – with his large black beard and huge bush of hair allegedly trimmed.
It’s one of the oddities about this event that you can’t phone your friends before it and have a joint chortle, because you don’t know if they have been invited or not. If they were not, you have made an enemy for life, being big-headed. No list was published, I tried the previous day, so it was a question of wait and see. We walked upstairs into huge rooms with high ceilings and portraits of early nineteenth century princes, dukes and earls, and then into a room with alert pretty girls, two or three to a desk marked A-C, D-F, and so on. I picked up my own badge, marked with my name and labelling me ‘Journalist and Adventurer’, later yearning for the badge of the woman solo flyer Polly Vacher which just said ‘Solo Flyer’. Why couldn’t that have been my title? I wafted on and more familiar faces came into view as we were handed flutes of champagne. I checked later, it was Mumm, really good quality stuff, Ian Fleming had James Bond drink it, and we all began to warm up.
I saw Simon Murray on one corner, now Chairman of the of the mining giant Glencore, and his pioneer flying wife Jennifer, whom I had helped write her biography, ‘Now Solo’ after she was the first woman to fly around the world in a helicopter. Simon, mid-70’s, once labelled by my daughter Jade as ‘the great boy/man’, had joined the French Foreign Legion at the age of 20 for a 5-year stint for the lost love of Jennifer, and had gone on to Hong Kong and founded Orange as Taipai of the Chinese conglomerate Hutchinson Whampoa. He was said to have a fortune of $150 million, and had at least 7 homes around the world, in Hong Kong, Phuket in Thailand, in Paris and with an estate 30 miles from me in the Dordogne, in Knightsbridge with another estate near the Prince of Wales in Glocs, and a Manhattan apartment. When Simon appeared on Desert Island Discs, the BBC issued a public health warning, because, between choosing 8 records he would take to a desert island, Simon had told the story of fighting in the Algerian War of independence in the 1960’s. To prove he had killed the enemy, he had cut off an Arab’s head and carted it around in a bag. You have to wonder who the Arab was. Not many captains of industry have done that. He greeted me with his customary delight, commented that I had lost none of my hair, and – the oldest person ever to walk to the South Pole – scooted off to find his partner on that wheeze, Pen Hadow.
Meanwhile, I saw Colin Bodill, second man to fly a microlight around the world – he and Jennifer Murray flew as a pair – and there was the usual badinage. He had been a world microlight champion, but I had twice beaten him to records – he had flown a microlight to Australia 10 years after I had done. He was always faster than me, but being Number 2 was, for him, a pisser.
Familiar faces floated by, RMH again, then Andy Green, fastest man on earth – having driven a car through the Sound Barrier – to win the Segrave a year before I did. To my absolute delight, I found ‘Wheely Dave’ Sykes, the paraplegic who, earlier this year, had flown a trike from London to Sydney with no sponsor and no carer – the best flight of the year – and he later gave me his book with the witty title, ‘On a Wing and a Chair’. I had thought no one remembered him in Britain, though he had stacks of media coverage outside Britain, because the royal wedding had completely wiped him off the British news scene. He left the country the day before Pippa Middleton’s bum became a star.
We were herded left and told to put away our drinks, and there was a line leading to the Queen, small and charming and dressed in cream, with a coterie of courtiers, and beyond her, Prince Phillip. I learned later that the Princess Royal – Princess Anne – was also there, and I saw Prince Michael of Kent – who had saved my arse on the world flight by persuading the Chinese to let us into their country – but the young princes, Wills and Harry, were not there, though Prince Andrew’s daughter Princess Beatrix was (I am told). I lined up, heard a voice say, ‘Brian Milton – Journalist and Adventurer’, bowed, took the Queen’s hand lightly, said ‘good evening ma’am’, and then went on and said ’good evening, sir’ to her husband, and bowed again and then wandered off in the company of a young black man called Dwayne Fields who was a Polar traveller and came from working-class Hackney and was zapped out of mind, having just shaken the Queen’s hand. I got his card and he can be googled.
When I found Colin Bodill’s familiar battered face again, we stood and gossiped. I thought the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC had taken his microlight for display, but they wanted it for nothing, and Colin couldn’t afford that. When I said I hoped Hollywood would take my aircraft to make a feature film of my flight, he asked me to sell his too, and he started telling me stories. He had met Prince Phillip three times, once when they stood and drank together for nearly an hour. My experience of Prince Phillip was from one previous meeting, when I was ‘saluted’ by the Air League – I have a paper proof hanging on one wall – after the world flight in 1998, and he spied me from the speaker’s platform. He walked over, shook my hand, leaned forward and said, simply, ‘you’re mad’, and walked back to the platform again.
I had a real gossip with Jennifer Murray, and with Polly Vacher – both have dropped out of the adventure game, Jennifer to take up running at the age of 73, Polly breeding donkeys. A man and a pretty girl came into view – I never knew who the girl was – but the man, John Penrose, was an MP, and – I discovered – Minister for Tourism and Heritage in the current Government. I’d had some champagne by now so I tackled him about what I call ‘The People’s Fly-Past’, running 60 microlights down the Thames in June next year to commemorate 60 years of the Queen’s reign. Penrose got very interested, despite me saying it was a political problem and the CAA would oppose it. We got on very well, and I sent him an updated history and an outline of the wheeze. Naturally, being me, I was disappointed that he didn’t send back an immediate reply.
Meanwhile, the Queen was being guided around to carefully orchestrated guests. I saw Colin and I were in the line once, and we vibrated with hope though I am sure this was not apparent, but we were assessed by pretty girls with clip-boards who obviously decided we were not suitable, and the Queen veered off to the other side of the room. Canapés were distributed, more champagne, and I saw familiar faces from television – Michael Palin, the TV wildlife expert Ray Mears, even Bear Grylls, the Chief Scout, luckily not with RMH because RMH has strong and vocal views about Grylls. The background is that RMH really did fly a rag wing over Everest, and had the photographic proof, while Grylls had a 90-minute TV programme in which he gave the impression of flying a rag wing over Everest, only he didn’t, and he cobbled together some mumbo-jumbo that obscured this fact.
We were ushered out into the cold at about 8.45, and I invited RMH over to Moira’s house where I was expecting to find my son James, who never turned up all evening. But Moira was there, one of the twins was poorly, and I gave Matilda the rather battered piece of chocolate I had purloined. She looked at it with suspicion. It was a white chocolate ball with cream inside.
‘What’s that green bit?’ she asked.
I couldn’t see one and said so, and she stuck out her tongue and licked it cautiously.
‘No, thanks,’ she said. I gobbled it up. Silly girl. Missed a good story.
I left the other battered bit there to go in the fridge for Anna. Moira began opening $50 bottles of Calornia wine, which we were drinking when Ed turned up from working.
Moira excused her extravagance. ‘Brian’s just been to see the Queen!’
RMH and I wandered home at 11.30 and I set him up in the middle room. He was off on an adventure to the South Pole next year, and secured introductions at the Palace to members of the British Antarctic Survey team, offering to carry out experiments for them. We both agreed it had been a good evening, and we were glad we had such a splendid Queen.