This Monday morning is like no other – the day of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. As I swap my usual coffee for a nice cup of tea, which seems more fitting, it’s a comfort to hear stories and shared memories from those who knew or met her; stories I’ve never heard before, about how good she was at singing and Scrabble and tales of her kindness, her humour and her love for the countryside; stories that help us remember and share our mutual love and admiration.
I never met HRH The Queen directly, but I’ll never forget two times I had the honour of seeing her up close.
My first job after graduating with a media degree was as Editorial Assistant at Brownie and Guiding magazine, at the Guiding HQ in Buckingham Palace Road. I commuted by train every day and, on my first day in the job, I decided I might as well pop round the corner to the palace.
As I approached, I realised something momentous was going on – crowds and police lined the streets, so I weaved my vertically-challenged self through the crowds and asked a policeman at the front what was happening? ‘Good timing, miss,’ he replied. ‘Nelson Mandela and The Queen will be along in a minute.’
They say if you need to know the time, ask a policeman. And he wasn’t wrong. Literally 60 seconds later there she was – our Queen, in canary yellow, next to the legendary Nelson Mandela, both wearing great smiles and sitting in an open-topped carriage. This was a magical moment. I had simply expected to stand by the gates of the palace en route to a bench in the park to eat my sandwich, but here was HRH The Queen, waving and smiling, close enough for me to notice how soft her powdered face looked. This extraordinary moment kept me buzzing for days. Although, of course, no lunch break could ever live up to it again!
Years later, when HRH was due to bless the Queen Mary at Southampton Docks, I was working in a nearby office and heard a helicopter. Might it be her? I wondered, practically flying down the flight of stairs and out onto the street. I looked up, saw the helicopter that flew overhead, above the car carrying Her Royal Highness to the docks, and then spotted the car itself. No crowds lined the street here, as it was still a little way from the docks. So it was just me standing there gawping. And, as the car slowed by the roundabout, The Queen waved and smiled at me. I remember what a joyful and calming effect that had on me. As if she was saying ‘Everything’s going to be alright.’
Today, as I sip my tea, I wonder whether she had that effect on those who had the honour of actually meeting her? I think she probably did.
Maureen Lipman has just shared a story about how, after wittily responding to The Queen’s reminder that she’d be seeing her at the palace soon with ‘If I can find something to wear,’ four months later, when they met again, Her Royal Highness said to Maureen, ‘Oh, you found something then.’ How wonderful! She’d remembered.
The stories of those who queued through the night for 12 hours to see The Queen lying in state and tales from those who worked for her, met her during her visits or simply remember seeing her, as I did, unite and uplift us during this monumental and overwhelming day of her funeral. Stories have that capacity for unity.
Indeed, stories possess the power to comfort and connect us, to inspire us and to heal us. We are all, as Bobette Buster says in Do Story, ‘in the midst of a great story’. But, as she goes on to mention, ‘We are not all gifted storytellers.’
That’s one reason why ghostwriters exist – to help draw the story out of those with something to say but without the time or capability to say it in a way that will optimise the amount of comfort, connection, healing or inspiration from its telling.
Ghostwriters are, in a way, story-hunters. We can coax the narratives with the most power to inspire or incite action and bring them out into the open, through the storyteller’s own voice, into our pens and onto the page. Sometimes, it’s what people are not saying that enables us to get to the heart of the story and craft something memorable from hidden or buried stories.
And one story tends to lead to another. As we remember moments in our own narratives and share them out loud, this often triggers another person’s memory of a moment in theirs. ‘That reminds me of the time…’ And so it goes on. One story leading to another, across time-periods, between narrators, connecting us all.
Stories help us to open up to one another, to share our memories, our vulnerabilities, to speak to each other, even strangers, as friends.
They give us the chance to preserve memories, to pass them on, and, in doing so, avoid losing them. In sharing and recording our stories, we get to hold on to the most precious of memories, to keep them safe – not under lock and key, but free. It’s like a relay race. A story allows the storyteller to pass on the baton.
Bobette Buster says, ‘Stories told well and acted upon by one generation ignite the next generation to greatness.’
That’s what today’s stories about The Queen have done so beautifully. They’ve ignited those who follow in her footsteps, both Royal and otherwise, not to be more regal, but to be more devoted, gracious and kind, as these stories shared about Her Majesty reveal her to have been. Stories about The Queen this week have inspired, comforted, healed and connected us.
And during a time of such major transition, story is exactly what we need – for the purposes of memory preservation, and for motivation, too.