The Queen and I, and the Royal guffaw
During the poignant farewells to Queen Elizabeth, Royal watchers noted that she was known for her wicked wit and sense of humor, even though it wasn’t always obvious in public. It certainly came as a surprise to me the one time I met her.
It was October of 1986. As the CTV correspondent in Beijing, I was assigned to cover the first-ever Royal tour of China. It was on that same tour that Prince Philip made an embarrassing mess by warning some expatriate British students not to stay in China too long because they might develop “slitty eyes.” But that’s another story.
Over six days, the Queen feasted at state dinners, met paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, toured the Forbidden City in Beijing, climbed the Great Wall, visited the terracotta soldiers in Xian. At her final stop in Kunming in southwestern China, reporters were invited to a wrap-up reception. As we awaited the Queen, a Buckingham Palace aide asked if I would like to meet her. Yes, of course, I’d be honoured. In 1959, my father, then editor of our hometown paper, The St. Catharines Standard, met her aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia when she came to Canada to officially open the St. Lawrence Seaway, and I was thrilled to become the second in the family to have the pleasure.
The media was organized into groups of three for the Queen to move among. I was matched with two British heavyweights – Sue Lawley, the anchor of the BBC’s Six O’Clock News, and John Gittings, a China specialist with the Guardian. Against that star power, I thought, there won’t be much Royal attention paid to a colonial. Wrong. When the Queen approached and I was introduced as Canadian, her face lit up. She talked about her trips to Canada and how much she loved the country, but she also aired her pet peeve – our many time zones and the jet lag they caused when she toured. How do you do it? she asked, Philip and I never know what time it is!
My good fortune that I had my own time-zone story to tell her. Though China is almost as broad as Canada, the entire country officially operates on Beijing time. In the far West, almost as distant from Beijing as Vancouver is from Ottawa, the time is the same as in the capital, and the sun doesn’t rise until late morning.
I had just recently experienced this oddity. The Karakorum Highway, the highest international paved road in the world, connects Pakistan with western China. Completed in 1979, it had just been opened to the public, so my cameraman and I decided to drive it and file a story on the engineering miracle that had been dubbed the Ninth Wonder of the World. It was a gruelling 1,300-km trip from Abbottabad in Pakistan, winding high into the western Himalayas and down through the desert to Kashgar in China. The border was marked by a small post in the 4,693-metre-high Khunjerab Pass. After we crossed, we had to turn our watches ahead three hours – a bright late afternoon suddenly became eight o’clock at night!
I recounted that story to the Queen and concluded with the punchline: “Your Majesty, it’s the only place in the world where you can get jet lag without leaving the ground.” The Queen burst into laughter, rather louder than I might have expected. Not only that, she called over Prince Philip from a nearby group and insisted that I repeat my story for him. She laughed the second time too, then thanked me and moved on. The BBC anchor and the Guardian columnist must have been irked they barely got a word in.
I was relieved I hadn’t embarrassed myself by saying “eh” or violating any Royal protocols, but the Queen’s guffaws did not go unnoticed. When the reception ended, the British media, mostly Royal beat reporters from the infamous tabloids, surrounded me, and I found myself on the wrong side of a scrum: “What did you say to make her laugh so hard?” When I explained, they seemed a bit perplexed that a story about time zones could so tickle the Royal funny bone.
Roger Smith is a retired journalist and copy editor of the Glebe Report.