The day after the Jubilee festivities were over, I went to the cellar and got my jewellery out of the gun safe. I keep it down there, tucked inside the 12 boxes of Tamiflu that I bought in 2004. The tablets that were meant to save us from death by bird flu expired in 2006, but because I paid so much, I can’t bear to part with them.
The jewellery is another story. It’s kept in the safe because I rarely wear it, and I rarely wear it because it’s always in the safe. Still, after gazing at The Queen for four solid days, I felt the need to sparkle. I haven’t worn the heart-shaped diamond-and-ruby brooch that was left to me by my mother-in-law for 10 years. I stopped wearing my engagement ring when I lost it two winters ago. I found it three nerve-wracking weeks later on a hook in the game larder, where I’d slipped it off to gut a rabbit. As for the pearls, well, I put them on and then, just before going out the door, I take them off.
My sister blames my dressing down on country life. She deplores my rotation of corduroys from Lands’ End, sweaters from Johnstons of Elgin and a faithful jacket from Old Town in Holt. She’s not impressed that my dressier wardrobe is a cleaner version of this neutral, seasonless uniform. I defend the latter by calling it museum-wear: lots of black, a modern necklace, a significant scarf, a good jacket. A hat in winter. Sensible boots. The subtle smell of Jo Malone. Unrecognised by fashion editors, I call it the Friends of the Tate look. True, it can be confusing, and people sometimes show me their tickets and ask for directions. With graceful calm, I just guide them as best as I can.
My sister refuses to indulge the fantasy that my look is pared-down chic. ‘I don’t understand why you dress like George Orwell,’ she snaps, looking at my blue serge jacket made in Norfolk. Every morning of her recent visit, she was dressed, if not like a queen, then a lady- in-waiting. She wouldn’t watch sheep shearing without first doing her hair and make-up. She counsels me endlessly on what to wear for the engagements scribbled on the kitchen calendar, complete with advice on shoes, handbag and jewellery. I’m convinced that the memorable line in Steel Magnolias
-‘What separates us from the beasts is our ability to accessorise’-was hers.
But behind my sister’s fastidious appearance is the very thing that’s so mesmerising about The Queen and the generation attached to her: they make the effort. It takes discipline and energy, but they are diligent. It’s a feeble excuse to say you don’t have the time. My sister is a successful businesswoman, who does far more than I do. The other excuse-‘I go for comfort’-is also met with disdain. She’s convinced that middle-age spread is a modern phenomenon that began with the elastic waist, which has triggered an epidemic of fat-around-the-middle women.
What my sister admires most about The Queen is that she never lets herself get too fat or too thin. She never even looks tired. ‘Sometimes, she must be bored out of her mind, but she always looks alert.’ Even on a cold, wet day in the middle of the Thames, she stands throughout. I’m on my way to the president’s lunch at the Suffolk Show. This is usually a dressy event and I can remember a time when all the women wore hats. On the calendar, my sister wrote ‘cream linen suit and tan shoes’, but the sky is the colour of steel and the temperature is November. I’m dressed for warmth and comfort. Instead of the heirloom brooch, I’m wearing a badge that I bought at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It says ‘Let us not take our-selves too seriously. Queen Elizabeth II’. I think it adds that je ne sais quoi.
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