Hugo Vickers on his admiration for The Queen
PUBLISHED: 11:14 20 December 2013 | UPDATED: 11:14 20 December 2013
Author Hugo Vickers has been watching and recording the pomp and circumstance of royalty and the melodramas of high society for many years. Here he shares his admiration for ‘Elizabeth the Steadfast’ and a few tales with Jan Raycroft
Hugo Vickers is rattling off fascinating anecdotes from nearly half a century ago – when he was an Eton College boy – of encounters with the Royal Family and noted society names, as if it were yesterday.
You pick his brain, the topics twist and turn, and he will say: “You must remember of course this was in 1968…” or “it would have been February 1975, yes, I was 23, and had been fascinated by the Duchess of Marlborough, since the age of 16…”
It’s almost impossible to interview this author and broadcaster in the formal sense because you become sidetracked by the sheer detail he happily shares. He can pluck these eyewitness accounts and discoveries from his head at will, whether you want to talk Cecil Beaton, or the Duke of Edinburgh’s intriguing mother, Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece. “Well, I’ve always had this retentive memory, built around dates, which was very useful at school,” he explains.
He weaves a magic mountain of facts into the art of the master story teller. No wonder that Hugo is much in demand for talks across the world, particularly where there is an abiding interest in royalty and high society, such as the US and Australia. But his is a specialist subject that fascinates even those who pretend to take little notice, so there have also been lectures in Russia, France and Ireland, for instance.
This author and broadcaster is a collector of detail, revelations and gossip from the apparently mundane (where the significance later becomes apparent) to occurrences that have helped shape the fabric of recent British history.
He is also a treasure for us amateur ‘Royal watchers’. For instance, to my shame I’m yet to catch up with his book, Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, the first and still considered most authoritative biography following her death, but can draw on memories (truly feeble ones when measured against those of Hugo) of scrutinising her as a young reporter at many functions. She worked the crowds unlike any monarch or royal consort since perhaps Queen Elizabeth I, was my guess. “Oh yes, she was an actress,” says Hugo. “A brilliant one.”
He throws in more facts and figures while delivering coffee to the table at the flat near Windsor he rents from the Crown Estate when working here – he’s a Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire and has a long association with the Windsor Festival – rather than at the family homes with his wife and children in Wiltshire or London.
The flat is an intriguing place with its bits and bobs gathered over the years, and we are having our coffee perched on sturdy but scuffed chairs marked on the backrest with the insignia of the Queen’s father, King George VI. “They were made for his Coronation in 1937. I’ve been collecting them when I can, I probably have 18 now,” Hugo explains. “I got some of them from Lady Diana Cooper and Duff Cooper.”
While admitting to his own retentive memory, he is quick to point out someone else with a similar ability: our present monarch, Her Majesty the Queen.
“She’s seen and learnt so much over the years, while sticking to her own path. When history looks at this reign I think they will consider her to be ‘Elizabeth the Steadfast’. Many people are convinced we are in a golden age for the monarchy right now but are a tiny bit sad because there is this air of ‘fin de siècle’ as one day it is all going to change.
“Any Prime Minister at the weekly audience with the Queen would do well to listen, rather than try to give advice. She’s very knowledgeable and if you get into a conversation with her she has a favourite question: ‘Are you sure?’ She’ll try to catch you out if she can.”
It would be hard to catch out Hugo, though. His fascination with the Royal Family began at an early age. There’s a family story of nanny and the pram being in Hyde Park at the same time as Queen Mary (the Queen’s grandmother). “But I never saw Queen Mary and she never saw me. Less than two years later she died and apparently I burst into tears.”
By the age of 13 he had devoured James Pope-Hennessy’s biography of Queen Mary and was in the perfect spot as an Eton boy to watch the royal events. Becoming a guide at St George’s Chapel – where he is now a Lay Steward – was a natural step for a teenager fascinated by the Order of the Garter, its architecture and music.
His family expected Hugo to enter the financial world but to his, and later our, greater relief he made his escape via a chance to help with the editing of Burke’s Peerage and then Burke’s Guide to the Royal Family.
The rest, as they say, his history, and since then his books have delved into the orbits of everyone from Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh to The Private World of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
He prefers to write about women because of their “natural courtesy”. You suspect that he finds so much more to relish in what they share with their diaries and friends than the no-nonsense, stiff upper-lip approach of many men in English society.
For all the famous names, you learn just how much those early years shaped his views through The Kiss, a haunting record of the life of two spinsters living out their years in a ramshackle house in Windsor. It’s a remarkable ‘through the keyhole’ study which won the 1996 Stern Silver Pen Award for Non-Fiction.
Recent years have seen Hugo kept busy with a host of projects, not least as chairman of the Jubilee Walkway Trust. The first path allowing both Londoners and visitors to enjoy a tour of the capital on foot marked the Silver Jubilee in 1977. With both the London 2012 Olympics and Diamond Jubilee to celebrate, the trust’s hard work led to the Jubilee Greenway, a longer route for both walkers and cyclists.
Now with Jim Walker, trail designer and chief executive of The Outdoor Trust, he is working on a plan for Windsor to have its own walk from
September 2015, when Her Majesty is set to surpass Queen Victoria’s record as the longest serving monarch.
When this happens, politely fall in close to Hugo for a while if you spot him. He’s bound to have some remarkable tales to share.