"For most of my life as a staunch socialist between the ages of 18 years and forty, you could have marked me as an ardent 'Republican' through and through. Had Oliver Cromwell still been around then, there would have been nothing square about my head and I would most certainly have joined his gang!
And yet, like millions of children who were reared in the 40's and 50's, I was brought up a 'Monarchist'. I even recall having been elected to sing 'In a Golden Coach lies a heart of gold riding through old London town' at a school concert when Queen Elizabeth the Second got crowned on June 2nd, 1953. This was about ten months before a horrific traffic accident that left me crippled for three years.
When I was growing up on Windybank Estate in West Yorkshire, I recall being one of many thousands of children waving little flags stood by the Liversedge roadside as the Queen passed by in her car from a distance. Even today, over sixty years on, I remember the smile she wore that day, especially as I saved the coronation mug that all English schools gave their pupils. It says something about us not being a throw-away society then, as such ceramic mementoes are still intact in their millions and can still be picked up at car boot sales for coppers, whereas little effort is devoted to preservation these days, not even marriage, the planet or life itself!
Little did I realise as a child, that one day in the years ahead that I would see that royal smile up much closer when I called around to her house to see her in the 1990s. It had earlier been indicated in a somewhat official letter to me by 'The Honours Committee' that she wanted to pin a medal on me. It was an MBE; that's one up from a 'Blue Peter Badge' for the uninitiated. Though my official letter of recognition was stuffy, I could never say that about the Queen's smile. It hadn't seemed to change since the first time I'd glimpsed it from afar some thirty years earlier.
Indeed, the more I think about things, how little I ever imagined as a child that one day I would have a number of brushes with royalty. I have been privileged in my time to have spoken with Princess Diana and Princess Margaret by phone, and to have had Princess Anne open a Disability Centre for me in Dewsbury by personal request. I also sat five rows behind the Queen and Prince Philip in 'Leeds Football Stadium' many years before my investiture; although on that occasion I could only see the back of their hands and heads as they waved and nodded their royal approval. I couldn't tell what they were mouthing at the time; it might even have been a Yorkshire pork pie they'd been scoffing as a snack to tide them over until lunch time.
Many years ago, the famous photographer, the late David Bailey, released an image of Her Majesty, who he described as having a mischievous smile. I can most certainly testify to that. The Queen is just one famous lady whom I have met who possessed 'a mischievous smile'.
Which leads me nicely to my investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace. As I approached the Queen to receive my gong, I initially wondered why she was stood on a platform two feet higher than mine, then I saw why. I was gobsmacked by Her Majesty’s lack of height, so much so that when she politely asked, 'What kind of books do you write Mr Forde?' the only reply I could muster was, 'Good ones, Maam, good ones!' ( Maam rhymes with jam when addressing a monarch correctly).
As the Queen gave me a straight-faced glance with a look that reflected confusion instead of amusement, I could sense one of the Beefeaters behind her raise his axe in anticipation of her next command as he moved forward three paces. Suddenly that royal ‘We are not amused’ look suddenly changed as her lighter side began to emerge. The royal face softened, the majestic cheeks widened and the Queen laughed: not smiled as protocol decrees, but palpably laughed! It may have been the quiet mischievous laugh of a reserved lady and not the raucous outburst of a ‘Barnsley belly-busting bride who pulled a decent chap to marry her before the baby arrives', but a royal laugh it was nevertheless. I’ve got it on video and photographs to prove it. Isn't life strange when all the water has been drained from the cooking pot and we can all find a bit of the royalist somewhere in the bottom of our Wellington boots!
Another occasion that humoured me greatly was when John and Norma Major invited me and my ex-wife down to 'Number 10' for afternoon tea. I joke not; it really happened, and it wasn't one of those two-minute flying visits as part of some larger party. We were there alone with the Majors for two hours with Norma and one hour with the Prime Minister, her husband John. They were the nicest couple one could possibly meet. I could not believe that a busy Prime minister would take the time to give a stranger from West Yorkshire a guided tour around 'Number 10' just because he approved of my book themes and charitable awareness issues. When the PM showed me the 'Cabinet Room' and the famous Cabinet table around which many momentous decisions have been made over the centuries, I was thrilled to bits. I was gobsmacked, however, when he showed me the most prominent chair at the centre of the oval-shaped table where the Prime Minister sat. Naturally, the chair was one up from the others to distinguish the higher ranking of the occupant. 'Would you like to sit in it, Bill?' the PM asked, reading my thoughts. I had always thought his father to have been a trapeze artist and not a mind reader. I sat down and anchored my bottom firmly as I imagined that William Pitt and others had issued many silent farts from that position before humble little me. As we passed Walpole's desk, my childish devilment led me to stick a piece of chewing gum beneath it. I wonder if it's still there?
As we were escorted up the famous staircase with photographs of every Prime Minister arranged in staggered formation from bottom to the top of the stairs, Norma proudly recited each one by name since Sir Robert Walpole, who was the first Prime Minister between 1721-1742, graced the Office. The wall was filled completely and at the very last photo was of the previous incumbent, Margaret Thatcher. Norma obviously held no love for her and even called her 'Maggie'. She pronounced her surname with the precision of an elocution venom as she uttered, 'Thatcher', making sure that it rhymed with 'Milk snatcher!' Then Norma remarked in an unguarded moment, 'If she thinks she is snatching the last place at the top of the stairs for her photograph, she can think again; John's going there, not being pushed around the corner!'
As me and my ex-wife Fiona sat in their upstairs lounge having a light tea, the Prime Minister asked me if I was cold and did I want the fire stoking. I took my opportunity, thinking that my mining father would turn in his grave had I not and replied, 'No thank you, I'm not cold, but all the rest of Yorkshire is since you completed that which Margaret Thatcher started and closed down the remaining pits!' To his credit, John Major took the comment on the chin and took no offence. His wife did though. In her previous half a dozen letters to me she had always called me 'Bill', but after that exchange with her husband in which I'd dared to criticise part of his political action, it reverted to 'Mr Forde' in the next letter, and I also found myself struck off her Christmas card list. She did later read one of my books in a school in her husband's constituency, but our future relationship was never quite as close and the same as it once appeared.
One of the few women I almost became 'too friendly' with was the late Anita Roddick. We were like-minded people in so many ways. Had we not both been married at the time, we could easily have become more attracted to each other. I recall in the 90s when we marched 2,000 children from the Huddersfield railway station to the 'Huddersfield Town Hall' where we held an 'Our World' event with all the Kirklees schools in attendance to celebrate Anita's environmental work, my own book entitled 'Our World', and also to present a song I had written and produced to Anita called 'Our World' (which can be accessed below). This was the only occasion when I've been given council approval to hold up the traffic for a half-hour march through the centre of Huddersfield. Anita was one of the friendliest, earthiest women I have had the pleasure to meet and I liked her presence enormously. She was attracted to my work because of its charitable and educational aspects. When she died in 2007, she left her entire £51million fortune to charity in her will. God bless you, Lass. This is the song that I wrote and produced and presented to her that day, and which over 2,000 Kirklees school children sang to her in the Town Hall. The music was composed by the late John Foyle of Batley.
So, however humble one is born, strange things can happen in one's life and anyone can meet all manner of folk, both great and good; and some like Queen Elizabeth, Norma Major and Anita Roddick with a lot of devilment in them lurking at the back of their mind. As my mother often said, 'Even a cat can look at a Queen.'
I'll end now as that's enough name dropping for one post." William Forde: April 22nd, 2018.