Faux pas with the queen

– My RAF Journey Part 11

Guy Martin Faux Pas with Queen Elizabeth

I graduated from Cranwell on 24th July 1981. With my big push post-Med efforts, I ultimately came 4th out of 120 officer cadets. The graduating officer was HM the Queen herself and the top 5 were selected to be presented to her in person.

The Monarch is the highest-ranking officer in the British military. Two weeks before our meeting, the five of us were given a booklet to study, called, “Etiquette in the presence of the Monarchy”. There were countless nuances to be learned and adhered to: not speaking unless spoken to, never to touch her, when to bow, how to bow, when to call her “Your majesty” and when to call her “Ma’am” (pronounced as ‘ham’ vs ‘mum’, which had been our custom with senior WRAF officers up until then). The one that caught me out eventually was more an error in the guidance of the booklet’s stipulations itself: ‘Do not patronise her. She is extraordinarily military-savvy and knows more than you do with her decades of experience as head of all services’. This set me up for an embarrassing faux pas.

After the formal graduation ceremony on the parade ground, the big moment arrived inside the main college anteroom. I was terrified as the Royal trumpeters announced her entrance through the big CHOM dome as a deafening blast of noise. I was first up as she entered the room and the first thing that struck me was how short and seemingly frail she was. But she stared at me with an intimidating fixed gaze as she shuffled toward me. “Officer cadet Martin (already she got that wrong as she had commissioned me 20 minutes before), tell me in your own words the highlights of your experience at this institution”. I rattled off some nervous details, though there was a bursting passion to ask her about Charles’s and Diana’s wedding, due five days later. I genuinely wanted to know and have an authentic human conversation.

But alas I was confined to only answering questions. Then I bombed when she asked me which branch I was going into. “GDP Ma’am (perfectly pronounced like ‘ham’)” was my reply. She became visibly annoyed and retorted, “Don’t talk in riddles, I don’t understand “. “General Duties Pilot” was my sheepish reply. We always used acronyms and if memory of the booklet served, she knows more than us. I thought I wasn’t supposed to patronise her. Definitely a disconnect between the booklet’s guidelines and the real world.

After she moved on, Jeff Smithson whispered in my ear that I could always become the court jester if I failed at flying: the “Talk in riddles” reference. Thank God for Jeff. He had backed a dark horse and had been vindicated. I owed him the world!

Guy Martin is the founder & Managing Director of Blueprints: Which has enabled business leaders to drive measurable high-performance across 130 blue-chip organisations in 36 countries