Brush with Royalty

Royal events do not really thrill me. I could go on for hours how the royal family shouldn’t be in the privileged position that they are now, but I won’t. Usually, it means that they’ll be a concert around Buckingham Palace and Brian May playing God Save The Queen, and not the Sex Pistols version. 2012 was more the Olympics. 2002, the World Cup and a win over Argentina, celebrated in a deserted Welsh slate mine. Yet through the rose-coloured spectacles of time, I have fond memories of 1977, the Silver Jubilee.
The year had started in the choppy seas off the Cape of Good Hope and finished in hospital not knowing who or where I was. Ah yes ‘77 was a magical year. It was also the Queen’s 25th anniversary on the throne, a phrase that made me laugh aloud back then, still does at times. It was also the year I turned 18, the cusp of manhood.

A good portion of the year I spent in the splendid town of South Shields, where I‘d been spent to college by BP. I was training to be a navigating officer and would be learning both at sea and in college. Shields back then was a grimy place, not the wonderful place it’s become. For someone who had lived for seventeen years two minutes’ walk from the countryside, it was pure culture shock. The sea though kisses the beaches of Shields, even though a huge colliery stood less than a hundred yards from the deckchairs. Newcastle wasn’t too far away, the Poly hosting many concerts I vaguely remember attending.

So, what’s all this got to do with the Jubilee? Well, I’m glad you asked before I get going down a back alley that there’s no U-turn from. Well, it was in Shields that I had my first brush with royalty. It was June, God Save The Queen was in the charts. The version by the Sex Pistols, a single my dad banned from our household, along with the subsequent album. The Queen was set to visit Tyneside on the Britannia and our college was selected to provide one of the escorts for the vessel.

Names went into a hat, and I was one of the six picked to crew the training ship. A week was spent cleaning my uniform before the big day. Britannia was set to reach the mouth of the Tyne at 8am, an unholy hour at the best of times, but even worse after a night in the Martec bar downing Newcastle Brown to celebrate one of the other cadets' birthdays. We staggered down to the centre to board the training vessel, all very bleary, but the sea air was working its magic, waking us up. The sea was thankfully tranquil that day, otherwise the Queen may have been greeted by whatever we’d eaten the night before.

We lifted anchor and cruised to the harbour walls. Here we waited for a sight of the Britannia. Eventually it appeared on the horizon, slowly getting bigger as it steamed for the river mouth at speed. We were ordered to our positions on the deck and told to get ready to salute. The Britannia isn’t a big ship, yet it towered above us as it swung past as we followed. Sadly, the Britannia could do ten knots, while we could do only four. We were left literally in its wake as it disappeared in the direct of Wallsend. That was the last we saw of it, until we reached the Tyne Bridge where it had docked, and the Queen had disembarked. Talk about after the muck cart… With that we turned around and headed back down the Tyne to our base. Ah well, I guess it would be a good story to tell my kids. The day I became a Royal escort but never saw them. God Save the Queen indeed.

It wasn’t my only brush with royalty that month though. I also got to see the great Mohamed Ali. He’d come to see a local boys club. An open top bus was provided so people could see him. Of course, we had to go and watch. It was a huge crowd that filled the high street. Flags were out and there was a party mood in the air. The girls from Boots had brought out a cut out of Henry Cooper. He was advertising Brut 33, the essential aroma of any self-respecting teenager at the time.

Cheering started as the bus made its slow, steady progress down the street. Ali was on the top deck waving and smiling. As he drew up outside Boots, he spotted Henry. Fists raised he did the Ali shuffle as he prepared to take on the cardboard Henry.
Shields was vibrant that day, so many happy smiling faces. Each of us seemed to sense they’d had a special moment with the champion, even though we were just part of a bigger crowd. It was the effect of a mercurial performer. Today that grimy town seemed full of colour. Quite a contrast from the day the Queen came to town.

So that’s my brush with real royalty. The King, Mohamed Ali had spun his magic spell over the town and me. A day I’ll never forget.

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