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Piecing together the royal puzzle

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When Queen Elizabeth travels, she takes feather pillows with her. The blotting paper she uses is black. She chews coffee sugar after dinner. She dislikes milk pudding, Charles Dickens, and ivy. Her first corgi was named Susan.

You didn't know these things? And do you mean to say that you can't list 12 things the queen particularly likes?"

I can.

This is because, for some unexplained reason, there is a volume in our bathroom entitled: "The Book of Royal Trivia." On page 145, it describes 12 of her majesty's likes. Compared with some of the preferences of other royals past and present, the queen's are unexceptional. George III, for instance, was keen on "button making." George VI liked watching home movies backward. The Queen Mother as a child had pet pigs named Emma and Satan.

The queen's particular likes include horse-racing, warm weather, Scottish country dancing, long-stemmed deep-pink carnations, deerstalking, bright red dresses, and the Beatles' film "Yellow Submarine." (The book doesn't say whether she likes these all at once or separately.)

And she likes jigsaw puzzles.

And herein lies a puzzle.

"The Book of Royal Trivia" came out in the early 1980s - before many of the less-trivial royal events and "revelations" occurred. It has an air of happier times. Today's books about royalty tend toward detailing more serious and crucial affairs.

One result of this critical atmosphere, "the palace" lets it be known, is that the royal family is now intent on a greater openness. Nobody expects to see the queen and Prince Philip riding around London on bicycles, but there is evidence of them speaking quite casually to ordinary people and also sometimes betraying their inner feelings. For example, when the royal yacht was decommissioned not long ago, her majesty was visibly moved. She has been seen grim and stony-faced on occasion, but I can't recall her publicly expressing simple sadness like this before.

One of the enigmas of British royalty has been its reticence and secrecy - its VIP mystique. For years what they said went largely unrecorded (except when the queen broadcast her Christmas message). Documentaries and news reports, even today, usually show them from a distance as they tour factories or chat with stars lined up at film premires. Indeed, lip-reading royal remarks is a pastime indulged by the curious and clever.


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