“I need a new suit, tailored and ready to go in three days,” I told the sales clerk.
“Did you have a style in mind?”
“Pretty formal, I think,” I told him. “I’m having tea with the Queen.”
“I just had brunch with five of them yesterday,” he deadpanned, leading me to the suits.
“No,” I said, correcting his misperception. “I mean the Queen with a capital ‘Q.’”
It was 1995. The Internet had recently gone public. Email was a new concept. I was already connected to hundreds of people I’d never met in person, using a cool new technology, called a listserv. Consider it an early version of Facebook, only without pictures or privacy settings.
I had recently announced to this online group of strangers that I had landed my first editorial position with publishing giant Ziff Davis, publishers of PC Magazine. Only days later a PR flack in Boston, hired by Her Majesty’s government to find three American journalists in the high-tech industry, invited me on a five-day junket to England.
At the time, the naval-based sectors in Devon and Cornwall were being converted to high-tech industry, and the Brits wanted some Americans to give some press coverage to this transformation. To help us in our research, they would wine and dine us, and give us tours of computer and medical start-ups in the region. On our last day, we would be tea guests of Elizabeth II.
Now, it would be easy to imagine that the most embarrassing moment of my life occurred in the presence of royalty. It did not. It came the night before, at the Plymouth Artillery Tower, where I and my two fellow journalists were dinner guests of Sir Robert Gherkin, Rear Admiral of the Royal Navy, and his wife, Lady Anne.
The problem I encountered that evening can easily be traced back to the fact that from the moment I got off the train in Plymouth three days earlier, the alcohol had not stopped flowing—right into me. And in quantities that I, a recently former Mormon, was quite unaccustomed to. On my very first morning in Plymouth, wrestling with jetlag, I was whisked by limo to a reception at a local business, where the tour began with the offer of an alcoholic beverage of my choice. Not being a partaker of hard liquor, I opted for a beer. Never mind that it was still only nine o’clock in the morning.
When that tour was over, I was whisked off to the next business, and the cycle repeated: another tour, another beer. A half-liter of beer. Strong beer. And on to the next business reception. Before the sun had even set, I had at least six beers in me. Three full liters of the stuff. Despite the alcohol content, intoxication was only a secondary concern at the time. The really “pressing” problem—and I do mean pressing—was that I had been given no opportunites to use the loo. By the time the limo took me back to our accommodations at the castle to dress for dinner, my bladder was twice its normal size and complaining mightily.
So on the second day, out of self-defense, I did my Scottish ancestors proud and switched from a half-liter beer to a wee dram of Scotch at my first reception of the day. The Queen’s 25-year aged favorite Scotch. Very good Scotch, as it turned out. Thus was my problem solved. I did likewise at every subsequent reception that day. I found my bladder was able to handle many more Scotches than it had beers the day before.
There was a wee side-effect, as well. I spent the rest of my stay in England snockered. So it was on the night with Sir Robert and Lady Anne. I’d been drinking Scotch all day, and had one in my hand, as the Admiral proudly showed us the Plymouth Harbor from atop the crenulated walls of the artillery tower. I dutifully photographed each view he pointed out, until, at one particular vantage point, a vertical orientation of the camera was called for due to the narrow crenulation in the wall.
As I rotated my camera to get the shot, I also rotated my glass, pouring Scotch all down the front of the brand new suit I would be meeting the Queen in the next day. Before I could even apologize I found myself suddenly surrounded by penguins, who were stripping me of my jacket and vest, and just as quickly putting them back on me, dry as could be. I still don’t know how they did that.
But, no, that is far from my most embarrassing moment. That came a couple of hours later as we sat around the dinner table two levels below. We were a table of twelve, three to each side of a square table. I was seated on an end, next to Lady Anne. On my other side sat a woman whose title I can’t remember, if I ever knew it. Next to her was her American husband. Sir Robert was opposite Lady Anne.
Sometime earlier, before this adventure began, I had gone through a protocol briefing. Everyone who meets the Queen and her emissaries is expected to know the rules. For us clueless Americans, they were spelled out in great detail. Among the subjects I was instructed not to bring up during my tour, were two particular subjects: Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. Both had fallen out of favor with the Royal Family by then, and were not to be discussed in polite company.
Somehow, during our intimate little dinner, while chasing my many Scotches with endlessly flowing wine, I managed to bring up Fergie. (No, not the singer from the Blackeyed Peas, Sarah Ferguson, the original Fergie.) When conversation faltered I realized my mistake and immediately apologized for it by explaining, “Back in the States we don’t pay any attention to her politics, but you’ve got to admit, she’s got a lot of spunk.”
The table fell absolutely silent. What, they didn’t accept my apology? After a very awkward silence, the American to my right kindly leaned over the corner of the table and whispered to me, “Marty, over here ‘spunk’ means ‘semen.’”
That’s right. I had just told Sir Robert and Lady Anne, and all their dinner guests, that the Duchess of York was full of cum!
Of course, I was mortified. I mumbled something about there having been a “slight error in translation,” and zipped my lips for the rest of the evening. At least, I think I did. I don’t remember anything else that happened that night.