A royal parade

A royal parade

Long ago, I went to see the queen. There was a milling crowd and a handful of busy-looking policemen. She waved graciously as the motorcade passed us. Her husband Prince Philip flashed a jolly old grin and waved too. I suspect it’s the 8 mm clip my father shot that day rather than the deep observation of a six-year-old that still keeps that moment alive.

Reading Pamela Hicks’s Daughter Of Empire has set that lost moment in a grand and swirling background. It paints in everyday incidents, the thrills and normal concerns of extraordinary people. Pamela is the daughter of the Mountbattens, legendary figures in our own recent history.

Lord Mountbatten descended from monarchs and saints, and was our last viceroy and, after Independence, governor general. We have many questions regarding him, including the life-and-death need to know whether or not his wife actually had an affair with Pandit Nehru. While breathing life into history, Pamela also answers such questions.

Her parents stride through her book, investing it with energy, relentless efficiency and social concern. It begins and ends with them. In such a story that spans eras, political systems and leaderships, humour is a valuable asset. Pamela describes her own birth in the midst of utter chaos, “a solitary, happy presence, blissfully unaware of the noise and tumult of the family life into which I had just been delivered.”

Until the sobering reality of World War casts a dark shadow, life continues pretty much like this, filled with happy, eccentric friends and relatives, country estates blessed by bountiful nature, affectionate and often unusual pets (including a lion cub and later a mongoose) and the joy of parental proximity.

The book is replete with such characters: Grandmama (who was “related to or had met everyone who was anyone in recent history”, chain-smoked Russian cigarettes and read to the children) and her Russian friend Isa who’d been lady-in-waiting to the Tsarina (she of the “legendary and ridiculous stories” including one about a church service when she pushed what she thought was loose hair back into her hat only to hear a male whisper: “Madam, would you kindly release my beard?”) to the loving Bunny and Yola, her mother’s and father’s lovers respectively, (the “modus vivendi” that kept their family happy and together), rambunctious royals and crusty professionals. But there’s normalcy and everyday happiness in Pammy and her older sister’s unusual life.

Then World War taints their world. Lord and Lady Mountbatten are immersed in manoeuvres and war efforts. The sisters are reluctantly packed off to the US, leaving their parents behind. The difference between young Pamela’s “wretched” response to the US and her later love for India is remarkable and noteworthy.

After the war, Pamela describes the magnificent Allied Victory Parade, proud of the various honours that come to her father. But, after this, Mountbatten is offered a new job which causes “a huge weight” to hang over her parents for this was “no ordinary job” to “dismantle” Empire and oversee the transfer of power to an Independent India.

Living in the Viceroy’s House (the present Rashtrapathi Bhavan), which “was like a hotel in which you might never see the other guests who were staying” with its eye-popping number of servants, all is not luxury because they are here on a difficult, potentially dangerous mission that has to be completed within a stipulated time frame.

In his efforts to bring all opinions together, Mountbatten meets Gandhi who forces goat’s milk on him, “the most unappetising green porridge that he had ever tasted”; Pandit Nehru, who rescues her mother from under a table where she’d crawled when his admirers mob them; the “tough and pragmatic” Sardar Patel; and the “icy and immovable” Jinnah. 

The description of her life in India includes traumatic days with communal violence, hectic social work and the tremendous responsibility of doing the right thing, her deep friendships, those days of brief relief with Nehru in Simla (which is where she tells of the great love between her mother and him, but declares there was no time for them to “indulge in a physical affair”), Independence and the great unmanageable crowds that celebrated, and the shock of Gandhi’s assassination. It is abundantly clear why she is the Empire’s daughter (the name was suggested by her son), her love and nostalgia for this country overflows.

After India, she goes on to describe a journey with Princess Elizabeth, her coronation, and another journey to Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. Here we get to see at close quarters the Queen and Prince Philip, her quiet control and his robust sense of fun. In fact, throughout the memoir, we get a ringside view along with an inside experience; even as we marvel at the magnificence, we’re being shown what happens behind the scenes.

Our final impression is of an extremely level-headed and compassionate woman who is also a keen observer and blessed with a delightful sense of humour, who thought fit to share with us an intimate slice of history.