Earlier this year, young people from around the world were flown to London to take part in celebrations to mark Commonwealth Day 2012. Fale Lesa, 21, a Commonwealth Correspondent who travelled from New Zealand, recounts the moment he met Queen Elizabeth II at Marlborough House.
10 March 2012:
After a two day flight from Auckland, with a brief interval in Hong Kong, the plane finally touches down at London’s Heathrow airport (3pm, local time).
I didn’t know it then, but it would be another two hours before I could even present myself at the appropriate immigration queue and proceed through to customs. I can’t say I was impressed with British hospitality. I once thought it was notoriously “on time, every time” and at that point I was sadly mistaken.
However, this was the world’s busiest international terminal, and here I was bitching about a measly two hours. The onslaught of jetlag and sleep deprivation was finally kicking in and I was simply no match.
To my credit, I managed to befriend a fellow arrivals passenger, a South African tertiary student on his way to post-graduate studies in England. Our shared disapproval at our very first “British” experience led us to believe that we bumped into one another for a reason, and fate would have no further discussion. Soon enough we were describing the political climate back home, and even attempted some amateur economic dialogue on the recession and the impact that this was having on our homelands (sadly, we were both masters of the humanities).
It was by most standards an encouraging start to my Commonwealth experience and a fascinating insight into all things ‘South Africa’ – I only hope that I did justice to New Zealand in return. We are still good friends today, with a helping hand from Facebook of course. And I have no doubt that our miserable start to the ‘English Experience’ will tie us together for life!
11 March 2012:
I awoke to the sweet sounds of sanctity, safely tucked into the warm regalia of Victorian accommodation, a five-star hotel, courtesy of the British government. We were in the offcuts of the English winter and the thought of abandoning my new bed so soon sent shivers down my spine. In the end, it had to be done and I was soon fully dressed and ready to face the world, or the hotel breakfast buffet for starters.
In the lobby I managed to rub shoulders with the Scottish ambassadors and greeted them with a scene from Braveheart (chanting “FREEDOM” at 6:15am is probably not the best thing to do if you wanted to leave a positive impression on the hotel staff). Nevertheless, it had the Scottish rebels in fits of laughter and their accents were well and truly on fire at this point (to the enjoyment of my ears, they were in love).
After breakfast, what seemed like a first-class coach had arrived accompanied by a driver with only one instruction – take the ambassadors to Westminster House where they will meet members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. It doesn’t surprise me at how I can relay the instruction from thin air, word for word, even today. It was our very first instruction upon arrival and understandably the most exciting.
The drive was less than thirty minutes from our hotel but in that time I marveled at the architecture of English urbanism and admired the victorian styled infrastructure especially. We were in the heart of London and my head was literally in the clouds above. I was in the heart of London city for the very first time.
When we arrived at Westminster House, headquarters of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, we soon learnt that Westminster Palace was only across the road. The venue for the latest royal wedding was right before our eyes, a minute’s walk perhaps. We were undeniably star-struck, especially us first-time Londoners. It took a while for us to readjust our composure and eventually we made it through security and inside, away from the bitter chill of the street.
Our warm welcome was a testimony to the organisation of this event and to those involved in its overall delivery. We received keynote addresses from the Secretary General, Clerk of the Parliamentary Journals, and the Right Honourable Kate Hoey (Member of Parliament for Westminster). All travel woes upon arrival were completely and utterly vindicated at this stage, I was mesmerised by our early morning induction and knew at this stage that being there at that moment would prove to be the most vivid encounter of them all, up until that point at least.
12 March 2012:
By far the longest and the most significant day of them all. When I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did. It all started when we were issued personal invitations to accompany the British Royal Family and members of the House of Commons to Westminster Abbey for the Commonwealth Day Observance, observing the anniversary of the Commonwealth of Nations and Her Majesty the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
To treasure the Westminster Abbey from the outside is one thing, but being inside amongst some of the most influential people the world has to offer, that is something else entirely. It was an experience that even my greatest dreams failed to match, an insight incomparable to say the very least.
As we made our way inside I almost gasped at the reality of it all, as we trampled over a trail that the Queen herself would use when she arrived almost an hour later. Composure was probably the last thing on my mind, I wanted to close my eyes and remember everything inside the abbey in picture perfect quality forever.
As the Procession of Flags made its way to the forefront of the abbey we were reminded of the order’s significance. The flags were sorted in accordance to the date of membership. New Zealand’s flag was the fourth to be led into the arena, and it was at this moment that I stood to attention in my pride for New Zealand and all that we stood for. It was a personal moment of reflection.
Those that know me best would know that a solo performance of “Hallelujah” by renowned American music artist Rufus Wainwright would complete my greatest experience ever. And when it actually happened right there at the abbey during the observance, I was in a state of true bliss. It was the perfect conclusion to the perfect observance service.
The entire observance ceremony was all over within an hour and slowly but surely we made our way back to Westminster House for a debriefing workshop. It was well and truly a remarkable ceremony and at this stage I thought that this was it, this would be the highlight of my entire experience in England. I was wrong.
Now in the late afternoon things made a turn for the very best! A ballot was organised and we soon learnt that from the thirty of us, fifteen names would be drawn from this ballot to be personally invited to an Evening Reception with Her Majesty The Queen.
The atmosphere in the room changed almost instantly. We had only just arrived from Observance at Westminster Abbey and here we were preparing for a ballot to decide who should have the honour of an exclusive audience with the Queen later on that evening. My body grew tense and my nervous system went haywire for just a fleeting moment. I struggled to comprehend what was just instructed and my hands felt rather numb.
What would happen a few minutes later changed my course of history forever.
“Alafale Andrew Lesa, New Zealand” – these were the magical words that meant the world to me in that royal room on that royal Monday afternoon in the heart of London. It might sound selfish but it seemed like a moment made in heaven and a moment made especially for me. I recall being in a state of silence, still coming to terms with what it all meant. In less than three hours, the fifteen of us would be hurried into transport and taken along to Marlborough House, a royal mansion fit for the Late Queen Mother, before it was gifted to the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1953 to house its Official Headquarters.
As we arrived at the palace I was expecting the smallest glimpse of Her Majesty in just the slightest second. I was under no impression to think otherwise, and even that was enough to satisfy me for a lifetime. But it wasn’t meant to be, I was happily mistaken. The setting was very formal and in the beginning we mingled with the diplomatic officials who were also present.
I met High Commissioners from across the Commonwealth, former British Prime Ministers Lady Thatcher and Sir John Major, and New Zealand’s very own High Commissioner to the UK. It was a memorable start to the evening with business cards being passed around like American hotcakes and plenty of political banter over current affairs.
I was nervously awaiting my small glimpse of Her Majesty when it was soon announced that she was in the next room and would be making her way into our room within fifteen minutes. Silence reigned as excitement muted all conversation and anticipation for her arrival reached its climax. As the doors flung open in extraordinary fashion, in walked her political entourage, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth and his partner.
We had now gathered into a semi circle and were now being individually addressed by the Secretary General of our Commonwealth of Nations. In due course, Her Majesty The Queen was received and proceeded to follow in the pathway of our Secretary General, closely followed by His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh. It was all so surreal, almost like a scene from your classic movie, and I can still recall being overwhelmed with emotion.
The closer she proceeded to my position in the semi circle, the more control I surrendered to my emotions, or so it seemed. When she did arrive in front of me and embraced me with an outstretched black glove, I responded by acknowledging her presence with a bow (as this was our instruction on arrival). At the completion of this ancient protocol, her host introduced the “Ambassador from New Zealand” to which she replied, “oh, how lovely to meet you. And how far you must have travelled.”
She then enquired as to the progress of the Christchurch Earthquake Campaign, and pacing myself, I responded in quite the same manner by highlighting the national disaster and sharing some of the finer detail around the rebuilding efforts moving forward. It was also a stroke of genius that I recalled her citing the Christchurch tragedy in her 2011 Royal Christmas address, to which I thanked her for in conclusion. For a moment her smile was comforting and radiant, and with that she had moved along to the person beside me.
Our entire conversation, exactly a minute and forty five seconds. It was by far one of the shortest conversations I’ve ever engaged in, and interestingly, also the most profound.
13 – 20 March 2012:
The itinerary for the next eight days would consist of a combination of London sight-seeing tours, presentations to various organisations with relevance to the Commonwealth, and a personal audience at the New Zealand House (office of our High Commissioner).
Describing the experience on paper is an injustice to the royal occasion in my honest opinion. It fails to reflect upon the true nature of my personal experiences in London, before some of the most exclusive audiences in the world. I’ve seen the definition of a “work of art” up close and personal, simply by appreciating all the sights and sounds of greater London in this two week stunt. It really is the “City of Opportunity” and I am forever grateful for mine.
*** none of this was even remotely possible without the active assistance of my local Member of Parliament who led the charge for community sponsorship that ultimately covered the complete cost of my return airfares. The local cosmopolitan club, local supermarket operators, our local events centre, a funeral parlour, an educational provider and community advocates all contributed financially to the experience. I am forever indebted to these good samaritans for their generosity and couldn’t thank them enough if I tried.
“I am an international diplomat having represented the New Zealand youth sector in a host of international initiatives. The completion of my tertiary education at the University of Auckland (BA/LLB) will usher in a professional dedication to diplomacy and foreign affairs.
“My interests include community development, foreign affairs, globalisation, youth empowerment, reading (non-fiction/fiction as well as current affairs), creative/critical writing, chess, debating, history, linguistics and social interaction. My passion for writing has led me to this forum.”
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/
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