I have had a long association with the Royal Family that stretches back to 1952 when, as a schoolboy, I stood on the bridge over the Great Western Railway in Notting Hill as the train carrying the coffin of King George VI passed underneath on its way to Windsor for his burial. Not long after, we stood on the confluence of Great Western Road and Westbourne Park Road in rapidly constructed stands as the young Queen whizzed by in an open-top car as she toured the country to meet with her people.
I had to wait another eight years to rekindle my connection with the Royal Family. Aged 14 I was a Saturday butcher’s boy for the Queen’s butchers (Cobb and Co of Knightsbridge) and on occasions delivered meat to the Royal Mews around the back of Buckingham Palace.
I had to wait many decades before, in 1994, I met the Queen when she awarded me an MBE at the recommendation of John Major, the Prime Minister. I did not refer to my former associations and only told her about the work of The Big Issue. As to the use of taking an MBE, on the following Monday Brighton Council allowed us to use a shop for paper distribution: having previously opposed it, the Tories capitulated and gave us the shop when my MBE came through.
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The next Royal I met was Princess Diana, who always took an interest in anything to do with homelessness. I had a few chats with her and she did comment that I seemed very pleased with my work, and I had to say that “if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t do it”. She accepted my crystal-clear logic.
Tragically, a few years after, I was given tickets for the funeral of Princess Diana and I gave them to Big Issue vendors. I felt they would get more out of it than me and they were very moved by the occasion in Westminster Abbey.
A year later Prince Charles came to open our building in Clerkenwell and he arrived too early. I was in the men’s washing my hands when my assistant burst in and said “He’s bloody arrived already!” So I quickly dried my hands and walked into my office. Unfortunately, when he put his hand out to shake mine I realised that I had not done a good job of drying my hands. As he touched them I felt I had to say something.