Nancy Rothwell

December 16, 2005

Oh, what should one wear to Buck House for one's investiture? Should one wear a hat and how does one bob to HRH?

On the day of my investiture, the Queen was otherwise engaged in Malta. Rather regrettably, this meant that the corgis were absent from the ceremony. According to one of the equerries, at the investitures that the Queen presides over her dogs often sneak down the corridor behind her, quickly followed by scurrying staff trying to cut them off before they reach the ballroom. I suspect that more than once there has been an "accident" on the luscious red carpet.

For my investiture, Prince Charles was in charge and there was not a corgi in sight. But there were many fancy hats (almost a challenge to Ascot), swords, spurs and splendid uniforms. I had been told by my scientific colleagues who had received "honours" that it is a spectacular event.

As I travelled down to London with family, not many hours after returning on a similar train to Manchester (from The Times Higher Awards dinner), and trying to count how many hours and how many pounds I had spent on Virgin trains that week, I was less than enthused. I could have been meeting my research group, catching up on paperwork or even writing a research paper so that I could meet my own demands on staff for the research assessment exercise.

It is quite complicated going to an investiture. You are sent lots of pieces of paper (I nearly lost the crucial ones): invitations for you and guests, instructions on security, photographs and, of course, how you order a "personalised video". Then you have to decide what to wear. I was told of the award in June - an excellent excuse to buy a (far too expensive) summer outfit. But no one told me that you normally get "done" nearly six months later. So flimsy silk did not look like a good idea for mid-winter and a weather forecast of northerly gales with a wind chill factor of something that normally requires thermal underwear and a snow suit. A further new (winter) outfit was duly purchased - any excuse. Next question - hat or not? I'm not a hat person, so I chose the trendy option of something that looks like a flower growing out of your head, or what I remember as "deely boppers" from years ago. Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea.

In spite of my reservations, it's impossible not to be impressed by the splendour of Buckingham Palace. On arrival, you are separated from your guests and taken to a large room to be "prepared". How difficult can it be? Well, it was made more difficultwhen I learnt I'd be first in the honours queue. Buck House staff were delightful, efficient and a pleasure to chat to, not to mention organised in a way that is truly impressive. We (that is the first group) were rehearsed - the knights practised kneeling and the dames practised curtseying, then we were "pinned". They use a clever technique with the medals so it takes only a second to hang them on pins.

The Lord Chamberlain came for a chat and people with striking uniforms and complicated titles I couldn't hope to remember advised and explained with patience and a sense of humour. Then I was taken down the long walk through the ballroom because, as the first in line, it was decided I needed more practice. The music was beautiful, the pomp and ceremony spectacular. I just can't imagine how the equerries and Yeomen stand without flinching for an hour and a half. The two Gurkhas who traditionally attend looked surprisingly young to have so many medals. Best not to think how they were earned. I thought they would come in rather useful in university life if my commander status stretched to directing Gurkhas.

The numerous awards remain a complete mystery (I should have gone for the full version of Debrett's rather than the cheaper "Party Games"), but most impressive were the many who clearly held no prestigious position or grand title, ordinary people, working on behalf of charities or young people or those with disabilities. Quite a few forgot their instructions. Jonathan Ross put out his hand to shake Prince Charles's hand and quickly retracted it, a few of the more elderly headed off in the wrong direction and at least one looked to have had a tipple to steady their nerves, perhaps just one too many. But none of this mattered because whenever necessary, someone in spectacular uniform appeared from nowhere to guide and direct with a kindly smile.

The whole event had a relaxed attitude, which was remarkable given the surroundings and a feeling that the most important people were the recipients, in spite of the pomp and ceremony. I am wondering just when I'll wear my two medals, but it's hard to deny the wonder of the occasion.

I have to admit that I have ordered the very expensive video - for my mum, of course, not for me.

Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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