Thursday, 20 May 2010

Queen's Award

I went to a lunch the other day with the chairman of British Airways, Martin Broughton, who was also once the Chairman, of course, of the BHB (as it was then). He was extremely warm and friendly, and made a point of coming to say hello before we sat down, which was kind.

But my reason for mentioning it is not to talk racing, much as that encounter brings thoughts to mind in a week where there has been plenty to discuss. Rather, it was because at the lunch I sat next to someone whose company has just been given the Queen's Award for Enterprise, and as I told him the tale of how we had gone to collect ours back in 2003, I remembered that it was a story that I had said I would blog.

There are two awards ceremonies when you get the prize: one which takes place at your offices, attended by Her Majesty's representative, the Lord Lieutenant; and the other at the palace, where, if you're lucky, you get the Queen herself.

Neither of ours went entirely according to plan, but both are hard to forget.

The Lord Lieutenant's visit to Betfair's offices in Hammersmith took place on a hot summer's day in which we had decamped from the clutter of desks and television screens on the first floor of our office building, to the wide open and uninhabited top floor of the building. The landlord had given us special permission to use the space so that everyone in the office could come and see Bert accept the large glass bowl, which was displayed prominently on top of a pedestal in front of a fairly cheap hoarding of the type you see at convention centre booths.

Because the fourth floor was uninhabited, it had no air conditioning; and with 150-odd people gathered in the airless space, it was quite warm. The room was plenty big enough; but it is surrounded on all sides by big glass windows, and with the sun shining through, it was a bit like being in a greenhouse.

Unfortunately, the Lord Lieutenant was late. And it was getting hotter, and hotter, and hotter. Eventually, someone decided to do the sensible thing: let's open a window.

Er... let's not. Oh. Too late. Just as the Lord Lieutenant comes out of the lift and walks into the room, the window is opened: a rush of air blows through the building, catching the cheap hoarding like a kite, and collapsing it onto the pedestal, which topples over and - crash! - the Queen's Award hits the ground and smashes into a thousand pieces. Ooops. The photo of Bert receiving recognition from the Lord Lieutentant sees them both clutching only the framed certificate confirming its authenticity.

Weeks later, we were off to Buckingham Palace. It was Ed, Bert, and me; and the start was no more auspicious, when, as our car pulled up to the Palace's gates, I realised I hadn't brought my passport, as identification procedures required. But they let me though, somehow, and in we went, led into a large room where other award winners were milling around, and the Queen was being taken round those who, for reasons unknown, had a yellow sticker on their name badges. Ours were plain white.

We took a glass of wine, as offered, surveyed the scene. Bert was hopping from foot to foot, slightly nervously and in need of a pee. Did we know where the loos were, he asked. A door to the right was indicated, and off he sets - no sooner having stepped away from our little group of three than Ed and I clutch each other in horror: in a straight line between us and the door through which Bert will have to pass is Her Maj, with a bodyguard standing just close enough to her to protect her, but just far enough away that in a normal cocktail party, it was a gap you'd happily slip through with a hand on the shoulder and a quick 'excuse me'. Bert was heading straight for it, and we had visions of him being in a half Nelson, on the floor, within seconds. Closer, closer, and closer he got... And at the last minute, he spotted her, and veered away. Crisis averted.

By the time he got back, we were being briefed on what the procedure was for us to go through and formally be congratulated. Speak when spoken to; 'Your Majesty' first time, "ma'am" or "sir" after that; don't be the first to initiate anything. Three rules. Don't forget them.

We joined the queue: Bert leading, Ed next, me bringing up the rear. Bert still hopping foot to foot, even though he'd had his pee. Just as we approach the door, a change of plan: "you go first" he tells me, slightly panicky, and I get pushed through.

Seeing the Queen for the first time in real life is quite an odd experience. It might seem obvious to say so, but she's a little old lady, and it's a bit like standing in front of your granny. Only, for some reason, you're terribly nervous. She extended her gloved white hand and offered her congratulations. "Thank you, Your Majesty," I said, and went on to the Duke.

The Duke was an altogether different proposition, and not just for being about two foot taller. He looked less bored, and he wanted to chat. "Aaah..." he says, in a drawn-out sort of way. "Congratulations! But tell me... what is it exactly that you doooo?"

I thought that there was a long answer to this and a short one. On the basis that he wasn't going to be over-interested in our risk-management processes, I told him, "we're a betting exchange, sir".

"Aaaah!" he said, like he knew all about it in an age where I suspect Harry Findlay had only just heard about us, "a betting exchange!" I half expected him to tell me his mother-in-law would have been a customer had she still been alive.

Ed followed on behind me, and we greeted each other with a smile and a nervous laugh once we we through. And then came Bert, all of a fluster.

"I can't believe it!" he said. "I fluffed my lines!"

"You what?" we asked.

"When I found myself in front of her, I got slightly covered in confusion. So before she had done anything, I thrust my arm forward to shake hands, and said, "hello!""

1 comment:

  1. Who exactly was that "someone" who opened the window? (it was a door actually) - Glyn, but it was my idea (or the other way round, I can't remember too clearly, the horror of the event has erased the details from my memory) ;-)
    She kept the shards of crystal glass in a Tescos shopping bag under her desk for many years. We once toyed with the idea of mounting a small piece on some perspex or wood as a mini trophy for all the staff....shame we didn't.